Wissam al-Hassan and the Information Branch
By: Ibrahim al-Amin
Published Wednesday, August 29, 2012
The behavior of the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) in the Michel Samaha case is no different than in any other. This agency operates as part of a political venture. It successfully dealt a powerful head-punch to its opponents. It was a master-stroke, as they say. The professionals on the other side faulted Samaha and his accomplices in Syria, but they raised their hats to the Information Branch – even if some continue to claim it all had less to do with the efforts of Wissam al-Hassan and his outfit than the expertise of foreign intelligence agencies.
The debate about the judicial and security merits of what happened is unimportant. This was a controlled game, in which entrapment played a big part. That is apparent from the nature of the questions put to Samaha by the informer Milad al-Kfouri, according to the transcripts of his interrogation and conversations (leaked on the orders of ISF chief Ashraf Rifi, and perhaps by his office, as the latest information from the probe into the affair indicates). Yet regardless of the many questions that remain unanswered, Samaha committed a fatal blunder. He is the cause of what happened to him, and of the damage sustained by his political allies.
Whenever the Information Branch strikes, we are taken back to the debate about its establishment as a state security agency. Its existence was justified in terms of the country’s political composition. It posthumously fulfilled Rafik al-Hariri’s dream of creating a paramilitary security force under his control in his capacity as the Sunni sect’s representative in the state. Its critics from the same sect want it to remain effective, but in their service. Its other critics increasingly treat it as a hostile force and a tool for sabotage, and want to get rid of it. Thus the political debate continues.
Which takes us back to the person of Wissam al-Hassan.
Hassan is no ordinary officer in the security forces. He represents the political faction that appointed him to the position. His special status is due to several reasons, including that he was one of Rafiq al-Hariri’s chief aides. He also has detailed information about most if not all the figures in and around the Future Movement camp, and the forces and figures that joined it after Hariri’s assassination. He has been able to find out more about the latter, including intimate details. He has also, for a variety of reasons, been able to strengthen his position as an interlocutor with regional and other foreign intelligence agencies. He can now claim to have links with most of the world’s security agencies, including those considered to belong to the axis that Hassan and his political camp oppose.
Hassan is not a new phenomenon in Lebanon. Like others from a political-security background, he has enough cover to be able to operate with considerable freedom. He also has official cover, which effectively spares him from being scrutinized. Even when a mistake is made, he finds the people to afford him the necessary protection.
Hassan’s relationship with former state prosecutor Said Mirza enabled him to do things the heads of the other security agencies could not. This was not due to any political or personal affinity between the two men, but in line with the political reality that governed their work. Accordingly, the Information Branch has recently had to make some changes to the way it functions. The new acting state prosecutor, Judge Samir Hammoud, does not differ radically in political terms, but has his own somewhat different personality. That obliges Hassan and his security team to bide their time while the picture unfolds. A new permanent state prosecutor is supposed to be appointed soon, but there are still differences within governing circles over the matter.
As far as Hassan is concerned, however, this is merely a matter of practicalities, nothing more. For he has succeeded – due to other reasons – in securing sufficient cover from Prime Minster Najib Mikati, even though both men know where the other is coming from. Hassan does not trust the prime minister, but views him as a representative of the rival camp. Mikati is unconvinced of Hassan’s loyalty to him even in his capacity as head of government. But the government’s complicated structure, and his own regional and international relationships, have prevented Mikati from taking a decision for which the March 8 coalition has been hoping since the government was formed: to relieve Hassan of his duties and appoint a replacement, in the hope of making the Information Branch function by rules different to those to which it is subject today.
In general, Hassan behaves in accordance with this public position. His stature increasingly exceeds that of his job. He has a substantial media profile, and has acquired a network of collaborators within major institutions. He also has many years experience of managing assistance budgets in furtherance of the political role assigned to the Information Branch. Thus Hassan does not fear being purged unless the underlying power-structure that rules Lebanon undergoes a complete upheaval.
The problem, here, is not with Hassan continuing to operate in accordance with his convictions. It is that his adversaries from the opposing axis have been unable to present their own version of him. Until then, March 8 activists and leaders had best beware.
Ibrahim al-Amin is editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.