Exclusive: The U.S. news media regularly rallies the American public to outrage when a U.S. adversary or some unpopular group is linked to a heinous crime. But a different standard applies to U.S. allies even when there is strong evidence of a similar offense, observes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
In Great Britain, convicted looters are being dressed in orange jumpsuits and made to clean up areas damaged by recent riots. The law-and-order crowd on both sides of the Atlantic cheers this “riot payback scheme,” even when applied to offenders who only grabbed some bottled water or received a stolen pair of running shorts from a friend.
After all, the phrase “zero tolerance” was made for moments when the poor and the powerless break the rules.
By contrast, these same British authorities will take no action against officials from the former government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who joined with President George W. Bush’s team in making a bloody mess out of Iraq in clear violation of international law.
Indeed, if the architects of the Iraq War were put in orange jumpsuits and forced to fix the devastation of Iraq, one might see more justice in humiliating the British looters.
But it is impermissible to envision an orange-clad chain gang at work in Iraq consisting of Blair, Bush and their subordinates the likes of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, Jack Straw, Elliott Abrams and a host of neoconservatives, including many big-time media pundits. For such important people, different rules apply.
There also will be no special tribunal set up to deal with these former U.S./U.K. officials (and their allied propagandists) whose aggressive war in Iraq got hundreds of thousands killed. Such courts, it seems, are reserved for international law violators from weak states in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia.
At the Nuremberg Tribunal after World War II, jurists from the United States and Great Britain made the specific point that the rules being established, including prohibitions against “aggressive war,” were to be applied to the victors, not just the vanquished.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who represented the United States at Nuremberg, stated that holding Nazi leaders responsible was not just a case of victor’s revenge but a desire to establish a precedent against aggressive war in the future.
“Let me make clear,” Jackson said, “that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose, it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment.”
But it seems Justice Jackson had it wrong. Based on what has happened in the six-plus decades since Nuremberg, an objective observer would have to conclude that the punishment of the Nazis, including the death penalty for some, was indeed a case of victor’s revenge. When leaders of the former Allied powers engage in crimes like “aggressive war,” nothing happens to them.
Indeed, today’s tribunals, such as the International Criminal Court and special courts to handle acts of terrorism, target offenders from weak nations or from unpopular groups. These judicial bodies turn a blind eye to similar crimes committed by or protected by powerful governments.
So, while longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and his inner circle seem destined for prosecution by the ICC if they’re not simply executed by NATO-backed rebels it’s unthinkable to suggest that Bush, Blair and their inner circles get dragged before the ICC for their role in precipitating the far greater slaughter in Iraq.
You see, while it’s a crime against humanity when Gaddafi kills insurrectionists in Libya, it is perfectly okay when U.S. and British authorities slaughter “militants” opposed to Western occupation of their countries, whether Iraq or Afghanistan. Any “collateral damage” from Gaddafi’s attacks is inexcusable, but “collateral damage” from U.S. missile strikes is shrugged off.
You have similar rules for terrorism. Acts of terrorism against the powerful or their friends must be punished, even if the evidence is thin to invisible and even if the wrong people get blamed. However, acts of terrorism by friends of the powerful require the sort of perfect evidence that doesn’t exist in the real world. Those terrorists rarely get nailed.
Take, for example, the case of right-wing Cubans Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch. They were clearly implicated as the masterminds of the in-flight bombing of a Cubana Airlines plane in 1976, killing 77 people.
However, under the protection of Miami’s politically powerful Cuban community and the Bush Family, the CIA-trained Posada and Bosch have been allowed to live out their golden years in freedom and comfort. For them, no evidence even contemporaneous U.S. intelligence reports and self-incriminating statements was enough to justify holding these defiant terrorists accountable.
Meanwhile, international tribunals have relied on the skimpiest circumstantial evidence to bring charges against Arabs who are viewed with disdain by Western governments and media. To this day, U.S. journalists ignore the implausibility of Libyan intelligence agent Ali al-Megrahi’s 2001 conviction by a Scottish court for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
The special Scottish court convicted Megrahi in the deaths of the 270 people while acquitting a second Libyan in what appeared to be more a political compromise than an act of justice. One judge told Dartmouth government professor Dirk Vandewalle about “enormous pressure put on the court to get a conviction.”
Following Megrahi’s dubious guilty verdict, Libya was coerced into accepting “responsibility” for the bombing to get punitive international sanctions lifted. Despite agreeing to pay reparations to the victims’ families, Libyan officials continued to deny having a role in the bombing.
Then, after the testimony of a key witness against Megrahi was discredited, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission agreed in 2007 to reconsider his conviction out of a strong concern that it was a miscarriage of justice. However, due to more political pressure, that review was proceeding slowly in 2009 when Scottish authorities agreed to release Megrahi on medical grounds.
Megrahi dropped his appeal in order to gain an early release in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean he was guilty. He has continued to assert his innocence and an objective press corps would reflect the doubts regarding his conviction.
Instead, American journalists from all hues on the ideological spectrum routinely blame Gaddafi for the Lockerbie bombing and cite it as justification for NATO’s bombing campaign that has killed many young Libyan soldiers (and a number of civilians) while paving the way for anti-Gaddafi rebels to reach Tripoli.
A similar lack of objectivity has applied to the work of a special United Nations tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Earlier this month, the tribunal unsealed an indictment accusing four members of Lebanon’s militant group Hezbollah of carrying out the bomb attack that killed Hariri and 21 others.
