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  September 7, 2011

Tribunal Concealed Evidence al-Qaeda Cell may have Killed Hariri

Gareth Porter: In focusing entirely on Hezbollah Special Tribunal refuses to acknowledge stronger evidence al-Qaeda was responsible for the assassination
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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington. In mid-August, the special UN tribunal investigating who killed the Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 issued an indictment. It pointed its finger at Hezbollah. Just after the assassination, most fingers were pointing at Syria, and although Syria denied any involvement, it did give rise to what was called the Cedar Revolution. Lebanese people demanded an end to Syrian occupation in Lebanon, and four months after the assassination, Syria in fact withdrew. Months and years later, the special tribunal says they have evidence that in fact it was Hezbollah. But is that really the whole story? Now joining us to help us try to unpack all of this is Gareth Porter. Gareth is an investigative journalist working in Washington, DC. Thanks again for joining us.


JAY: So before we get into all the forensics and detail at this, set the political landscape for us at the time the assassination takes place. For people who don't know a thing about this story, who's Hariri? What's the role of Syria? Give us [crosstalk] picture.

PORTER: Right. Well, I mean, Hariri was a Sunni Muslim figure in politics in Lebanon who was close to the Saudis, who was also, of course, very close to Syria. He had cooperated very closely with the Syrian government and was regarded as an ally of Syria. But there were also tensions between the Syrians and Hariri as well. He was, however, a very determined foe of al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups in Lebanon, and they had begun to be a serious problem in the late 1990s and the early part of this century. You have for the first time, really, the rise of al-Qaeda affiliates or al-Qaeda-related kinds of extremists, in northern Lebanon in particular. And in fact there was a whole--an uprising by some of these groups, called the Dinniyeh Group, in 1999-2000, which actually tried to take over part of North Lebanon. So that's part of the background as well.

JAY: Well, let's just back a bit, though, because Hariri was a multi-billionaire businessman. His family controlled some of the major banks in Lebanon. They had rebuilt some of downtown Lebanon--Beirut, but owned most--owned it all. They had this whole section of the city which was, like, owned by the Hariri family. But my understanding was that around this time, Hariri, although he had worked with the Syrians, and the Syrians were occupying Lebanon 'cause they had--I think most people conceded--play, actually, a constructive role ending--helping to end the civil war in Lebanon. But in those days he had started to become somewhat of a nationalist voice against the Syrian occupation, which is why fingers started pointing at Syria right away, 'cause Hariri had been talking about Syria should get out of Lebanon. Is that not true?

PORTER: Well, I think that there were calls within the Sunni element of, you know, Lebanese politics, which he was certainly a leader of, that was calling for Syrian withdrawal. No question about that. So that is part of the political landscape [crosstalk]

JAY: And then, just to finish, Hezbollah, which is a Shia organization which was very popular because it was one of the only organizations seen as having stood up to Israeli invasion over the years, but very allied with Syria--.

PORTER: Very allied with Syria, but also very close to then-prime minister Rafic Hariri. Nicholas Blanford, in his book on the assassination, talks about how closely the Hezbollah people were in contact with Hariri, secretly, behind the scenes, constantly having meetings with him and really having a very good relationship with Hariri. So that's also part of the political landscape at that point.

JAY: So, I mean, Lebanese politics is very, very complicated. And we did a series a little earlier called "The Modern History of Lebanon". It was, I think, like, a seven- or eight-part series. So we're going to link--we'll put a link up to that, and if you want to get a better sense of the background of all of this, I suggest you watch that series, 'cause Lebanon is not a simple story. Okay. So let's pick up the tale of the investigation and what happens.

PORTER: So with the beginning of the investigation, the first thing that happens is--Detlev Mehlis is a German prosecutor who's the first head of the United Nations investigating unit, the independent investigation unit that was supposed to help to track down the killers of Hariri. And immediately he bit on some testimony that was given by people who claimed to have been in Syrian intelligence--two people who claimed they were in Syrian intelligence, and some other witnesses as well, who said, we know from our contacts within Syrian military and Syrian intelligence that they were the ones behind this, and they told various stories to support that. Well, even French and American intelligence at that early stage were warning that these people were fabricators, they were not to be believed. And ultimately, of course, their stories fell apart and they were identified as fabricators, as liars, false witnesses. So, eventually, by early 2006, the storyline that the UN investigators had put forward already, publicly, in an early report, saying that we have all this information from our witnesses saying that Syria is behind this, had really fallen apart. And the other thing that happened in the course of the UN investigation between 2007 and 2009 was that Syria and Israel started a flirtation diplomatically, and ultimately, of course, had secret talks, which the Israelis had indicated to Syria they were interested in. And so it was precisely during this period that the UN dropped the whole Syrian line of inquiry and began to hint in 2007, 2008 that there were sectarian reasons, perhaps, for the killing of Hariri. And that was a code word, of course, for Hezbollah.

JAY: Now, just, again, to give some context at the time, at the time of the assassination, a lot of people were wondering who benefited from this assassination, and it was hard to understand how either Syria or Hezbollah could benefit in creating such Lebanese public opinion against Syria.

PORTER: Well, absolutely. I mean, that's a critical question to be asked, who benefited. And clearly Syria did not benefit in terms of its agenda. Certainly Hezbollah did not benefit in terms of its political agenda. The one party that did benefit from this, of course, was Israel.

JAY: And then if you go in--if when you go to Lebanon, which--I was there about a year and a half ago--everyone assumes Mossad's involved in this. Now, the caveat is, when you're in the Middle East, everyone assumes Mossad is behind everything. And who knows? Maybe someday it will turn out that way. But there's no evidence as of now that Mossad is involved. So let's pick up the story [incompr.]

