There’s no better way of making a story compelling than to fill it with granular detail. The more detail there is, the more convincing the account becomes. Details have the aura of hard facts, suggesting the sources must be very well informed.
If the story appears in publications which attach a lot of value to being perceived as authoritative — as do Washington Post and Newsweek — then most readers will take the information at face value.
Thus we come to two reports, both claiming to recount the same events, both detailed and credited to multiple intelligence sources, and yet the details conflict.
In two accounts of the same bombing in Damascus we hear that the bomb was a) “triggered remotely from Tel Aviv by agents with Mossad,” or b) that under the plan “the CIA man would press the remote control.”
One report may be more accurate than the other, or perhaps both are inaccurate.
According to the Washington Post, the assassination of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah by a car bomb in Damascus in 2008 was carried out by Mossad with the CIA’s support and with the U.S. retaining power to cancel the operation.
As Mughniyah approached a parked SUV, a bomb planted in a spare tire on the back of the vehicle exploded, sending a burst of shrapnel across a tight radius. He was killed instantly.
The device was triggered remotely from Tel Aviv by agents with Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, who were in communication with the operatives on the ground in Damascus. “The way it was set up, the U.S. could object and call it off, but it could not execute,” said a former U.S. intelligence official.
According to Newsweek, the CIA claimed the operation as their own and a former official who participated in the project is quoted, saying: “The Israelis told us where he was and gave us logistical help. But we designed the bomb that killed him and supervised the operation.”
Said another source, a former senior CIA operative with deep Middle East experience: “It was an Israeli-American operation. Everybody knows CIA did it — everybody in the Middle East anyway.” The CIA’s authorship of Mugniyah’s bloody death, the operative said, should have been told long ago. “It sends the message that we will track you down, no matter how much time it takes,” he said. “The other side needs to know this.”
A former senior CIA operative with deep Middle East experience — Robert Baer perhaps — says everyone in the Middle East (wouldn’t that include Hezbollah?) knows that the CIA killed Mughniyah, but the story that should have been told long ago, needs to be told now … because Hezbollah doesn’t know what everyone else knows?
If that doesn’t make much sense, it’s because it doesn’t make much sense.
The same report also says: “The CIA was pleased with Mugniyah’s murder, but not so pleased as to take credit for it. Agency officials always feared Hezbollah would feel a need to retaliate.”
The Washington Post also notes:
In a new book, The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins, former CIA officer Robert B. Baer writes how he had considered assassinating Mughniyah but apparently never got the opportunity. He notes, however, that CIA “censors” — the agency’s Publications Review Board — screened his book and “I’ve unfortunately been unable to write about the true set-piece plot against” Mughniyah.
But that didn’t stop him telling his story to the Post, perhaps.
And while Baer characterizes the killing of Mughniyeh as a case of settling scores, a former official speaking to the Post insisted that this was about the future not the past: “What we had to show was he was a continuing threat to Americans.”
The Israel security and intelligence writer, Yossi Melman, offers a political interpretation of the reporting:
It is hard to believe that the timing was coincidental.
Whoever leaked the details of the 2008 joint Mossad-CIA assassination of Hezbollah operational chief Imad Mughniyeh to two US newspapers, and certainly to a paper like The Washington Post, (the second one was Newsweek), did not do so capriciously. Most likely someone wanted to send the following message to the people of Israel and also to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: You need us. Look at the extent of the cooperation between our intelligence communities, which risks being damaged due to the discordant policies of your prime minister. This was the nature of the hidden message behind the leaked assassination operation.
The leak is surprising because the US usually only confirms its clandestine operations if it takes responsibility for them. In the case of Mughniyeh, neither the US nor Israel claimed responsibility. And there remains room for denial because the source of the leak was an anonymous US official and not an official government statement. The actual details of the leak are less important, and we shall see that some of them are lacking in accuracy.
The impression given from the leaked details is that someone wanted the US to take the lion’s share of the credit for the Mughniyeh assassination. According to the media reports, in the joint operation that killed Hezbollah’s “defense minister,” the Mossad played second fiddle to the CIA who was the senior more central partner. It’s possible that this is a great exaggeration, the truth was entirely different and in fact the Mossad was the dominant player in the operation.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time that specific details have been reported on the manner of Mughniyeh’s death.
The Sunday Times reported on February 17, 2008, that the Hezbollah commander was not returning from a nearby restaurant, as the Post now claims, but had left a party at the Iranian cultural center.
According to Israeli intelligence sources, the bomb was not hidden in a spare tire but instead had been placed in the driver’s headrest.
The details being fed to the press at that time were very specific yet apparently not at all accurate.
The details now are no less specific, but likewise, perhaps, no more accurate.
One thing that should be clear is that information provided by intelligence sources, be they current or former, should always be treated with caution.
Those whose careers revolve around secrecy and deception can’t be expected to easily shake off the habits of a lifetime.
At the same time, what we see here is the shadow of journalism.
On the one hand it seeks to bring information to light, and at the same time the process by which that information is gathered, questioned, and analyzed, remains opaque.
We get told the story, but rarely hear the story behind the story.