The Special Tribunal for Lebanon concluded its proceedings for 2015 Wednesday with defense attorneys casting aspersions on the judgment of a prosecution analyst, contending she had made unwarranted assumptions from the evidence.
Nicole Blanch gave evidence relating to her analysis of communications between Sami Issa and one of his former bodyguards. Prosecutors allege that Issa was actually a cover identity assumed by defendant Mustafa Badreddine, a senior Hezbollah military commander. He and four other men linked to the organization are being tried in absentia for the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. The late prime minister was killed in central Beirut when a massive car bomb was detonated next his motorcade. Twenty-one other people were killed in the blast, more than 200 were wounded.
Prosecutors contend Badreddine was the primary coordinator of the attack, and used the Sami Issa identity for years to conduct surveillance and other operations without arousing suspicion. In recent weeks, a series of employees, friends, bodyguards and other people who knew Issa have been called to testify to describe his appearance, behavior and activities.
Blanch, who worked as an analyst for the Australian Federal Police before joining the STL in 2009, gave testimony on a sworn statement she made summarizing her analysis of telecommunications data and SMS text messages between Issa and a man named Jad. In it, she identified him as one of Issa’s drivers and bodyguards, citing a witness statement from another former bodyguard.
But the witness had not identified Jad as a driver in the statement. This factual error was seized upon by defense counselor Iain Edwards, who is representing the interests of Badreddine. Blanch testified that other witnesses have identified Jad this way, indeed a number of witnesses before the court have used the terms “driver” and “bodyguard” interchangeably, but the mistake was obvious, and Edwards exploited the opening to cast doubt on her professionalism and methodology.
Jad’s identification as a driver potentially carries importance in the establishment of patterns of colocation and the attribution of phone numbers to Issa. According to other witness testimony, Issa usually drove himself, but was followed by security in a second car.
Edwards particularly attacked inferences Blanch drew from text messages between Issa and Jad. She testified that from their content, Jad appeared to have an association and responsibility for Issa’s cars, and met him at designated locations to report for work.
Edwards insisted that too much was being extrapolated from the content of the messages, contending they were open to any number of interpretations and reflected nothing about Jad’s employment. He insinuated her statement may have been influenced by unrelated material gleaned from other investigators, and revealing underlying bias rather than sound analytical work. “I’m suggesting that you’re reading into this SMS because it supports an initial theory of Jad. I’m suggesting that you’ve made your mind up before you’ve made the analysis,” he charged.
Edwards also cast doubt on the attribution of the number, made by another witness, and criticized the lack of specificity in data used to track the movements of the phone, arguing it was far too imprecise to infer any colocation at all of the phones attributed to Jad and Issa.
But Blanch defended her analysis, contending that the samples presented to court were representative of a larger group of messages that were consistent and indicative. “As I said before,” she told the court, “individual SMS never conclude something alone, you have to take them in their entirety.”
One of the major difficulties facing prosecutors is the ability to illustrate the patterns they claim have emerged from enormous amounts of reconstructed telecommunications data. “I believed I’ve used sources that are referenced, [that] are evidence or will become evidence ... the conclusions I’ve drawn are not overstepping what I’ve referenced,” Blanch said.
Following the conclusion of cross-examination, Presiding Judge David Re thanked tribunal staff for their hard work and wished everyone a happy new year. The STL is scheduled to resume on Jan. 12, 2016.