Aug 24, 2016

Continued Examination of Prosecution Investigator Gary Platt on Covert Phone Networks

In the last two days before the Tribunal’s judicial recess, the Prosecution finished its examination of Gary Platt while the Sabra Defense began with its cross-examination. Mr. Platt is a Prosecution investigator who the Trial Chamber designated as an expert witness in covert networks. Consult our previous post on this witness for further information on his qualifications and prior testimony.

[Screenshot of witness Gary Platt testifying before the STL on 26 July 2016]

On 26 July 2016, the Prosecution recommenced its examination of the witness after previously having discussed the setup, initialization, and recharging of the Red Network phones. The Prosecution began by attempting to establish the covert nature of the Red Network (among others) through the witness’s investigatory expertise. Mr. Platt testified that various elements point to the covert and criminal nature of the Red Network. For instance, no subscriber details were provided by the Network purchaser while false identification was supplied by the dealer. Furthermore, the lack of a financial trail led the investigator to conclude that every purchase associated with the phones (including the Network lines, handsets, and SIM cards) were paid for in cash. Additionally, no SMS messages were sent by Red phones, suggesting that the users took many precautions to ensure that their conversations were not recorded.

Mr. Platt testified that the nature of the Red Network’s activity further evidences its covert nature. He said that the phones made calls in a “cohesive and pattern and manner,” usually being switched off when not in use. Furthermore, the phones were not used after the day of the Hariri assassination, suggesting that they were of no use past that date and were only a liability to the covert operation. Approximately 88% of the Red phones’ calls were between other Red Network devices, the rest constituting service calls to Alfa and five misdials. Only three of the misdials were the fault of a Red phone user, thus suggesting that this was a closed network.

The Prosecution presented data uncovered by the witness his investigation that showed the duration of Red Networks calls. Excluding service calls and misdials, 80% of the calls lasted between zero and one minute while the longest did not surpass six minutes. The witness believes that this is another indication of the Network’s covertness as it is his experience that certain criminal enterprises often use telecommunication for short, information-sharing calls. Mr. Platt later stated that the chronology of these short calls further demonstrates that information was passed from one user to the next.

The Prosecution subsequently displayed a visual aid depicting the location of the Red Network calls. The Prosecution discovered that 83% of the calls occurred in the Beirut area, 12% in Zouq Mosbeh and Faraya, and 5% in Tripoli the area. This information is important for identifying Red network activities. Many of the calls occurred in areas around Parliament, Hariri’s residences, and the crime scene. Mr. Platt testified that it was typical for a terrorist cell’s final calls to be made from the crime scene right before the attack, as is the case with the Hariri assassination.

Afterward, the Prosecution expanded the scope of its examination to include the connectivity among all of the identified Networks. Mr. Platt testified that the networks demonstrated coordinated activity periods, and that each paid for their devices and lines in cash. He also said that the Blue and Yellow Networks shared top-up cards and handsets, and that they tended to top-up at the same time and location. Furthermore, the Blue and Green phones initialized in the same area, and the Yellow and Blue phones were present during the Red Network initialization.

Mr. Platt testified about the financing of these networks as well. He stated that approximately $6000 was spent to finance the Green Network, despite its limited usage. The Blue Network, for example, was left with $5000 of unclaimed credit. Similarly, the Red Network retained $500 of credit which was never recovered by a user. According to Mr. Platt, this suggests that the organization maintaining these networks was well-financed, which reveals a high level of coordination. Furthermore, the fact that no one sought to claim the substantial amount of credit that was left on these phones suggests that the users did not want to risk the secrecy of their operation.

Afterward, the Sabra Defense commenced its cross-examination of the witness. Mr. Mettraux’s line of questioning largely followed the same style as his recent cross-examination of Mr. Macleod, where the witness was asked to comment on non-evidentiary documents that were read to him. In the present case, the Sabra Defense accompanied this tactic with an alternate theory of the purpose of the Red Network. Though Mr. Mettraux agrees with the Prosecution in that the so-called Australian Pilgrims were not involved with the Hariri plot, he theorized that they were the targets of a setup by those who were. In a four-pronged approach, the Defense intends to show that 1) there was an effort to set up the Pilgrims, 2) the culprits attempted to tie the Red phones to the Hariri plot, 3) the culprits succeeded in identifying the Pilgrims as suspects, and 4) the Red network lines were allowed to be uncovered for the purpose of the setup. In response to a subsequent question by Judge Re, Mr. Mettraux stated that the Sabra Defence would provide explanations for the purposes of the other phone networks in due course.

Though Mr. Platt repeatedly insisted that he was not familiar with the case of the Australian pilgrims and that he had no knowledge of an investigation into a possible setup, the Sabra Defence continued to put documents to the witness for him to comment upon. Many of these sought to establish the movements of the Pilgrims, putting their place of residence in Lebanon at Minieh, near where the Red Network lines were activated. Furthermore, their residence was near several phone shops that were possible connected to the sale of the Red phones. However, the witness pointed out that it was impossible to trace the ultimate sale of the handsets. Furthermore, Mr. Platt noted that even though the Red phones may have activated the Minieh cell site, this does not mean they were near the Pilgrims’ residence or the phone shops. This is because rural cell sites tend to have a wider coverage.

Additionally, the Defense inquired as to why the assassins purchased a van whose steering wheel was located on the right-hand side of the vehicle, as is the custom in countries such as Australia, rather than the left-hand side (as is typical of Lebanon). The witness could not answer, but Mr. Mettraux suggested that this was another effort to pin the blame on the Pilgrims.

On 27 July, the Sabra Defense recommenced its cross-examination by proposing the theory that the true assassins provided the Red phones to third-parties, tasking them to follow Hariri’s whereabouts and make phone calls amongst each other. This supposedly explains the handset swapping acknowledged by the Prosecution and the lack of nighttime calls.

The rest of the cross-examination largely sought to implicate Lebanese government officials with ties to Syria. By putting further documents to the witness, the Defense sought to establish that the Sûrete Général of Lebanon had access to the Pilgrims’ entry/exit records. Having attempted to show that certain actors within the government had access to the Pilgrims’ whereabouts, the Defence questioned Mr. Platt about how the Red network was originally uncovered. The witness responded that they were discovered by Ghassan Toufaili, the head of the technical department of the Lebanese military intelligence unit. Mr. Mettraux suggested that it was unbelievable that Toufaili could have uncovered this network in merely six weeks’ time. The witness admitted that the Prosecution replicated Toufaili’s investigation using computer software and that they never received evidence of the Lebanese official’s handiwork. The Defense then questioned the witness about the relationship between Toufaili and Rustom Ghazaleh, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon at the time. The two were said to be close friends.

The witness pointed out several oddities within Mr. Mettraux’s working hypothesis. For instance, the Defense was forced to admit that the Pilgrims were in Saudi Arabia during the time of the Red network’s activation. Mr. Platt further observed that if the Lebanese had “infinite access to this [travel] information,” then the assassins would not have chosen individuals who were not in the country. Additionally, it is unclear to the witness how the assassins could have coordinated the bombing location such that it perfectly coincided with the Pilgrims’ departure.

Another odd aspect of this cross-examination is the Defense claim that it is the practice of these groups to blame Sunnis tied to jihadist groups for their attacks. The only example the Defense draws upon for this assertion is the unusual disapperance of Ahmad Abu Adass. Further, by the Defense’s own admission, the Australian Pilgrims bear no responsibility for any terrorist activities. As in the Macleod cross-examination, implicated individuals are cast as “jihadists,” which seem to be very charged terms to use on such tenuous footing.

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