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Lee Smith

In the fall of 2007 Israel reportedly hacked into Syria’s air defense systems and disabled them, as a prelude to bombing a nuclear facility in the Syrian desert. This vaunted cyber exploit, it turns out, might not merit its spectacular reputation. Last week, the shadowy online activist group known as Anonymous penetrated 78 email accounts from Syria’s ministry of presidential affairs and posted their contents online. The hackers found that many of the accounts, including that of the allegedly computer-savvy Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, used one of the world’s weakest passwords: 12345. So much for Syrian cybersecurity.

The hacked emails are a downscale version of the WikiLeaks cables. There is little diplomatic sophistication. In the fashion of third-world Arab nationalist bureaucracies, everyone addresses everyone else as Your Excellency. One Excellency kept a stash of porn in his email account, another Excellency seems to have sexually harassed an attractive Her Excellency. Not surprisingly, many of the Excellencies are fixated on Israel, and any story or—more often—image that reinforces their negative feelings is cc’d to a long list of similarly obsessed Excellencies.

The Mossad was responsible for 9/11, writes Fawaz Akhras, the father of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad, and a London physician. He emails a presidential adviser to say that he has heard his suspicions verified on BBC. The unlucky recipient has to humor him; yes, old man, for the better part of a decade Syria has been telling anyone who would listen that it was the Jews.

There are also few surprises regarding the workings of the presidential palace in Damascus. The place is run by petty bureaucrats whose power rests entirely on the willingness of others to commit acts of terrorism—against either Syria’s neighbors or their fellow Syrians—on their behalf. When the Assad regime at last finds its back against the wall, these are not the sort of figures who will be fighting it out to the end. Rather, they will seek refuge among the many foreign friends they’ve made over the years—the journalists, businessmen, and politicians who solicited their assistance in arranging an audience with President Assad.

For what is most interesting about these emails is the picture they paint of a sick and grasping Western elite, the top echelon of an open society, that came on bended knee to curry favor with a dictatorship. Journalists from the three major U.S. networks vied for exclusive interviews with Bashar, even as the slaughter of unarmed Syrian civilians was under way. Other emails, requests, and meetings preceded the uprising that has cost more than 7,000 Syrians their lives. But even then Assad’s reputation was well known. He probably ordered the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. He turned Damascus International Airport into a hub for foreign fighters seeking passage into Iraq to kill U.S. troops. This was the world leader that American political figures wanted to cozy up to.

The emails show that former Fannie Mae CEO and Obama bundler James A. Johnson and his wife Maxine Isaacs dined out with Assad’s advisers. And former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Clinton White House official Martin Indyk tried to broker a meeting between his old boss and Assad.

The regime’s gatekeeper is Bouthaina Shaaban, a 58-year-old media adviser to Assad. Anyone from Western media or political circles who wants to call on the dictator comes through her. With a Ph.D. in English literature from Warwick University (she’s published on Shelley), she started her political career as Hafez al-Assad’s translator. In August 2011, the former Fulbright scholar, who spent her research year at Duke, was sanctioned by the Treasury Department as one of the “senior Assad regime officials who are principal defenders of the regime’s activities.”

Shaaban’s email cache shows her fine-tuned sense of status. When she’s invited to speak at a panel in Ankara, her assistant requests two seats for her since the flight offers neither first-class nor business. When she finds out she’s not scheduled to deliver the keynote address, she directs her assistant to cancel her appearance. Former CBS anchor Dan Rather requests an interview with Assad in October 2010 for his new HDNet show, but Shaaban tells the Syrian ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha to decline. “You mentioned in your letter that the HDNet station has a limited number of audience and therefore we kindly ask you to apologize.”

Those journalists to whom Shaaban granted access were best friends forever. One exchange features Shaaban and Alix Van Buren—who conducted an interview with Assad for La Repubblica—blowing cyber kisses to each other across the Mediterranean. Who knows what journalistic ethics are like in Rome, but Van Buren’s editors may be surprised to find that Van Buren considers the interview a joint effort to get the Syrian president’s message out to the masses. “Did you notice that Charlie Rose practically copied our interview from top to bottom,” Van Buren writes in an ingratiating email from May 2010. She thanks Shaaban (“you and I, what a team!”) for the lovely presents—Valentino perfume, a jewelry box—and spares nothing in the way of flattery. And yet eventually Van Buren pushes her luck a little too far. She writes Shaaban to request privileged access for a colleague, Gad Lerner, who is planning a trip to Damascus. Lerner, as it turns out, is Jewish. Van Buren furiously pleads his case—he is “independent (i.e., doesn’t belong to any lobby),” he has signed petitions against Netanyahu, and Shabaan should ignore the fact his signature is next to that of Bernard-Henri Lévy—but the Syrian apparatchik has to reject her dear friend’s request. “Many of those signatories,” Shaaban writes, “have indeed a history of strong support for Israel, and their long term aim is to serve the true interests of Israel.”

American journalists flattered the regime as well, but with less luck. In November 2011, more than half a year into the uprising, Brian Williams’s producer at NBC wrote to request an interview, as did Scott Pelley’s producer at CBS’s Evening News a few weeks later. With deaths mounting by the hour, it was quite a feeding frenzy last fall. Bob Simon’s producer at 60 Minutes sought an advantage. He reminded his Syrian correspondent that “60 Minutes interviewed President Hafez al-Assad back in the 1970s.” After a few paragraphs of boilerplate PR for his show (“For the last 43 years, it has featured stories on the most important newsmakers of our time…”), the producer signs off, “We would be most honored to have President al Assad on our program.” God only knows what Barbara Walters’s staff wrote to actually get her prized interview with Assad in December—those missives weren’t leaked.

