Friday, July 1, 2011

Much ado about almost nothing?

Now that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has confirmed an indictment in the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and subsequent crimes, we’re in a better position to assess the success of the investigation that led to this long-awaited moment. And what we’re seeing is not encouraging.

Until now, the tribunal appears to have accused Hezbollah members of involvement in the Hariri killing. Four Lebanese are said to be in the crosshairs of Daniel Bellemare, the tribunal’s prosecutor. From what we know, mainly information in documents leaked to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which used them last year as the basis of a compelling documentary, several of the suspects were identified through analyses of cellular telephone conversations.

This is all fascinating stuff, and may well be true. However, if the indictment stops there, then we will at best have been offered a narrow glimpse of what actually took place. After six years of investigation led by three separate commissioners, with millions of dollars spent, the results would be desperately short of expectations. In fact, it would represent a black mark on the United Nations.

Unconfirmed reports on Thursday suggested that the special tribunal team was preparing to head to Damascus after Beirut, to announce the indictment of Syrians. This was untrue, and yet the credibility of the investigative phase, and of the special tribunal itself, will very much depend on whether Syrians are called to the suspects’ dock.

Here’s why. Soon after Hariri’s elimination, the United Nations sent an Irish policeman, Peter Fitzgerald, to Beirut to look into the matter. In his report, Fitzgerald concluded that it had taken “considerable finance, military precision in its execution, [and] substantial logistical support” to carry out the assassination. In other words, the former prime minister had been the victim of a conspiracy that the Syrian and Lebanese security services could hardly have avoided noticing.

If there were any doubts, in a report from October 2005, Detlev Mehlis, the first commissioner of the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission, wrote something very similar. Given the “infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem,” he observed, “it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge.” Once again, a seasoned investigator was describing an extensive conspiracy, one that went well beyond a small group of Hezbollah participants and their superiors. Fitzgerald and Mehlis bluntly implicated Syria and their Lebanese proxies in the plot.

Mehlis’ successor, Serge Brammertz, continued to suspect Syria. This we know because in 2006 he revealed to the US ambassador in Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, that he believed only a single Syrian intelligence agency had participated in Hariri’s murder. “If anything, you probably had one security service involved, and the order came from on high and, how high, we’ll have to figure out,” Feltman quoted Brammertz as telling him. An educated guess suggests that the commissioner was referring to Syrian Military Intelligence, which had a vast network already in place throughout Lebanon.

However, Brammertz, according to Lebanese and non-Lebanese sources I spoke to very familiar with his work, did not much advance in his investigation. Whether this was intentional or not is unclear. However, he took a momentous decision in altering the investigative strategy set by his predecessor. Mehlis had approached his inquiry using a top-down approach. As he told me in a Wall Street Journal interview in January 2008, “The Hariri case is an unusual one. Usually in investigations you start at the bottom and work your way up. In the Hariri case we started pretty much at the top and worked down. We had an accurate view of how the assassination took place from above, but less clear a view of what happened on the ground.”

With Brammertz, however, there was a very noticeable decline in interviews of high-level suspects, in Lebanon and especially in Syria. According to onetime commission members, the commissioner brought in analysts but cut back on police investigators needed to gather and assess witness testimony. The top-down approach was shelved in favor of a de facto bottom-up approach, albeit a deficient one. If the CBC report is to be believed, Brammertz was as lethargic in the telephone analyses as he was in other aspects of his investigation. For example, he only brought in a British firm, FTS, to examine telephone data near the end of his term, and that only because of valuable work done by Wissam Eid, a Lebanese police officer.

It’s no surprise, then, that when Bellemare took over he had relatively little in his files. Yet he pursued Brammertz’s bottom-up approach, meaning that he could not benefit from Mehlis’ labors. This left, principally, the telephone material to build on. Bellemare’s intention today may be to crack open that angle of the conspiracy, which as it happens implicates Hezbollah, in the hope that it will lead upwards to those senior officials who gave the order to kill Hariri.

If so, Bellemare could prove too optimistic by half. The two years of dallying during Brammertz’s time in office may have fatally crippled the Syria side of the investigation, though we have to wait to see if the Syrians are off the hook. However, no one seriously believes that Hezbollah, if the party’s involvement is proven, acted alone against the former prime minister. For now, and until proof of the contrary, the tribunal’s indictment is the mountain giving birth to a mouse.

1 comment:

markdel said...

There are others that will gain from the killing(s) and the investigation(s)who haven't been mentioned. But even if one accepts the official view (and I make no moral judgment)it might be seen by many as little more than justifiable payback for past crimes ... that is the killing itself. But in any event surely these sorts of tribunals have shown themselves to be political courts and not courts of justice. Just another arrow in the quiver to destabilise.