What the Mehlis Report Doesn't Tell You, Or Does if You Got the Original Version With Tracked Changes

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It was especially interesting that initial copies of the Mehlis report released to journalists at the United Nations last night came as a Word document, with tracked changes in the text. The final emendations were made by the office of Secretary General Kofi Annan.

In the initial Mehlis draft of the particularly damning paragraph 96 (here is a link to a non-annotated version of the final report), two very senior Syrian officials–Military Intelligence chief Assef Shawkat, Syrian President Bashar Assad's brother-in-law, as well as the president's own brother, Maher, are mentioned by a witness as having helped plan Rafik Hariri's assassination. However, in the final draft redacted by Annan's office, the names were removed, though the original text is clearly visible via the tracked changes.

This seemed to indicate timidity from Annan's office, or at least a desire to avoid any accusation of high-level Syrians in the context of a statement by a single witness. However, that may be half the story: Why was the document released in this fashion? It would have been very easy to just make the changes and leave no editing marks. Was this a compromise between Mehlis and Annan, so that people like me could mention that detail, while the U.N. could later claim that the official version was "clean" of the names in question? Judge for yourselves.

Here is the paragraph as it reads now:

One witness of Syrian origin but resident in Lebanon, who claims to have worked for the Syrian intelligence services in Lebanon, has stated that approximately two weeks after the adoption of Security Council resolution 1559, senior Lebanese and Syrian officials decided to assassinate Rafik Hariri. He claimed that a senior Lebanese security official went several times to Syria to plan the crime, meeting once at the Meridian Hotel in Damascus and several times at the Presidential Place and the office of a senior Syrian security official. The last meeting was held in the house of the same senior Syrian security official approximately seven to 10 days before the assassination and included another senior Lebanese security official. The witness had close contact with high ranked Syrian officers posted in Lebanon.

Here is the original:

One witness of Syrian origin but resident in Lebanon, who claims to have worked for the Syrian intelligence services in Lebanon, has stated that approximately two weeks after the adoption of Security Council resolution 1559, Maher Assad, Assef Shawkat, Hassan Khalil, Bahjat Suleyman and Jamil Al-Sayyed decided to assassinate Rafik Hariri. He claimed that Sayyed went several times to Syria to plan the crime, meeting once at the Meridian Hotel in Damascus and several times at the Presidential Place and the office of Shawkat. The last meeting was held in the house of Shawkat approximately 7 to 10 days before the assassination and included Mustapha Hamdan. The witness had close contact with high ranked Syrian officers posted in Lebanon.

And finally, here's an explanation for the additional dramatis personae: Khalil was Military Intelligence chief before Shawkat, though Shawkat was the real power-holder; Bahjat Suleyman was the head of the internal branch of Syria's State Security service; Jamil al-Sayyed was the head of Lebanon's General Security service; and Mustapha Hamdan was commander of Lebanon's Republican Guard, the unit that protects President Emile Lahoud (and that acted as his own security service).

Addendum: The Washington Post has posted the report with the tracked changes here.

More: Since posting, I've learned that this has turned into a bona fide "issue." According to Security Council spokesman Stephane Dujarric, the changes were made by Mehlis himself, though the Syrians are bound to claim that all this means is that there is no evidence against those initially listed. My own view is that Annan was trying to play it safe and deleted the names, that Mehlis wanted to keep them in, that a Word version with tracked changes was released accomodating both, and that now the U.N. has a headache to deal with. I could be wrong, and I'm basically guessing, but the notion that the names were removed to protect the innocent is absurd; the whole report is full of names, and even Assef Shawkat, whose name was deleted from paragraph 96, is mentioned elsewhere.

(Thanks to Chuck Freund for the last link.)

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  1. I blame it on computer ignorance.

  2. Somehow, Michael, I dont think Kofi possesses the guile to carry out the scenarios you listed above. I agree with Mr. Wilson.

  3. “Why was the document released in this fashion? It would have been very easy to just make the changes and leave no editing marks. Was this a compromise between Mehlis and Annan, so that people like me could mention that detail, while the U.N. could later claim that the official version was “clean” of the names in question?”

    Or maybe it happened for the same reason that George Bush said “internets,” and Ted Kennedy says “internet number” when we means web address.

  4. While I wouldn’t be suprised if Kofi himself couldn’t send an e-mail without a tutor, I would expect that the people who were sophisticated enough to work with the word editing changes knew what was what. Perhaps somebody in the UN still believes in justice, and this is there little way of fighting the diplomatic whitewash.

  5. I agree w/ Wilson, too. But why they distribute as Word docs is beyond me.

    Did Bush really say “internets”? I always thought that was just a joke.

  6. tOS,

    In one of the presidential debates, in response to a question about bringing back the draft, he said that knew there were “a lot of rumors on THE INTERNETS” and then did that thing where he pauses and looks around after saying a big word.

  7. The people who sent it to the press and the people who edited and wrote the document are probably not the same person. No doubt someone lower level was actually involved in the grunt work of typing and correcting the document. They probably had no idea that the press would get the Word document and not a PDF or otherwise clean version.

