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Lebanon: CBC Report on Hariri Assassination Sparks Debate

An in-depth CBC report on the high-profile assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri has sparked intense discussion in the Lebanese blogosphere.

Tension has resurfaced in Lebanon in recent months as rumours suggest that the UN's Special Lebanon Tribunal is close to indicting Hezballah members in the Hariri assassination.

Hezballah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has vehemently denied any involvement in the killing, and warned of the instability the country will face should the UN indict his operatives.

It is in this tense climate that Canada's CBC publishes a detailed investigation into the Hariri assassination, adding to rumours that Hezballah did in fact carry out the assassination.

The Lebanese blogosphere has been quick to respond.

Discussion has been ongoing on Qifa Nabki's blog, with questions raised and answered by the CBC journalist behind the report – Neil Macdonald.

The question:

The second critique comes from an eagle-eyed friend and long-time reader of this blog, Ben Ryan, who sent me this commentary (which I post with his permission).

CBC, November 19, 2010: “UN commission in Lebanon did no telecom analysis at all for most of its first three years of existence. At that point, in October of 2007, things began moving fast… in December, a specialist from FTS began examining what the computer was spitting out. … He had identified a small network of mobile phones, eight in all, that had been shadowing Hariri in the weeks prior to his death. … when the investigators began their due diligence, double-checking their work, there was another revelation, this one even more earth-shattering. Someone digging though the commission’s records turned up a report from a mid-ranking Lebanese policeman that had been sent over to the UN offices nearly a year and a half earlier, in the first months of 2006. …”

This tracks with the previous stories and appears to explain why all this is finally coming out now, and possibly why leaks of it surfaced back in 2006. But it doesn’t explain the 2005 report, and it doesn’t explain why the 2006 report claimed that the Brammertz investigation was handling the phone records.

These points are important because 1) the phone records were on the radar as of October 2005, and rather than getting shoved in some drawer and forgotten they were being reported on in the international media. And 2) they were reportedly a key part of the Brammertz-era investigation too, if Le Figaro is accurate (and again, they were being reported in the international media so were hardly gathering dust in a filing cabinet somewhere). The timeline for these records as laid out in the CBC report just doesn’t make sense. Also, I find it very convenient that so much of the plot in this story is being driven by one super-human mathematical genius dead man who can neither confirm nor deny any of it.

What’s more, someone at the UN seems to rediscover these phone records and leak them to the international press every time the suspect du jour needs a public relations wupping. They got buried in the scandal of the 2005 UN report actually (accidentally..) naming names and pointing at Syria, but the timing of the 2006 report, right after the “Divine Victory,” and the 2009 report right before the elections, and now this one as things appear to be ratcheting towards a confrontation, both target Hezbollah. I’ve seen no attempt at an explanation of how these magical phone records could point to the Syrians in October 2005 and then Hezbollah in 2006, 2009, and 2010.

Basically, I smell a rat. Maybe these are real and maybe they say exactly what MacDonald says they do. But this story is being peddled, not investigated. An investigative reporter capable of discovering all this would also be capable of the 15 minutes of Googling and Google Translating that I did to compile these discrepancies, and either explain them in the new report or at least start asking these questions.

The reply from Neil Macdonald:

I wrote to Neil Macdonald (author of theCBC report about the UN investigation into Rafiq al-Hariri’s murder) asking him if he would respond to some of the questions published on this blog earlier today about the timeline presented in his account of the investigation’s proceedings.

Mr. Macdonald had argued in his piece that “Brammertz could not be persuaded to authorize the one technique that those investigators wanted above all to deploy: telecommunications analysis,” and that “the UN commission in Lebanon did no telecom analysis at all for most of its first three years of existence.”

As some of our fearless readers have pointed out, the Mehlis report itself clearly indicates that the Commission was using telecoms data in its investigation to track Hariri’s killers. So why, I asked Mr. Macdonald, would Brammertz have had to authorize telecommunications analysis if the Commission was already using it in 2005? Or was that earlier work done under Mehlis a different kind of telecoms analysis from the stuff performed by Wissam Eid?

