The Hariri Mirage: Lessons
By Robert Parry
June 16, 2006
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 regime’s 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 Hariri’s murderers. The Times demanded
punishment of top Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies implicated
by the investigation, although the Times cautioned against the Bush
administration’s 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.com’s “The
Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report.”]
Mehlis’s 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 Mehlis’s 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, Mehlis’s accusations against Syria helped advance
Bush’s 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 Mehlis’s 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,”
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
In other words, Brammertz had dumped Mehlis’s
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 Syria’s freewheeling intelligence services
and their Lebanese cohorts remain on everyone’s 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 Brammertz’s report, too.
Fayssal Mekdad, Syria’s 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
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 Hariri’s 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 Mehlis’s earlier efforts, Brammertz’s 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
administration’s claims about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass
destruction in 2002 and early 2003, the national press corps apparently
doesn’t 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
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
today’s 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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