However, the prosecutors acknowledged that they had no smoking gun or even any direct evidence tying the accused to the crime. Instead, the indictment cited a complex analysis of cell-phone usage attributed to the defendants, though it wasn’t clear how the prosecutors linked the suspects to the various phones.
In many ways, the case had the look of “rounding up the usual suspects,” including Mustafa Amine Badreddine, whose slain brother-in-law Imad Moughnieh was linked to the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, an attack that the U.S. media frequently identifies as “terrorist” even though it followed the Reagan administration’s military intervention in the Lebanese civil war.
When the Hariri indictment was unsealed on Aug. 17, the U.S. media again was quick to treat the dubious allegations against the four defendants as credible, since Hezbollah is an unpopular group among U.S. and Israeli officials.
But Hezbollah leaders noted that the indictment lacked any hard evidence and that Israeli intelligence had penetrated Lebanon’s phone service, raising doubts about the reliability of the cell-phone records. (Two senior employees of one cell-phone company were arrested in 2010 for spying.)
Hezbollah denounced the charges as an American-Israeli scheme to discredit the organization and vowed to protect the defendants from arrest.
In the Western press coverage of the indictment, there also was little note that the tribunal’s earlier investigation had reached a very different conclusion, fingering Syrian intelligence for the Hariri killing. That preliminary finding in 2005 had received uncritical front-page treatment in the New York Times and other leading U.S. news outlets, since Syria was another bÃªte noire.
Back then, Consortiumnews.com and Der Spiegel were two of the few news organizations that pointed to what seemed like a rush to judgment by the tribunal’s German investigator, Detlev Mehlis. Some of Mehlis’s witnesses appeared unreliable and promising leads had not been followed up.
When two of those key witnesses were discredited, Mehlis’s initial report was essentially withdrawn by the U.N. tribunal and he quit his post. But the fact that the case collapsed was largely ignored by the U.S. news media, which instead kept referring to Syria’s presumed guilt.
Now, Syria’s presumed guilt has simply been replaced by Hezbollah’s presumed guilt with little or no acknowledgement that a new batch of “usual suspects” has filled in for the old bunch.
The complex Hariri murder mystery began on Feb. 14, 2005, when an explosion destroyed a car carrying Hariri through the streets of Beirut. Twenty-one 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 fall 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 conspiracy theory 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. (The new indictment also rejects Adass’s as the suicide bomber.)
Mehlis spun a narrative of a Syrian conspiracy to kill Hariri, implicating four pro-Syrian Lebanese security officials who 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 Consortiumnews.com, we produced one of the few critical examinations of what had the looks of a rush to judgment. [See “The Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report.”]
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. Belgian investigator Serge 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.
Still, the U.S. news media barely mentioned the shift in the UN probe. Virtually nothing appeared in the U.S. press 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.
In 2009, the UN tribunal examining Hariri’s murder and other terrorist acts in Lebanon 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 the special international tribunal ordered the four imprisoned officials released.
In a similar situation say, one that involved a U.S. ally the release would have been viewed as proof of innocence. In this case, however, the New York Times refused to acknowledge the 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]
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.
Keeping Up the Pressure
That pattern continued in 2010 with a New York Times op-ed article, “A U.N. Betrayal in Beirut” by Michael Young, portraying Mehlis as a hero and his replacement, Brammertz, as an incompetent stooge serving a supposed UN cabal to protect Syria.
The online version of Young’s op-ed linked to a 2005 story that trumpeted Mehlis’s initial report, but cited no articles describing the subsequent collapse of Mehlis’s case. (In 2009, Brammertz was replaced by Canadian prosecutor Daniel Bellemare, who brought the current indictment.)
Even in the newly released indictment, there remain gaps around a central piece of evidence, 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. 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.
The newly released indictment says the van then found its way into a car showroom in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli where it was purchased with cash by two unidentified men. The indictment asserts, again without any clear proof, that the buyers were collaborating with the four defendants.
While the evidence against the four Hezbollah members remains murky, what is clear 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.”
The cable indicates how high the stakes are in the Lebanese political struggles and how powerful the motivation is to use propaganda to discredit U.S. adversaries there.
Between those propaganda imperatives and the inherent double standards regarding how the U.S. news media addresses crimes by the United States and its allies versus those allegedly committed by U.S. adversaries, it shouldn’t be surprising that an objective observer might lose faith in what’s regularly presented to the American public.
The drumbeat is already building for new sanctions against Hezbollah to force it to turn over the four defendants to the special tribunal, much as Libya was pressured to surrender Megrahi to the special Scottish court which then succumbed to apparent political influence to convict him.
On Aug. 17, the Washington Post published an op-ed by David M. Crane and Carla Del Ponte (two prosecutors in cases involving human rights crimes in Sierre Leone, the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda) demanding strong support from the international community for the Hariri tribunal.
The pair cited a statement by the tribunal’s president, Italian jurist Antonio Cassese, declaring how important it is “to entrench the notion that democracy cannot survive without the rule of law, justice and respect for fundamental human rights.”
That standard apparently applies to weak countries and to movements considered unpopular in the West, but not to the United States, other big powers or CIA-connected terrorists who find safe haven in places like Miami.
It’s as if Washington’s enemies should expect to get fitted for orange jumpsuits, while it would be wrong to subject U.S. officials and their friends to such humiliations.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a two-book set for the discount price of only $19. 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 neckdeepbook.com. 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.