November 23, 2010

THE FRUIT OF TELECOM SURVEILLANCE:

CBC Investigation: Who killed Lebanon's Rafik Hariri? (Neil Macdonald, 11/19/10, CBC News)

Among other things, CBC News has learned that:

* Evidence gathered by Lebanese police and, much later, the UN, points overwhelmingly to the fact that the assassins were from Hezbollah, the militant Party of God that is largely sponsored by Syria and Iran. CBC News has obtained cellphone and other telecommunications evidence that is at the core of the case.

* UN investigators came to believe their inquiry was penetrated early by Hezbollah and that that the commission's lax security likely led to the murder of a young, dedicated Lebanese policeman who had largely cracked the case on his own and was co-operating with the international inquiry.

* UN commission insiders also suspected Hariri's own chief of protocol at the time, a man who now heads Lebanon's intelligence service, of colluding with Hezbollah. But those suspicions, laid out in an extensive internal memo, were not pursued, basically for diplomatic reasons.

In its first months, the UN inquiry had actually appeared promising. The first commissioner, a German judge named Detlev Mehlis, quickly delivered a blistering report [http://www.un.org/news/dh/docs/mehlisreport] suggesting Syria had ordered, if not actually carried out, the hit.

Unspecified agents, Mehlis contended, had done the deed.

But Mehlis's successor, a Belgian prosecutor named Serge Brammertz, seemed to be more interested in avoiding controversy than in pursuing any sort of serious investigation, at least according to people who worked for him.

Under his leadership, the commission spent most of its time chasing what turned out to be false leads and disproving wild conspiracy theories.

That isn't to say the commission didn't have some good investigators. It did. In fact, it had a handful of the best that Western police agencies had to offer.

But Brammertz could not be persuaded to authorize the one technique that those investigators wanted above all to deploy: telecommunications analysis, probably the single most important intelligence-gathering tool in modern times.

Telecommunications analysts use powerful computers and highly sophisticated software to sift through millions of phone calls, seeking patterns, referencing and cross-referencing, identifying networks and associations.

Police forces call it "telecomms." Spy agencies call it "sigint." It leads to convictions in courts and missile strikes in places like Afghanistan and Yemen.

Unbelievably, though, the UN commission in Lebanon did no telecom analysis at all for most of its first three years of existence. It wasn't until Brammertz was nearing the end of his term that one particularly dogged detective prodded him into letting the inquiry start examining phone records.

At that point, in October of 2007, things began moving fast. Commission staff actually managed to obtain the records of every single phone call made in Lebanon the year of Hariri's murder - a stunning amount of data - and brought in a British firm called FTS to carry out the specialized analysis.

UN clerks worked day and night inputting data into a program called IBase. Then, in December, a specialist from FTS began examining what the computer was spitting out.

Within two days, he called the UN investigators together. He had identified a small network of mobile phones, eight in all, that had been shadowing Hariri in the weeks prior to his death.

It was the single biggest breakthrough the commission had accomplished since its formation - "earth-shattering," in the words of one of the people in the room the day the network was identified.

What the British analyst showed them was nothing less than the hit squad that had carried out the murder, or at least the phones they'd been carrying at the time.

For the first time, commission investigators were staring at their quarry. The trouble was, the traces were now nearly three years old, long past the "golden hour" for harvesting the best clues.

Still, it was something. And 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.

Read the CBC's Lynn Burgess's piece [http://www.cbc.ca/thenational/blog/2010/11/the-challenge-of-confidential-sources.html] on the challenge of confidential sources.

Not only had the policeman identified what the UN would eventually dub the "red network" - the hit team - he had discovered much more. He had found the networks behind the networks.

In fact, he'd uncovered a complex, disciplined plot that had been at least a year in the planning, and he had already questioned suspects.

What's more, everything he'd discovered pointed to one culprit: Hezbollah, the Party of God.

All of this was in the policeman's report, which he had dutifully sent to the UN officials with whom he was supposed to be partnering.

And the UN commission had promptly lost it.

Before his violent death in 2008, Wissam Eid was an unusual figure in the murky, often corrupt world of Arab policing.

He had never actually wanted to be a policeman, or an intelligence officer. In authoritarian Arab society, he had no interest in becoming an authority figure. And yet, he'd had no choice.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 23, 2010 6:04 AM
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