Behind the Sources (I): The One-Stop Shop
Boxes & Briefs examines the ubiquitous “experts” cited by mainstream western media, who – more often than not – tell reporters covering the Arab region what they want to hear.
Once upon a time, Hezbollah parliamentarian Ali Fayyad was a much coveted interlocutor for western journalists passing through Beirut to do a story on America’s formidable enemy. Fayyad – urbane despite his membership in an Islamist movement, it was recurrently reported – spoke impeccable English, smoked cigars, and ate generous helpings of ice cream.
These apparently curious details provided the mandatory “color” to many a report from Beirut.
But no more.
For the past year at least, Hezbollah has imposed a moratorium on interviews with western media. One consequence of this “blackout” has been the ever increasing reliance of western reporters on a miniscule pool of English-speaking “experts” who feign proximity to, or knowledge of, the party.
In the following three-part series, Al-Akhbar’s Boxes & Briefs team takes a hard look at the sources providing insight and analysis for the mainstream media.
The One-Stop Opinion Shop
Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, is a one-stop shop for foreign reporters seeking commentary on a myriad of actors and issues – including, of course, insight into the inner workings of Lebanon’s premier resistance group, Hezbollah.
In a sample of major western media stories from October 18 to 26 – admittedly an unusually busy week for reporters stationed in Beirut, due to the explosion in Achrafieh and subsequent street violence – Khashan was cited by the AFP, Reuters, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, and Voice of America, to name but a few outlets.
During that week, the Washington Post solicited Khashan’s commentary for no less than three separate articles, on October 18, 19 and 26.
On October 18, the newspaper’s Liz Sly interviewed Khashan, in Beirut, for a story about Syrian Alawis, who are allegedly turning against the regime in droves.
The following day, Sly again sought comment from Khashan, this time in regard to the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan. Apart from a Hariri spokesperson and an eyewitness only identified as “George Azzi” (a hilariously common name), Khashan was the only source interviewed and cited in this article:
After Friday’s killing, Lebanese braced for the fallout as angry Sunnis, some of them armed, took to the streets in several Sunni areas across Lebanon to protest the killing. Streets in the capital emptied and a brief gun battle was reported in Tripoli between Sunnis and members of the Alawite minority to which Assad belongs.
“There will be repercussions, they will be severe, and I’m afraid the Sunni community will not accept this,” predicted Hilal Khashan.
A week later, Khashan’s hackneyed observations again made their way into the paper:
“You know how we find out that Hezbollah is under pressure?” asked Hilal Khashan, a professor in the political science department at the American University of Beirut. “They remain quiet. They are keeping a very low profile during these days. There is already pressure on Hezbollah and the pressure is mounting.”
Voice of America also cited Khashan in three separate articles on Syria and Lebanon – two of them filed from Cairo. In one of the stories, he appears to be the only source interviewed outside of official statements made to other media.
The Financial Times fared slightly better with only two recent Khashan citations (though Beirut correspondent Abigail Fielding-Smith has cited his insights in eight articles since the end of May), including one for a story on Hezbollah’s rumored participation in the fighting in Syria.
In addition, both the widely-cited newswires Reuters and AFP, whose stories are reprinted by thousands of outlets, quoted Khashan that week: the French agency published his rather trite observation that the Eid ceasefire in Syria would in all likelihood fail.
One former stringer for a major US newspaper explained to Al-Akhbar that Khashan was such a delectable source for western reporters, because he is always available to give comment and speaks English.
But aside from the digestible truisms he reliably supplies, Al-Akhbar has uncovered that Khashan also moonlights as an informer for the US-based, private global intelligence agency, Stratfor.
And he is not just any informer.
Stratfor’s “analysis” of events in the Levant, according to a cache of the company’s internal emails obtained by WikiLeaks earlier this year, is primarily reliant on the insights and alleged “human intelligence” that an operative codenamed “ME1” provides for a steep fee.
Even within Stratfor, ME1's identity is a closely-guarded secret.
Based on analysis of Stratfor’s email cache, Al-Akhbar has established that ME1 is none other than Hilal Khashan.
Incidentally, some of the same media outlets that regularly seek out Khashan’s views on a range of subjects also bolster their coverage of the region with Stratfor’s insights, which are – unbeknownst to them – often gleaned from the same professor.
Yazan al-Saadi has the story on Stratfor’s top Middle East source below.
“ME1” Unmasked: Stratfor’s Star Informer
In the shadowy world of intelligence, a well-placed source is king. For Stratfor, a Texas-based private intelligence firm, “ME1” was and continues to be a crucial supplier of intelligence regarding Hezbollah, Syria, and the rest of the Middle East. Through extensive examinations, Al-Akhbar has determined the identity of Stratfor’s indispensable Middle Eastern source.
