The Hariri Mirage: Lessons Unlearned
By Robert Parry
June 16, 2006
In October 2005, the drumbeat had begun for a confrontation with a rogue Middle East regime based on supposedly strong evidence about its nefarious secret activities. The U.S. news media trumpeted the regimes guilt and agreed on the need for action, though there was debate whether forcible regime change was the way to go.
A half year later, however, much of that once clear evidence has melted away and what seemed so certain to the TV pundits and the major newspapers looks now to be another case of a rush to judgment against an unpopular target.
The drumbeat in October 2005 was directed at the Syrian government for its alleged role in masterminding the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a bomb blast in Beirut, Lebanon, on Feb. 14, 2005. A preliminary United Nations investigative report fingered senior Syrian officials as the likely architects of the killing.
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 the U.N.s first interim report on Oct. 20. President George W. Bush immediately termed the findings very disturbing and called for the Security Council to take action against Syria.
The U.S. press quickly joined the stampede in assuming Syrian guilt. On Oct. 25, a New York Times editorial said the U.N. investigation had been tough and meticulous in establishing some deeply troubling facts about Hariris murderers. The Times demanded punishment of top Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies implicated by the investigation, although the Times cautioned against the Bush administrations eagerness for regime change.
But as we noted at the time the U.N. investigative report by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis was anything but meticulous. Indeed, it read more like a compilation of circumstantial evidence and conspiracy theories than a dispassionate pursuit of the truth. [See Consortiumnews.coms The Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report.]
Mehliss initial report, for instance, had failed to follow up a key lead, the Japanese identification of the Mitsubishi Canter Van that apparently carried the explosives used in the bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others. The van was reported stolen in Sagamihara City, Japan, on Oct. 12, 2004, four months before the bombing, but Mehliss hasty report indicated no effort to investigate how the vehicle got from the island of Japan to Beirut or who might have last possessed it.
The report also relied heavily on the testimony of two dubious witnesses. One of those witnesses Zuhair Zuhair Ibn Muhammad Said Saddik was later identified by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel as a swindler who boasted about becoming a millionaire from his Hariri testimony.
The other, Hussam Taher Hussam, later 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.
Some observers believed Mehlis had found himself under intense international pressure to reach negative conclusions about Syria, much like the demands put on U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix when he was searching Iraq for alleged weapons of mass destruction in early 2003. Unable to find WMD despite U.S. insistence that the WMD was there, Blix tried to steer a middle course to avert a head-on confrontation with the Bush administration, which nevertheless brushed aside his muted objections and invaded Iraq in March 2003.
Similarly, after the Hariri assassination, the Bush administration made clear its animosity toward Syria by escalating its anti-Syrian rhetoric, also blaming the government of Bashar Assad for the infiltration of foreign jihadists into Iraq where they have attacked U.S. troops. So, Mehliss accusations against Syria helped advance Bushs geopolitical agenda.
But having relied on witnesses who now appear to have been set-ups, Mehlis found his investigation under a cloud. In a follow-up report on Dec. 10, 2005, he sought to salvage his position by hurling accusations of witness tampering at Syrian authorities. But by then, as noted in a New York Times news article, the conflicting accusations had given the Mehlis investigation the feel of a fictional spy thriller. [NYT, Dec. 7, 2005]
Mehlis withdrew from the investigation and was replaced by Serge Brammertz of Belgium in early 2006.
Over the past several months, Brammertz quietly jettisoned many of Mehliss conclusions and began entertaining other investigative leads, examining a variety of possible motives and a number of potential perpetrators in recognition of the animosities Hariri had engendered among business competitors, religious extremists and political enemies.
Brammertz said the probe was developing a working hypothesis regarding those who had commissioned the crime, according to a U.N. statement, which was released after Brammertz briefed the Security Council on June 14. Given the many different positions occupied by Mr. Hariri, and his wide range of public and private-sector activities, the [U.N.] commission was investigating a number of different motives, including political motivations, personal vendettas, financial circumstances and extremist ideologies, or any combination of those motivations,
In other words, Brammertz had dumped Mehliss single-minded theory that had pinned the blame on senior Syrian security officials and was approaching the investigation with an open mind. As part of his wide reach, Brammertz said he had made 32 requests for information to 13 different countries.
Though Syrias freewheeling intelligence services and their Lebanese cohorts remain on everyones suspect list, Brammertz has adopted a far less confrontational and accusatory tone toward Syria than Mehlis did. Brammertz said cooperation from Syria has generally been satisfactory as its government responded to investigative requests in a timely manner.
Syria had kind words for Brammertzs report, too. Fayssal Mekdad, Syrias Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, praised its objectivity and professionalism and said the investigators had begun to uncover the truth a few months ago, after Mehlis departed. Mekdad promised that Syria would continue supporting efforts to unveil and uncover the truth about the assassination, according to the June 14 U.N. statement.
Mekdad said he believed the biggest danger from the investigation was exploitation by certain parties, inside or outside the region, the tendency to jump to conclusions or prejudgments not based on clear evidence or proof, and attempts to provide false evidence to the [U.N.] commission for the main purpose of pressuring Syria, the U.N. statement read.
The Syrian diplomat added that the investigation should continue in its pursuit of solid evidence about Hariris murder, free from politicization and false and erroneous hypotheses, according to the U.N. statement.
Though the U.N. statement contained no direct criticism of Mehliss earlier efforts, Brammertzs investigation represented an obvious break from the approach of his predecessor. 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 revamped U.N. probe.
Virtually nothing has appeared in the U.S. news media that would alert the American people to the fact that the distinct impression they got last year that the Syrian government had engineered a terrorist bombing in Beirut was now a whole lot fuzzier. Much like the failure to highlight contrary evidence against the Bush administrations claims about Iraqs supposed weapons of mass destruction in 2002 and early 2003, the national press corps apparently doesnt want to be seen as questioning the evidence against Syria.
On one level, this failure to be evenhanded with an unpopular regime like Syria goes to the career fears of journalists who can expect that balanced reporting in such a case might earn the label Syrian apologist. That risk rises dramatically if it turns out later that the Syrian security officials were guilty after all.
Journalists faced similar worries during the run-up to the Iraq War when any skepticism about the Bush administration's WMD claims brought down the wrath of many readers, political leaders and even news executives caught up in the war fever. Career-minded reporters judged that the smart strategy was to play up the anti-Iraq WMD claims even when they came from dubious and self-interested sources and to play down or ignore counter-evidence.
However, after three years of bloody war in Iraq and the failure of the U.S. government to find any WMD stockpiles, Americans might have expected the major U.S. news media to show a little more skepticism and exercise a little more caution when a new round of unproven allegations were leveled at another unpopular Middle Eastern regime, such as Iran on its nuclear program or Syria on the Hariri assassination.
In the Syria case, however, other factors most notably the military quagmire that has bogged down 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq gave cooler heads the time to take a second look at the evidence about the Hariri assassination and examine a wider range of possibilities. By refusing to be led in any one direction, the Brammertz investigation might even succeed in finding the truth.
But the other more intractable question remains: Is todays U.S. press corps capable of learning any lasting lessons from its past mistakes?
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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