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Barack Obama's presidency

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Troubled History of the Hariri Probe

By Robert Parry
January 17, 2011

A United Nations-backed tribunal, which has conducted a long and troubled investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, issued a sealed indictment on Monday amid expectations that members of Hezbollah will be accused. 

The investigative report to a judge at The Hague was not released, nor were the names of any suspects, the BBC reported. So, it’s impossible to know how strong the evidence is or whether the investigation made any real breakthroughs.

Based on the tortured history of the tribunal – and the international pressures on the inquiry – the one safe bet is that the full truth about who carried out the bombing will be enveloped in a fog of charges and counter-charges. Hezbollah leaders have denounced the investigation as an American-Israeli scheme to discredit them.

And, while operatives from the militant Islamic Shiite group have been suspects from the start – given that Hariri was a political rival – Hariri had a wide variety of other powerful enemies in both the political and business worlds.

The initial UN investigator also engaged in a rush to judgment, fingering Syrian intelligence based on witnesses who proved unreliable. The German investigator, Detlev Mehlis, also issued his preliminary report before following up promising leads, such as how the Japanese-manufactured van carrying the bomb reached Lebanon.

To complicate the investigation more, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel view Lebanon as an important piece on the geopolitical chessboard in their competition with Iran and Syria. So, even Mehlis’s replacement, Belgian investigator Serge Brammertz, knew that he risked angering influential figures if his inquiry didn’t reach their desired conclusions.

Brammertz also faced pressure from the U.S. news media. Last year, the New York Times published an op-ed article, “A U.N. Betrayal in Beirut” by Michael Young, portraying Mehlis as a hero and Brammertz as an incompetent stooge serving a supposed UN cabal to protect Syria.

“Mr. Mehlis had few doubts about Syria’s involvement, and said so in his first report,” Young wrote. “He asked for President [Bashar] Assad’s testimony (over Syrian protests), interviewed Syrian intelligence officers in Vienna and arrested suspects. When Mr. Mehlis stepped down from his position in December, 2005, he felt he had enough to arrest at least one of the intelligence officers.

“However, the investigation wilted under his successor. … Mr. Brammertz issued uninformative reports and displayed a lack of transparency that discouraged potential witnesses, unsure of whether he had solid evidence in hand, from coming forward; … he failed to follow through on the interviews with the Syrian officers; and though he met with President Assad, he apparently did not formally take down his testimony.”

Young’s narrative fit with the Times’ previous hostility toward the Syrians over the Hariri case and other issues, much as the Times regularly tilted its coverage against Iraq prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and currently slants its reporting against the government of Iran.

Young’s article failed to disclose that Mehlis’s initial investigation fell apart when the testimony of his two key witnesses was discredited or retracted. Brammertz had no choice but to retrace Mehlis’s steps because there had been so many slip-ups.

A Mystery

This complex murder mystery began on Feb. 14, 2005, when an explosion destroyed a car carrying Hariri through the streets of Beirut. Twenty-two other people also died.

Because Syria was then on President George W. Bush’s hit list for “regime change” – and Syria was considered a front-line enemy of Israel – speculative evidence of Syrian guilt was an easy sell to the U.S. news media.

So, when Mehlis’s preliminary report was issued in 2005, there was little U.S. media skepticism about its assertions of guilt regarding Syrian leaders and their Lebanese allies.

“There is probable cause to believe that the decision to assassinate former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services,” declared Mehlis’s report on Oct. 20, 2005.

Despite the curiously vague wording – “probable cause to believe” the killing “could not have been taken without the approval” and “without the collusion” – Bush immediately termed the findings “very disturbing” and called for the UN Security Council to take action against Syria.

The U.S. press joined the stampede in assuming Syrian guilt. On Oct. 25, 2005, a New York Times editorial said the UN investigation had been “tough and meticulous” in establishing “some deeply troubling facts” about Hariri’s murderers. The Times demanded punishment of top Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies.

But Mehlis’s investigative report was anything but “meticulous.” Indeed, it read more like a compilation of circumstantial evidence and conspiracy theories than a dispassionate pursuit of the truth.

As a wealthy businessman with close ties to the Saudi monarchy, Hariri had many enemies who might have wanted him dead for his business or political dealings. The Syrians were not alone in having a motive to eliminate Hariri.

Indeed, after the assassination, a videotape was delivered to al-Jazeera television on which a Lebanese youth, Ahmad Abu Adass, claimed to have carried out the suicide bombing on behalf of Islamic militants angered by Hariri’s work for “the agent of the infidels” in Saudi Arabia.

However, Mehlis relied on two witnesses – Zuhair Ibn Muhammad Said Saddik and Hussam Taher Hussam – to dismiss the videotape as part of a disinformation campaign designed to deflect suspicion from Syria.

Mehlis then spun a narrative of a Syrian conspiracy to kill Hariri. Four pro-Syrian Lebanese security officials were jailed on suspicion of involvement in Hariri's murder. Everything was falling neatly into place.

As a new U.S. press hysteria built over another case of pure evil traced to the doorstep of an American adversary in the Muslim world, holes in the UN report were mostly ignored. At, we produced one of the few critical examinations of what had the looks of a rush to judgment. [See “The Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report.”]

A Case Crumbles

Much like the Bush administration’s Iraqi WMD claims – which the Times also had touted uncritically – Mehlis’s Hariri case against the Syrians soon began to crumble.

