Monday, December 26, 2011

Mitch Prothero and his Hizbullah source

I wrote yesterday about Mitch Prothero claim that a Hizbullah security official admitted to him--to him for some reason--that, yes, Hizbullah has been hunting Syrian dissidents in Lebanon.  I expressed total disbelief at that story and noted the trend that some Western journalists have been attributing various unbelievable quotations to Hizbullah "official sources".  I mean, I won't be surprised if Prothero tomorrow quotes a Hizbullah official to the effect that "Hizbullah is a lousy terrorist organization and should be exterminated" or that Hizbullah wants to make peace with Israel.  Prothero (with whom I have communicated in the past), responded angrily and sent me obscene insults.   I don't wish to embarrass him by citing that email since he later apologized to me about his outburst.  He did not want me to cite from our private communications so he agreed to answer a few questions.  I sent him three and he answered them.  I did not say that he is lying: I think that he, like other Western journalists, are duped: either by people who are sent out by Hariri family press office for purposes of deception, or duped by local street thugs who are looking for extra cash or something else. I did not change my view after communicating with Prothero.  I believe that a real Hizbullah security official would not talk to the press: not to Prothero and not to someone else.  That organization is not run like Fath or like Amal movement.  Here are Prothero's answers:

"OK, Mitch: here are the questions:
How do you know that the Hizbullah security person is a Hizbullah security person?
Well they've arrested me a few times (briefly), so it pretty obvious when a guy on a motorbike, carrying a handheld radio, shows up and politely asks me to come with him to a Hizbollah office, where their security guys check out my cameras, mobile phone and passport. That's a good sign. 

But in terms of reporting access, it's taken years for me to meet some of these guys. Frankly it's far harder to get decent access to Hizbollah than it is to the Taliban , Hamas, or even in some cases al Qa'eda type guys. They really don't like to talk to journalists. But the people I do know, I've been introduced by mutual friends who approach them to see if they'd be willing to sit and talk with me. Many refuse. But some do end talking to be a little bit about certain aspects of the Islamic Resistance. And while they do maintain an impressive level of operational security, they're also very well known people in their neighborhoods. There's a particular juice stand in Dahiya where members of the Special Forces unit for Beirut meet up virtually every night -- when they're not off training -- and sit and socialize. Everyone in the neighborhood knows who they are and what they do. They're a secretive organization certainly, but since the 2006 war, it seems like there are an awful lot more of them around the southern suburbs and they maintain a more obvious presence these days then ever before. It is true that sometimes journalists can be tricked by a fixer or source into thinking they're interviewing some insurgent, when in reality it's just some guy. But that happened more in Iraq than here in Lebanon. It's a small country, if I get introduced to some fighter and he's willing to chat -- and again, they hardly reveal the inner most details of the group - it can be readily apparent that he's for real, if only because everyone in the neighborhood knows the guy. Or he's in one of there little offices scattered around Dahiya. These can be in buildings but more often than not it's nothing more than a shipping container with a TV playing al Manar and people making coffee and tea while they boys sit around waiting to be called up or even go out on patrol. So while they were a completely anonymous band of guerillas during the time of the Israeli occupation, today they're about five times as large in terms of manpower and they have to maintain something of a public presence in the areas where they live. In the case of the particular commander I quoted in the piece for FP, I've literally seen him work during funerals and events such as Ashura. He commands about 300 men in two squares and it was obvious he was in charge of a lot of the men running security at the events. I put a lot of effort into making sure the people I talk to are really who they say they are. Even one mistake on something like that would damage my credibility as a journalist and if have any doubts, I don't use the material in a story. I have other ways that I have verified that guys are real, but I also can't say too much as these sources are obviously breaking rules to talk to me and I owe them some protection. It's the worst part of this sort of reporting, at the end of the day, a reader has to look at my body of work my experience in the region and decide if the interview is legit based off my reputation. One mistake like this would ruin me.  
2) Why would a Hizbullah security person talk to you?
I frequently ask myself that same question. And I am always aware that a source like that can have a job-related motive. In the case of one source, he's literally tasked with collecting intelligence in Beirut. By meeting with me and feeding me some small tidbits of information, he's probably learning more about me and other western journalists than I am about him. But while they are literally the most secretive group I've ever encountered, the group is still made up of human beings. Some guys will talk because they think the media paints an unfair picture of them and they're proud of what they do and trust me to be fair. And some people simply like to talk about their jobs, although those types are rare. Still others are people I've known for years and over time they've decided to trust me on some level. I wouldn't go as far to say that I'm 'friends' with some of these guys, but I'll bet a few of them would say that about me. They're also an incredibly confident bunch and most of the guys I speak with withhold a lot of information but only tell me stuff that won't hurt the party. They don't think that any story I write could really hurt them, and they're right. they don't tell me that sort of stuff. Actually to be fair, in the dozens of conversations I've had with military wing fighters over the last five or so years, I can't think of one thing anyone ever told me that would hurt the group. Anything having to do with weapons systems, military capability, strategy etc, they'll never talk about. ever.  
3) in your experience, are Hizbullah cadres and security people mentally impaired and often say things that are wildly damaging to the party line represented by Hasan Nasrallah? 

Well I reject the premise of that question. The quote you take exception with in my last story for FP was not wildly damaging to the party line. The story certainly didn't make them look good, but I doubt very much that Hasan Nasrallah would deny that Hizbollah's internal security is working over time to monitor weapons smugglers sending equipment to Syria or monitoring Salafi Jihadists that might pose a threat to the internal security of not just the party, but Lebanon as a whole. They closely monitor everyone living in their areas particularly foreigners. and if they decided that someone was doing something dangerous from a security standpoint, they'll arrest them. I cant imagine why anyone would think that's damaging to the party and the source who told me that was trying to make the point that Hizbollah is NOT conducting kidnappings or harassment of Syrian dissidents. So he told me what they are doing to give my story some balance, he knew it was going to include the Sunni/Hariri perspective and he wanted the chance to deny it. I gave him that opportunity but as I said in the piece, I'm not sure the math supports his claim.

So are they mentally deranged? Absolutely not. They're the most competent organization I've ever encountered in the Middle East. As I said before, I've never heard someone say anything that went against party policies. Yes some people have broken the rules to talk to me, but even those conversations have been fairly bland and quite often useless for my stories. But as I said above, they're proud of their group and its accomplishments. And if there's a way to show me some of the things they've achieved in the past, such as taking me on a tour of Wadis in the south where they used to mount operations against the Israelis, they see it as harmless as those positions have long been abandoned. But do they invite me to training camps, or take me to operational military areas? not in a million years."