Earlier this year, WikiLeaks, working with more than twenty media partners including Al-Akhbar, released some of Stratfor’s private emails in a project dubbed the “Global Intelligence Files.” In relation to Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East, the emails instantaneously showed that Stratfor placed singular importance on one source, codenamed ME1.
Prior to connecting the dots and uncovering ME1’s identity, Al-Akhbar blogged about him in a March 26 post entitled “Our Man in Beirut,” with evidence gleaned from the “GI Files”:
For the Levant, Senior Analyst for the Middle East and South Asia (MESA), Reva Bhalla, gains the bulk of her human insights from a single main source. Codenamed ME1, the identity of this valuable source is protected even in Stratfor’s own internal source listings (All the files listing the informants names and contact information were conveniently entitled “source lists.”) We don’t yet know who ME1 is, but Reva describes her relationship with him as follows:
“I have been working with ME1 for more than 4 years now. He needs ego stroking and is very defensive, but very well connected. I have caught several instances though where what he has reported is in the OS verbatim. When you inquire about it, he shows classic defensive tactics. He has great sources, but his source information can be difficult to evaluate b/c I can't tell when he might be fabricating the information to justify his pay. Known since 2003. Tempermental [sic]. Sometimes his immediate reaction is suspect. Often good info but hard to tell when it is and isn't. Emphasized quantity over quality.”
Previous readings by Al-Akhbar reported that ME1 was an active source at least as far back as 2006. The Stratfor emails also indicated that he was a major link, connecting the private intelligence firm to other sources, which allegedly included military, academic, diplomatic and media figures in Lebanon and elsewhere.
Moreover, ME1’s importance to Stratfor was made evident by the fact that he received a significant pay raise last October, which brought his salary up from $3,000 to $6,000 per month, making him one of the highest paid contractors for the so-called “Shadow CIA.”
Upon deeper examinations of the GI Files, ME1’s identity was uncovered: Hilal Khashan. Khashan is the author of a number of written works, notably a book titled “Inside the Lebanese Confessional Mind” – described by the notorious neocon Daniel Pipes as “a stunningly original study on the political attitudes of Lebanese.” (Khashan is also a fellow and regular contributor to Pipes' Middle East Quarterly.)
Khashan first appears within the Stratfor files in November 2004. Corresponding with Anthony Sullivan, a recruiter for the firm, Khashan wrote about his “great interest” in Stratfor founder George Friedman’s article scrutinizing the CIA, and added, “I am writing this note to express to you my interest in cooperating in this worthwhile effort.” (doc-id 5488035)
A month later, Khashan sent his CV to Sullivan, who in turn passed it on to other senior employees within Stratfor’s Special Operations department. (doc-id 5315732)
While Director of Special Operations Bob Rushing expressed concern over the new recruit’s ability to gain access as an academic, Sullivan assured him: “Khashan has knowledge of Muslim movements and connections with Muslim personalities in Lebanon and elsewhere [in] the Levant.” That seemed to put to rest any doubts over Khashan’s merits as a provider of “human intelligence.” (doc-id 5338445)
The use of the codename ME1 appears to have begun in 2006. Most of these early reports by ME1 concentrated on Lebanon, with a particular focus on Hezbollah.
In one case, ME1 recounted intelligence received through his own informant regarding a “live-fire” incident between the German navy and Israeli jets along Lebanon’s southern coast, which differed from official German and Israeli versions. (doc-id 5338291)
Nevertheless, ME1’s analyses and predictions were mostly generic and occasionally grossly off-the-mark. For example, in response to a question sent by Bhalla on 4 November 2006 regarding Hezbollah’s objectives during the early stages of negotiations with Israel over the release of two captured Israeli soldiers, ME1 predicted: “The negotiations will drag on for a considerable period of time and I am certain that the Israeli soldier held in Gaza will be released first.” (doc-id 5278972)
Hezbollah and Israel agreed to a prisoner swap by 2008, while Hamas and Israel’s prisoner swap occurred only last year. Despite his shortcomings, the relationship between ME1 and Stratfor continued to grow.