    Never send press releases as Word documents…

  8. Everybody, I mean everybody, gets confused by Word’s track changes functionality. We routinely get emails around the office where some contract or another was sent to some client that was just an edited version of something sent to another client, with the prices for said other client clearly visible in track changes, etc. It’s just hilarious that this kind of stuff happened to the UN. Use PDF’s, or at the very least, word docs with the .rtf extension!

  9. Joe, I had forgotten that. Weird…truth becomes rumor. But damn that’s funny.

  10. theOneState,

    The President’s pushing 60. Teddy’s looking back at 70. I can’t be too hard on them for not getting this stuff.

  11. There’s reasons to think that an office like this would have a document control protocol, and reasons to think it wouldn’t. It’ll be interesting to hear if they even have one. It’ll be interesting to find out if we even hear that.

  12. The Daily Star of Lebanon is reporting that the US State Department urged the censoring of the report.

    http://www.dailystar.com.lb/MehlisReport_DS.pdf

    (PDF Required)

    This would seem to make sense given the current state of US-Syria relations.

  13. This sounds like the great 1970s typewriter font and technology debate from last year.

  14. Hey, this report was prepared and released by the UN! Why assume that anything other than laziness and incompetence is at work?

  15. No no, the UN is a hotbed of conspiracy, subterfuge, and greed, RC. Norm Coleman told me so.

  16. It is very unusual for Kofi to criticise anything two bit dictators do. After all he saves his criticism for the US and Great Britian.

    It also tells a lot about people who hear evidence that higher ups in the Syrian government were involved in the largest political assassination in a decade and all they want to talk about is Bush saying internets.

  17. No no, the UN is a hotbed of conspiracy, subterfuge, and greed,…

    There’s no reason that it can’t be all those things and lazy and incompetent too.

  18. “It is very unusual for Kofi to criticise anything two bit dictators do. After all he saves his criticism for the US and Great Britian.”

    Uh huh. Like Amnesty International. They just never criticize anyone except the US and Britain. Except, of course, they they criticize other countries all the time.

    “It also tells a lot about people who hear evidence that higher ups in the Syrian government were involved in the largest political assassination in a decade and all they want to talk about is Bush saying internets.”

    And the Ted Kennedy reference was…? Does that tell a lot about people?

  19. Joe, we all know the Ted Kennedy reference was just a smokescreen to cover your secret…um…something.

    Anyway, Amnesty *has* sort of lost its way, hasn’t it? If ANYONE should know the difference b/n Guantanamo and a Soviet Gulag, it should be them. And they do revel in criticizing the U.S., and they kind of lose perspective when they do it.

    RA: I don’t think Kofi criticizes the U.S. enough. Seriously. I’d often disagree w/ him if he did, but that’s part of his freaking job. Does anyone doubt that he’s cut sweet deals w/ Bush, Chirac, Putin, AND Mugabe just so he can keep his job?

    It’s creepy….

  20. On the other hand, the accusation censored is one based on the testimony of an anonymous “witness of Syrian origin now resident in Lebanon, who claimed to have worked for the Syrian intelligence in Lebanon”. It’s barely possible that Annan’s office (or Mehlis’s office) decided that that was a slightly flimsy basis to be calling people out by name. Because lord knows, no one would EVER think of stripping out the context when repeating the accusations.

    (I am torn between the “lack of computer skillz” theory and the “sneaky backhanded subversion of security by lower-down computer geek” theory.)

  21. No no, the UN is a hotbed of conspiracy, subterfuge, and greed….

    Like every other institution I’ve ever worked in, personally speaking. Funny, these human beings.

    Else, the Word tracking, although I know full well how to use it I can confess to having forgotten about the feature being on (or not knowing it was on from a prior user due the show feature), and sending off a most unhelpful version to the other side of a deal.

    Overreading and axe grding are most unuseful.

  22. The President’s pushing 60. Teddy’s looking back at 70. I can’t be too hard on them for not getting this stuff.

    If they don’t “get” it, perhaps they should be prohibited from drafting, writing, proposing, or voting on legislation that has an impact on it.

  23. The President’s pushing 60. Teddy’s looking back at 70. I can’t be too hard on them for not getting this stuff.

    If they don’t “get” it, perhaps they should be prohibited from drafting, writing, proposing, or voting on legislation that has an impact on it.

    You’re assuming that those politicians actually read the laws that they vote on.

  24. Mediageek,

    “If they don’t “get” it, perhaps they should be prohibited from drafting, writing, proposing, or voting on legislation that has an impact on it.”

    Can we apply this rule to social welfare policy, and politicians who have never been poor? Cuz that wood rool.

  25. Can we apply this rule to social welfare policy, and politicians who have never been poor?

    I realize it’s not the way you meant it. But, yes, we would probably have better social welfare policy if people like Ted Kennedy and Diane Feinstein had no say in it. 🙂

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