The hacked emails show how Assad’s advisers sought to prep him for the Walters interview. Sheherazad Jaafari, a press attaché at the Syrian mission to the United Nations, and daughter of Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Dr. Bashar Jaafari, boasted of her research into American media. Her advice was to turn any accusations directed at Assad back on American policymakers. For instance, when asked about torturing civilians, Assad should remind the viewing audience about Abu Ghraib, and explain that “Syria doesn’t have a policy to torture people, unlike the USA, where there are courses and schools that specialize in teaching policemen and officers how to torture.” She contends that “the American Psyche can be easily manipulated.”

In fact, only a small number of Americans are susceptible to the Syrian regime’s hamfisted propaganda, but on the evidence of the emails, they never needed to be manipulated.

“Dear Bouthaina, I hope this finds you well,” writes Martin Indyk in May 2010:

“Some close friends of mine will be visiting Damascus from May 25-29, for tourism. However, they are influential people in Washington and I think that you and Walid [presumably Walid Mouallem, Syrian foreign minister] would benefit from meeting them and they would certainly benefit from meeting both of you. Jim was Chief of Staff to Vice President Walter Mondale in the Carter Administration. He has also served as Chairman of the Brookings Institution. I have appended his resume so that you will get a fuller picture. Put simply, he is very influential in the Obama White House and in the Democratic Party.”

Jim, or James A. Johnson, was an Obama bundler who was also part of the vetting committee for Obama’s vice president. The Wikipedia entry appended to the email explained that Johnson withdrew “when it was reported that he had received loans directly from Angelo Mozilo, the CEO of Countrywide Financial, a company implicated in the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis.” The entry also shows that Johnson was the CEO of Fannie Mae when it “improperly deferred $200 million in expenses. This enabled top executives, including Johnson…to receive substantial bonuses in 1998.” Who knows why Indyk included a record of Johnson’s misdeeds. Maybe he was just trying to put Shaaban at ease—Johnson wasn’t one of these self-righteous Washington crusaders, but someone with plenty of political enemies of his own, just like the regime in Damascus.

It was Johnson’s wife, Maxine Isaacs, who later thanked Shaaban for the hospitality in Damascus:

“Dear Bouthaina,

I can’t thank you enough for the fun, interesting and most memorable dinner last night. We had a wonderful time and are most grateful to you for taking time from your incredibly busy schedule to spend it with us. We loved the restaurant and will never forget the megnificent [sic] view of your magnificent city. We all hope one day to have the privilege of returning your hospitality in Washington and Los Angeles. Again, with thanks…

Sincerely, Maxine Isaacs, 

Lecturer on Government,
Associate, Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy,
Harvard University”

Shaaban replies in kind to the Harvard lecturer:

“It only goes to show that it is not very difficult to make the world a better place for every one. We have been trying, and I am now even more inspired to continue. Please stay in touch and come back again for a longer vacation.”

Indyk’s efforts to get President Clinton to visit Damascus in November 2009 came up empty. He wrote Shaaban about a delegation of U.S. officials that he was taking to Jerusalem for the annual Saban Forum of the Brookings Institution, where Indyk is the director of the foreign policy program, and he proposed a stop in Damascus along the way: “I’m sure you will agree that first hand exposure to the views of President Assad—especially before they hear the views of the Israeli leadership—would do much to enhance their understanding of Syria’s approach to strategic issues in the region at a critical moment.”

Not surprisingly, Shaaban was receptive, as was her boss. “I am glad to let you know that President Assad also welcomed the idea of receving [sic] President William Clinton and the accompanying delegation.”

A month later, Indyk explains to Shaaban that Clinton has decided not to go to Damascus. Shaaban then takes her revenge. She writes that Indyk’s delegation will not meet with Assad; nor will they even enjoy the privilege of meeting with Shaaban or Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem. It’s not clear if Clinton backed out—perhaps sensing that a meeting with Assad, after he’d already met with North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, was a fasttrack to Jimmy Carterdom—or if Indyk had invoked the possibility of the former president’s participation to get access for the rest of the group.

In any case, among all the Americans who wanted comity with the Syrian regime, it would be unfair to single out Indyk for censure. He has long been an advocate of the Syria-Israel track of the peace process. And yet he was sensible enough to back off in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination, when the Bush administration, along with France and Saudi Arabia, isolated Assad. In attempting to set up a meeting between Clinton and the Syrian president, he was probably responding to the new dynamic put in place by the Obama administration. The White House wanted to engage the Syrians, and Indyk wanted a piece of the action.

The fact remains that long before Bashar al-Assad turned his army, security services, and paramilitary gangs against Syrian civilians, long before the death toll climbed into the thousands, the blood on his hands was there for anyone with eyes to see. Damascus supported Hezbollah and Hamas, which committed terrorism against Israel; it waged a campaign of assassinations and bombings against Lebanon’s beleaguered democrats; it supported insurgents in Iraq who targeted American troops.

In spite of all that, Americans who should have known better petitioned this bloody regime for favors and friendship. With its policy of engaging Assad, the Obama White House set the tone: It is small wonder the administration has no policy to get rid of him.

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