A couple weekends ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a story (“The Hezbollah Connection“) about the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon and the decade-long investigation into the killing of Rafik Hariri. Written by Ronen Bergman, an Israeli journalist and military analyst, it rehearses a narrative that has become familiar to Tribunal watchers and has appeared in various accounts over the past several years in outlets such as Der Spiegel, Le Figaro, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and others.
There are a few new bits and pieces in Bergman’s version:
- A more detailed account of the background of Ahmad Abu Adass, who has not been salient to the investigation for several years, since he was determined not to be the bomber.
- Some fleshing-out of the character of Mustafa Badreddine and his Benz-driving, ball-cap-wearing alter ego, “Sami Issa”…
- A more granular treatment of the communications analysis at the heart of the investigation.
A central part of the narrative is occupied with the career of Wissam Eid, the Lebanese police captain who used cell phone records to track Hariri’s killers, connecting them to Hezbollah. Bergman here builds on a 2010 documentary by Neil Macdonald of CBC, which argued that “the UN commission in Lebanon did no telecom analysis at all for most of its first three years of existence,” and that it was only in late 2007 that it “brought in a British firm called FTS to carry out the specialized analysis.”
This move led to an “earth-shattering” breakthrough: the discovery of the phones of the hit squad that shadowed Hariri on the day of his murder. This was followed by a second “earth-shattering” development: the discovery of Wissam Eid’s work, who had made all of these connections over a year earlier and had sent a report of his findings to the UN commission which “had promptly lost it.”
- Between 2005 and late 2007, when the UN commission was apparently not doing any telecom analysis, it released no fewer than eight reports which alluded to extensive telecom analysis. (See here for a list of the relevant excerpts from those reports.)
- The German newspaper Der Spiegel published a story in October 2005 (“Bye-Bye, Hariri!”) which described “the analysis of the mobile phone records [as] one of Mehlis’ most important pieces of evidence, [which] led to a group of five high-ranking intelligence officials the UN investigator believes made up the core of the conspiracy group.”
- The French newspaper Le Figaro published a story in August 2006 (“L’ombre du Hezbollah sur l’assassinat de Hariri“), which stated that the Lebanese police and the UN commission were working on a new angle of the investigation that pointed to Hezbollah, based on telecoms analysis.
In other words, by the UN’s own admission and according to the reporting of two stories in 2005 and 2006 (i.e. well before late 2007), it is apparent that telecoms analysis was a central part of the investigation from its very beginnings, and led to major breakthroughs in the investigation from its very beginnings. The idea that an “earth-shattering” discovery only took place after the British firm FTS entered the picture is very puzzling, and makes it difficult to accept the account presented by Bergman and Macdonald.
Who cares? Maybe the CBC and NYT accounts rounded the corners a little bit, playing fast and loose to heighten the drama. That may be true, but I’m still interested in knowing what the true story was. My feeling is that there are two ways to read the discrepancy between the CBC/NYT narrative and the historical record.
- The UN was aware of the telecoms analysis being performed by the Lebanese police. It referred to this analysis in its reports, read about it in the press, but refused to authorize its own telecoms analysis for three years until late 2007. This the gist of Neil Macdonald’s response to my query in 2010.
- The UN was actively engaged in telecoms analysis all along (as Mehlis indicates in the 2005 Der Spiegel piece), but was banking on it leading to the conviction of the four generals, who might have been rolled up neatly to implicate Bashar al-Assad. As Eid discovered, though, the telecoms trail did not lead to Damascus but to al-Dahiyeh, an inconvenient terminus in the context of 2005-6, when Hezbollah and the Future Movement were sharing a government and sectarian tensions were high. So his report was conveniently “lost” while the Syria angle was pursued until every last witness had recanted and the case was stone cold. Then, lo and behold, the commission brings in a telecoms analysis firm in late 2007 and they make an “earth-shattering” discovery (that had been reported twice in the press already and in eight UN reports)… and boom: we have a credible culprit again.
Even if you prefer the first reading, you still have to account for why the UN would have refused to authorize telecoms analysis from 2005-07. My guess is that the investigators were fully aware of the telecoms work and where it had led, but were also confident that they had Assad on the hook, thanks to the testimony of witnesses like Muhammad Zuhayr Siddiq (who ended up being very damaging).
When the Syria case fell apart, they turned back to the Hezbollah connection.
This is quite speculative, and I’m happy to be convinced otherwise.