Inside the circuitous trail that brought Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's scandalous emails into the public eye.
- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
How do emails from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s personal inbox escape the narrow confines for which they were intended, and eventually get exposed to the light of day? It’s a story that was born in the presidential palace in Damascus, bounced southeast to Al Arabiya’s bureau in Dubai’s sleek Media City, traveled the 3,400 miles west to the Guardian‘s offices in London — and even made a brief stopover in Foreign Policy‘s Washington office.
From late May 2011 until Feb. 7, Syrian activists had been monitoring the personal emails of Assad, his wife Asma, and a small clique of advisors in real time. According to the activists, they quietly used that information to warn their friends of upcoming actions by the Syrian regime against them. But on Feb. 5, the hacker group Anonymous hacked into the Syrian Ministry of Presidential Affairs and released into the public sphere the names and passwords of the accounts that the activists had been watching.
FP reported on the release of two emails uncovered by Anonymous. One of FP‘s blog posts was reprinted in Arabic by the opposition news source All4Syria, a website run by Syrian dissident Ayman Abdel Nour, a former friend of Assad from their days in university. According to one of the Syrian activists involved in monitoring the leak, a reader sent an angry message to the president’s email address soon after the All4Syria story was released — and the addresses that the activists had been monitoring for months went dead soon after. At that point, they decided to seek out media outlets to publish the more than 3,000 pages of emails they had culled from the personal accounts of the very top figures of the Assad regime.
The coverage of the email cache has focused on the tawdry details: the picture of a near-naked woman in the president’s inbox, Asma’s penchant for crystal-studded Christian Louboutin high heels, and the eclectic taste in music revealed by Assad’s iTunes purchases. Less well understood is the daunting array of obstacles — ranging from questions about the email cache’s authenticity to the political and cultural sensitivities of the Middle East — that had to be overcome before the trove was published. And that’s a story of the circuitous routes that information often takes in the Middle East before it is revealed.
Weeks after the emails came to light, Syria watchers are still mulling what they tell us about the nature of the Assad regime. David Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University who wrote a biography of the Syrian president, described the irony of the fact that Assad did appear to be willing to take advice from young, Western-educated advisors — but they often counseled him to take an ever more intransigent line.
"Of the ones I’ve seen, they’re very much advising him in his speeches to say things that are traditionally authoritarian," he said. "One of the old guard could have said those things."
Upon receiving the emails, the Guardian and Al Arabiya began conducting largely similar efforts to verify their authenticity. Both outlets sorted through the thousands of emails, cross-checking the events and details mentioned in them with the news from the period. In London, the Guardian staff was able to compile a list of over a dozen individuals named in the emails for whom it had contact information. The staff was able to reach 12 people from that list, all of whom confirmed that their emails in the cache were authentic or that they remembered corresponding with the addresses in question.
The presence of photographs, videos, and even a birth certificate of an Assad family member in the cache helped convince the Guardian that the emails were, in fact, legitimate. "It would be possible to fake it up to that point, but it would take an enormous intelligence agency-style operation to put it together," said Charlie English, the head of international news at the newspaper.
The verification process was the most nerve-racking period for the Syrian activists who had leaked the cache. They had spent months reading Assad’s emails after receiving the usernames and passwords from a member of the regime, and they were convinced of the emails’ authenticity. But they were forced to wait while the news outlets conducted their own checks.
In Al Arabiya’s Dubai headquarters, the problem was not only verifying the emails but navigating the political and cultural sensitivities of the region. The network, which was founded by members of the Saudi royal family, published a story that it was declining to reveal the "scandalous" emails of the Assad family and would only feature emails directly related to the yearlong crisis in Syria.
But other emails raised potential political issues: In one of the most important exchanges, the daughter of the Qatari emir, Mayassa al-Thani, offers the Assads asylum in Doha. While Al Arabiya published the emails mentioning the princess’s name, its story only refers to her as "the daughter of a Gulf royal ruler" and a figure who "appeared to be from Qatar."
Far from being concerned about being scooped by a rival outlet, Al Arabiya actually welcomed the Guardian’s efforts to publish stories from the email cache before it did. The British newspaper’s work gave Al Arabiya the cover to report on the story, while inoculating itself from charges that it was revealing the private correspondence of an Arab ruler.
"Let me be frank on that. There are security concerns," said an Al Arabiya editor. "That’s why we were happy that the Guardian published it. And even at first, we aired six TV episodes — each of half an hour, summarizing the emails. And in the first one and the second one, we gave the credit [for the information] to the Guardian, just because of the very fact that they went before us."
There is evidence that the Syrian regime and its allies did try to prevent reports about the cache from reaching its citizens, as well as people throughout the Middle East. The Guardian‘s website was reportedly blocked in Syria shortly after it revealed the story, while Al Arabiya’s frequency on the Egyptian satellite communications company Nilesat, which the station uses to reach the majority of its viewers throughout the Arab world, was jammed for up to an hour at a time for several days.
The network has previously accused the Syrian regime of blocking its broadcasts, but this time it believed the Syrians had help. "It is jamming coming often from Iran and sometimes from Syria," the Al Arabiya editor said.
Information about Middle Eastern governments, of course, leaks all the time. But never before have thousands of personal emails from an Arab ruler been released into the public sphere. This fact, along with the intensely personal nature of many of the emails, convinced the news outlets that tackled this story that they needed to be handled with the utmost care.
"If you are in Switzerland or in the United States and someone reveals a story that will embarrass somebody else, that somebody else can go to the court and the law will be the judge," the Al Arabiya editor explained. "In a place like Syria, where there has never been any rule of law … they wouldn’t agree to appear to respond to the story. It is news about a regime that has no hesitation to kill an opponent just because they are not happy with that opponent. And because these are the emails of the president, we became cautious that they may go that far."