With time, ME1’s reports expanded to include insights on Syrian military mobilizations, and political developments within Lebanon, Palestine and Iran. (doc-id 62654, doc-id 62734, doc-id 63303, doc-id 63417, doc-id 63057)
Similarly, ME1’s range of alleged sub-sources in 2008 expanded to include individuals such as the owner of a Beirut-based newspaper, a “Hezbollah” college student, a Fatah military source, a Syrian closely connected to the Assad government through the Makhlouf family, a source closely connected to Saad al-Hariri, and a UNIFIL member from the Finn-Irish Battalion. These sub-sources are what allows Stratfor to claim the plural “sources in Lebanon” in its analysis, though their “insights” are all communicated through ME1.
By 2011, ME1’s claimed sources included a number of Arab diplomats, the Egyptian ambassador in Lebanon, a Lebanese military general, the head of Lebanon’s internal security forces, an international law expert involved in the United Nations Special Tribunal in Lebanon, and more. (doc-id 5430752, doc-id 103613, doc-id 103501, doc-id 103543, doc-id 67951, doc-id 220792, doc-id 3652040, doc-id 282856, doc-id 75432, doc-id 180039, doc-id 944505)
ME1’s identity appeared to be a closely guarded secret, known only to a few within Stratfor.
What's in a Codename?
Equally as abrupt as ME1’s appearance in 2006, references to Hilal Khashan vanished in the emails until 19 March 2008. On this day, Bhalla sent three emails: two to Egyptian professors and one to the Ahram Center. In all three, Bhalla stressed that she was a “close colleague of Hilal Khashan,” seemingly in an attempt to invoke his name to develop connections during her trip to Cairo. (doc-id 75391, doc-id 73724, doc-id 75408)
The emails sent in 2009 offered some more clues to his identity. In response to Burton’s query on how secure Beirut was at the time, ME1 wrote, “I am a resident of Beirut and I see no reason for alarm. I have three young American female students in my seminar and they lead a normal life in Beirut.” (doc-id 5280279)
Other telltale signs arose in emails covering 2010-2011. In early December 2011 Khashan actually visited the firm’s offices in Texas for three days, during which time he met extensively with the company’s heads, (doc-id 2995852) though most of the low-level analysts he met with were unaware that they were standing face-to-face with ME1.(doc-id 3649340)
What finally clinched the link between ME1 and Hilal Khashan was the money trail.
As mentioned earlier, ME1 received a pay increase on 17 October 2011. An email sent by Rob Bassetti, Stratfor’s accounting manager, to Don Kuykendall, Stratfor’s current president and Chief Financial Officer, noted, “[ME1] has been receiving $3000/month for several years as one of our contractors. Meredith mentioned that his role would be expanding, with a lot of work being done for Stratcap.” (doc-id 1423106)
Stratcap, conceived by Stratfor board of directors member Morenz, aims to exploit intelligence gathered worldwide in order to tap into a range of lucrative investments such as government bonds, currencies, and so on within emerging markets.
There are multiple emails – all dated prior to ME1’s pay increase – which show bank transfers from Stratfor’s account at Texas Capital Bank wired directly to Hilal Khashan’s HSBC account in Beirut, each wire amounting to exactly $3,000 either at the very end or beginning of a given month.
For example, a PDF attachment sent on 1 February 2011 detailing Stratfor’s commercial checking account activities shows that Khashan was the only recipient of $3,000. This is correlated with another email sent on 1 March 2011 with a similar PDF attachment listing payments; Khashan once again received exactly $3,000 (doc-id 2821258, doc-id 1428022). Likewise in Stratfor’s departmental budget, where “ME1” is listed on the monthly payroll, he is the only overseas recipient of a $3,000 salary (doc-id 1406671, doc-id 411151).
Based on the email trail above and other email messages, Al-Akhbar has concluded that Hilal Khashan is almost certainly ME1.
He has been a source for Stratfor for more than half a decade, providing much of what Stratfor passes off as “intelligence,” but what appears to be mostly easily accessible Arabic media reports with some generic theorizing thrown in.
Al-Akhbar contacted Khashan regarding these revelations; he adamantly denied that he was an employee of the private intelligence firm.
“I provided articles and gave two lectures, two and four years ago, on Hezbollah and the Arab Spring. I am not an employee [but] I know the people there, including the founder. They offered employment and I turned it down because I did not have time for them,” he told Al-Akhbar. Khashan also stated that he only keeps a casual correspondence with Stratfor’s employees and that the relationship was purely academic.
While he noted that he did visit the firm last December, he added that he had denied their repeated requests for employment and had received a letter from them saying that they were sorry that he did not work for them.
However, the extensive internal correspondence and substantial monthly money transfers appear to contradict Khashan’s claims.
In one regard, Khashan does, however, agree with Al-Akhbar’s assessment of Stratfor: “I do analyses for them. Their IQ is not very high... they know shit about nothing.”