Mr. Macdonald responded to my query with the following note, which I quote with permission:

“The question we addressed in the documentary was when the commission began carrying out actual telecomms analysis of phone records. My sources — and they were there  — are absolutely firm. The commission did none until late 2007.The Lebanese police did. Capt. Eid was the first to discover the red network, and the first to identify the co-location phones. The commission under Mehlis was aware of the ISF’s early telecomms work. Brammertz referred to the commission’s collection of phone records (I refer to that in my piece; they obtained the entire 2005 phone database for Lebanon). But actual telecomms analysis by the commission itself, as I reported, was not authorized until late 2007, at which time FTS, the British firm, was brought in.”

Perhaps the most contentious part of the CBC report is the alleged duplicitous behaviour of Lebanon's intelligence chief, Col. Wissam Hassan. The apparent linkage between Hariri's top intelligence officer and Hezballah is difficult to grasp, according to two Lebanese bloggers, Beirut Spring and the Angry Arab.

Beirut Spring:

If you thought that the CBC report was a slam dunk by the Hariri alliance against Hezbollah, I’m afraid you got the wrong idea.

There’s a part of the report that casts doubt on the role of Colonnel Wissam El Hassan in the crime. Col. Hassan is firmly in the Hariri camp and the fact that his name was brought up by the CBC report as a suspect has caused dissonance in many minds. Col. Hassan remains one of those targeted by Hezbollah as a “false witnesse”, so what gives?

According to the CBC, col. Hassan was supposed to be in the Hariri convoy the day he was killed, but he didn’t show up and gave what the CBC calls “flimsy” alibis. He also supposedly lied about a phone call he made before the crime.

The fact that Col. Hassan’s name came out makes the picture muddier and will cause great confusion.

Angry Arab:

This CBC report rendered a great service to Hizbullah's campaign against the Hariri court.  Public opinion surveys in Lebanon already point to a clear and systematic decline in public support for the court, even among Sunnis and Druzes (the Christians are split).  I mean, to accuse the key intelligence guy in the Hariri camp, Al-Hasan, of complicity is to turn the investigation into a farce.  This Wisam Hasan was so key to UN investigation that he was even used (at least in the case of “false witness”, Muhammad Zuhayr As-Siddiq) as the official interpretor of the UN team.   And for the report to rely on the account of Mehlis discredited the court and report further.  The Hariri camp is now clearly at war, and Wisam Hasan (who is named in the report) has so much dirt on his Hariri enemies and will fight back.  The movie will now get more interesting and suspenseful.  As for the Hariri investigation itself, you may relegate it to late night TV, on “Nick at Night”.  Check your local listing.

The Human Province believes the investigation has become a question of competing conspiracy theories:

The discussion about Hariri’s assassination quickly becomes a question of competing conspiracy theories, and necessarily so, because there was clearly a conspiracy to assassinate Hariri. The question is: a conspiracy by whom?

And that’s what is so frustrating to me: without any hard evidence, be it presented by the STL or Hassan Nasrallah, we are left to the mercy of conjecture. (Incidentally, the STL isn’t the only international court that’s facing problems of legitimacy and false witnesses.) And worse, given that we are in the realm of conspiracy and competing theories thereof, we are forced into an epistemological Chinese finger trap  in which evidence against a theory actually becomes evidence in favor of it. This is convenient for partisans, since there isn’t much that can challenge the particular conspiracy theory carried out by the villains their ideological and political worldview suggest.

But unfortunately for  the rest of us, we’re left with the uncomfortable choice between exhaustion bordering on apathy on the one hand, or vulgarity and naïveté on the other.

The CBC report reinforces the fragility and sensitivity of the Hariri case. Tense times seem certain for Lebanon as the UN's Special Tribunal for Lebanon reaches its end point.

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