Mehlis then spun a narrative of a Syrian conspiracy to kill Hariri. Four pro-Syrian Lebanese security officials were jailed on suspicion of involvement in Hariri's murder. Everything was falling neatly into place.
As a new U.S. press hysteria built over another case of pure evil traced to the doorstep of an American adversary in the Muslim world, holes in the U.N. report were mostly ignored. At Consortiumnews.com, we produced one of the few critical examinations of what had the looks of a rush to judgment. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report."]
A Case Crumbles
Much like the Bush administration's Iraqi WMD claims which the Times also touted uncritically Mehlis's Hariri case against the Syrians soon began to crumble.
One witness, Saddik, was identified by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel as a swindler who boasted about becoming "a millionaire" from his Hariri testimony. The other one, Hussam, recanted his testimony about Syrian involvement, saying he lied to the Mehlis investigation after being kidnapped, tortured and offered $1.3 million by Lebanese officials.
Mehlis soon stepped down, as even the New York Times acknowledged that the conflicting accusations had given the investigation the feel of "a fictional spy thriller." [NYT, Dec. 7, 2005]
Mehlis's subsequent replacements backed away from his Syrian accusations. Brammertz began entertaining other investigative leads, examining a variety of possible motives and a number of potential perpetrators.
"Given the many different positions occupied by Mr. Hariri, and his wide range of public and private-sector activities, the [U.N.] commission was investigating a number of different motives, including political motivations, personal vendettas, financial circumstances and extremist ideologies, or any combination of those motivations," Brammertz's own interim report said, according to a U.N. statement on June 14, 2006.
In other words, Brammertz had dumped Mehlis's single-minded theory that had pinned the blame on senior Syrian security officials. Though Syria's freewheeling intelligence services and their Lebanese cohorts remained on everyone's suspect list, Brammertz adopted a far less confrontational and accusatory tone toward Syria.
Still, the U.S. news media, which had played the initial Mehlis accusations against Syria as front-page news, barely mentioned the shift in the U.N. probe.
Virtually nothing appeared in the U.S. news media that would alert the American people to the fact that the distinct impression they got in 2005 that the Syrian government had engineered a terrorist bombing in Beirut was now a whole lot fuzzier.
Instead, it remained common practice for the New York Times and the rest of the mainstream U.S. news media to continue citing the Mehlis report and referring to "Syrian officials implicated in Mr. Hariri's killing" without providing more context.
That pattern continued Sunday in Young's article, with the online version linking to a 2005 story that trumpeted Mehlis's initial report. Young and the Times cite no articles describing the subsequent collapse of Mehlis's case.
Last year, the U.N. tribunal examining Hariri's murder and other terrorist acts in Lebanon acknowledged that it lacked the evidence to indict the four Lebanese security officials who had been held without formal charges since 2005. Finally, Judge Daniel Fransen of a special international tribunal ordered the four imprisoned security officials released.
In a similar situation say, one that involved a U.S. ally the release would have been viewed as proof of innocence or at least the absence of significant evidence of guilt.
In this case, however, the New York Times refused to acknowledge the obvious fact that the case against Syrian complicity was weak. Instead, the Times framed the development as underscoring "the legal pitfalls of a divisive international trial." [NYT, April 30, 2009]