One witness, Saddik, was identified by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel as a swindler who boasted about becoming “a millionaire” from his Hariri testimony. The other one, Hussam, recanted his testimony about Syrian involvement, saying he lied to the Mehlis investigation after being kidnapped, tortured and offered $1.3 million by Lebanese officials.

Mehlis soon stepped down, as even the New York Times acknowledged that the conflicting accusations had given the investigation the feel of “a fictional spy thriller.” [NYT, Dec. 7, 2005]

Mehlis’s replacement backed away from the Syrian accusations. Brammertz began entertaining other investigative leads, examining a variety of possible motives and a number of potential perpetrators.

“Given the many different positions occupied by Mr. Hariri, and his wide range of public and private-sector activities, the [UN] commission was investigating a number of different motives, including political motivations, personal vendettas, financial circumstances and extremist ideologies, or any combination of those motivations,” Brammertz’s own interim report said, according to a UN statement on June 14, 2006.

In other words, Brammertz had dumped Mehlis’s single-minded theory that had pinned the blame on senior Syrian security officials. Though Syria’s freewheeling intelligence services and their Lebanese cohorts remained on everyone’s suspect list, Brammertz adopted a far less confrontational and accusatory tone toward Syria.

Still, the U.S. news media, which had played the initial Mehlis accusations against Syria as front-page news, barely mentioned the shift in the UN probe.
Virtually nothing appeared in the U.S. news media that would alert the American people to the fact that the distinct impression they got in 2005 – that the Syrian government had engineered a terrorist bombing in Beirut – was now a whole lot fuzzier.

Instead, it remained common practice for the New York Times and the rest of the mainstream U.S. news media to continue citing the Mehlis report and referring to "Syrian officials implicated in Mr. Hariri's killing" without providing more context.

That pattern continued with Young’s article last year, with the online version linking to a 2005 story that trumpeted Mehlis’s initial report. Young and the Times cited no articles describing the subsequent collapse of Mehlis’s case.

In 2009, the UN tribunal examining Hariri's murder and other terrorist acts in Lebanon had acknowledged that it lacked the evidence to indict the four Lebanese security officials who had been held without formal charges since 2005. Finally, Judge Daniel Fransen of a special international tribunal ordered the four imprisoned security officials released.

In a similar situation – say, one that involved a U.S. ally – the release would have been viewed as proof of innocence or at least the absence of significant evidence of guilt.

In this case, however, the New York Times refused to acknowledge the obvious fact that Mehlis’s initial case against Syria had been weak. Instead, the Times blamed “the legal pitfalls of a divisive international trial.” [NYT, April 30, 2009]

The Stolen Van

There was also the question of the white Mitsubishi Canter Van that was identified as the vehicle carrying the bomb. According to Mehlis’s initial report, a Japanese forensic team matched 44 of 69 pieces of the van’s wreckage to Canter parts manufactured by Mitsubishi Fuso Corp. and even identified the specific vehicle.

So, the van’s chain of possession would seem to be a crucial lead in identifying the killers. But Mehlis issued his first report suggesting Syrian guilt before that trail had been followed.

At that point, Mehlis only stated that the Japanese forensic team had learned that the van had been reported stolen in Sagamihara City, Japan, on Oct. 12, 2004. There were no details about the Japanese investigation of the theft, nor any indications about the identity of the thieves or how the van might have gone from a suburb of Tokyo to Beirut.

A subsequent update to Mehlis’s report added some more intriguing clues about the van, tracking its arrival in the Middle East to port facilities in the United Arab Emirates.

But who picked it up in Dubai? How did it get from Dubai to Beirut?

While not detailing the investigation in the UAE, the update disclosed that UN investigators had sought help from “UAE authorities to trace the movements of this vehicle, including reviewing shipping documents from the UAE and, with the assistance of the UAE authorities, attempting to locate and interview the consignees of the container in which the vehicle or its parts is believed to have been shipped.”

However, after Mehlis’s investigation collapsed – and Brammertz was named to replace him – the United Nations put a tighter lid on the probe. So, it remains unclear if the investigators ever determined who got the stolen van and how it made the final leg of its fateful journey.

Center of Intrigue

What is clear, however, is that Lebanon is regarded by the United States and its regional allies as an important battleground in their geopolitical struggle with Iran. According to classified State Department cables released by WikiLeaks, Saudi Arabia even discussed a military intervention in Lebanon in 2008 under cover of UN peacekeepers.

On May 10, 2008, Saudi Foreign Prince Saud Al-Faisal told U.S. Ambassador David Satterfield that a joint U.S.-Saudi “security response” might be needed against Hezbollah to counter its “military challenge to the Government of Lebanon,” according to a U.S. embassy cable.

“Specifically, Saud argued for an ‘Arab force’ to create and maintain order in and around Beirut, which would be assisted in its efforts and come under the ‘cover’ of a deployment of UNIFIL troops from south Lebanon.

“The US and NATO would need to provide movement and logistic support, as well as ‘naval and air cover.’ Saud said that a Hizballah victory in Beirut would mean the end of the Siniora government and the ‘Iranian takeover’ of Lebanon.”

Though the cable indicates how high the stakes are in the Lebanese political struggles, it is one of only a few of the WikiLeaks cables so far released that address Lebanon.

None of the released cables describes what the U.S. embassy in Beirut might have been doing -- or thinking about -- in regards to the Hariri murder investigation.

[For more on these or related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege, which are now available with Neck Deep, in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.  

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