PORTER: So now we come to 2009 and you begin to have--the special tribunal for Lebanon now comes into existence, replacing the UN investigation, and they're very quiet for quite a long time. But you have leaks then, starting in 2009 and again in 2010, Le Figaro, then Der Spiegel, and then, finally, Canadian broadcasting company issuing stories that suggest that there's a new line of inquiry and that Hezbollah has been identified, that there's evidence that Hezbollah was behind--.

JAY: Okay. We're going to--because this is a very complicated story, we're going to put some links below our player. So we're going to put Gareth's articles. We're also going to put a link to the CBC report so you can see what's there. The CBC report, if I understand it, the gist of it is is there's a Lebanese policeman investigator who on his own starts to try to figure out all the cell phones in the territory where the assassination took place and, apparently, using an Excel spreadsheet, starts to exclude cell phones that don't talk to each other and comes to a conclusion. So why don't you pick it up from there?

PORTER: Well, you know, we don't know very much about exactly how this was done, but apparently there was this--a mid-level official, key official in the counterterrorism office of the Lebanese intelligence service who did do some work on a database of telephone calls made during this period.

JAY: Now, one of the things that the CBC reported on was that Lebanese policeman who had done the original research that had shown there was this group of cell phones connected with each other and those phones were somehow linked to Hezbollah, he had agreed to cooperate with the United Nations investigation, met with them--the report I saw, within a few days. He was assassinated as well, which is also being blamed on Hezbollah, although, again, I don't think there's any actual evidence linking it to Hezbollah.

PORTER: No, there's no actual evidence. I think it's important for people to understand that he had been involved in a number of investigations of terrorist bombings in Beirut and other places in Lebanon, and some of those bombings clearly, we know, are bombings that were carried out by Sunni extremists, not by Hezbollah. I mean, it's on the record--some of them they claim themselves. And so, clearly, he had other enemies who were out to get him.

JAY: So, again, not just one operating theory about what was possible for his assassination.

PORTER: Yes. You simply cannot use the fact that he worked on this specific case and then was assassinated as evidence that it was Hezbollah. What is interesting, though, is that starting in 2007 you have hints from--or late 2006, I should say, you have hints from Serge Brammertz, who had become the new head of the UN investigation, that they had this new line of inquiry which was using this telephone link analysis tool in a--what he called a "speculative" way, "proactive and speculative" way, meaning that they weren't sort of following everybody's telephone calls; they were focusing on a certain group's telephone calls to see if they were linked to the plot to assassinate Hariri.

JAY: The telephone thing's--is quite complex, and I suggest people read Gareth's article to get the detailed breakdown of how the methodology works and why you're suggesting it's not reliable. But let's kind of just cut to the end of that, which is you talked to an FBI agent for a different story, but he was talking about this technology and methodology.

PORTER: Right. This was my investigation of the Buenos Aires bombing, terror bombing of 1994, which was a Jewish community center, which was blamed on Iran immediately. And the Argentine intelligence service soon came up with a report saying that this was Iran behind it. And one of the key arguments was that they had linked a telephone belonging to the cultural affairs officer in the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires to a phone in the tri-border area down south, which had been also contacted by phones that they linked to the plot. And so it was in fact this telephone link analysis that was being used to link Iran to the crime in Buenos Aires. And the FBI official, he was the head of the Hezbollah office at the FBI who was sent by the White House to help Argentine intelligence in late 2006, early 2007. He told me in a later interview in 2000--sorry. Excuse me. It was 1996-1997. He told me in a 2006 interview that he found that that use of telephone link analysis was very dangerous. He called it "speculative"--interestingly, the same word that Serge Brammertz used to describe the way they used it. And he said that this telephone link analysis can be used to link my telephone with bin Laden's. He said it's that dangerous.

JAY: And if I understand correctly, what's dubious about this or speculative, it's not that--like, in the Hariri assassination case, it's not that they have a record that these phones phoned each other within an hour around the time of the explosion in the van, 'cause this is their--Hariri is killed because they have this truck filled with explosives. It's that they're just--they just are in the same--using the same towers in some sort of a pattern that suggests they must be talking to each other.

PORTER: That's exactly right. The whole case in the indictment, which has been released in mid-August by the special tribunal, is based on the idea of co-location of telephones that they link, the personal cell phones that they link to this one Hezbollah figure being in the same cell phone tower area at certain times in certain places as what they call the red phone network, which is a name that they give to a set of cell phones, which--the last phone call of which was made two minutes before the explosion that killed Hariri.

JAY: And in your piece you point out this is parsing something like 40,000 or 50,000 cell phones during the--.

PORTER: Well, I mean, the point is that this ignores the reality that with--at any particular moment in a workday in this part of central downtown Beirut, one of these cell phone towers would serve from 20,000 to 50,000 cell phones, active cell phones, people making phone calls. And so--I mean, this was from a specialist on the Lebanese telecommunications industry, telecommunications system in Lebanon who knows it very well. This means that at any moment during a workday, you have many, many phones, hundreds, thousands of phones who would qualify as being co-located with these red phones which were supposedly held by the terrorists who killed Hariri. So it's really meaningless to say that this personal cell phone or cell phones of this Hezbollah guy were co-located on a number of locations, which is what they're saying, with the red cell phones that were associated with [crosstalk]

JAY: Okay. So your point is that the evidence is speculative, maybe dubious.

PORTER: It's speculative and dubious, absolutely.

JAY: The assumption they're--is--they start out with: this is going to be--got to be Hezbollah. And that's the conclusion they come to. Okay. So in part two of our interview, we're going to explore an alternative theory of who killed Prime Minister Hariri.

PORTER: Right.

JAY: Please join us for part two with Gareth Porter on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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