The Dictator's Inbox

Inside the circuitous trail that brought Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's scandalous emails into the public eye.

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."

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images


Of Popes and Potatoes

Can Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Havana offer any hope for the Cuban people?

January 1998 was a moment of discovery and creativity, of unprecedented scenes and audible prayers. John Paul II visited us, and in the Plaza of the Revolution -- ground zero or, better yet, Ground Red for Cuban atheists -- he offered a sermon in which he mentioned the word "freedom" more than a dozen times. But beyond the ritual and liturgy, at the level of the street and ordinary people, life was also tumultuous.

Jokes multiplied -- a veritable avalanche of jests and satirical stories whose protagonists were both the Pope himself and then-president Fidel Castro. Just when we thought our sense of humor had abandoned us, when our smiles had been transformed into grimaces by the economic hardships of the "Special Period" -- that time after the collapse of the Soviet bloc when our economy shrank by a third -- our mockery and laughter were reborn.

Pepito, the eternal mischievous child of our stories, reappeared on the scene, to the surprise of those who thought he had taken off from Cuba's shores during the Rafter Crisis of 1994. With the papal staff on its right and the olive green-clad guerilla on its left, a disheveled little head mocked the human and the divine, the ancient and the immediate.

But now, shortly before Joseph Ratzinger lands on this island, our store of sarcasm seems dry and exhausted. Only one ridiculous and trite joke has been making the rounds -- a crude and stupid quip that explores the similarities between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Vatican, playing off the fact that the Spanish words for "pope" and potato" are the same. The punch line: "Yes, I know, in 50 years they both have produced only four popes/potatoes."

The reference, of course, is to the near disappearance of potato production -- a topic of conversation, rumors, and even extensive reports on state television these days. But the real question is whether our satirical impoverishment is a measure of the low expectations that surround the arrival of the head of the Catholic Church -- if humor, or the lack thereof in this case, is a barometer. Or, better yet, it might reflect the apathy that runs through our society, best summed up by the phrase, "Nothing is going to change, nobody is going to manage to make things change."

At the end of the nineties, Karol Wojtyla inspired us to hope. But now, in 2012, national cynicism conspires against enthusiasm. We already know, for example, that the phrase, "Let Cuba open herself to the world and let the world open itself to Cuba," never became more than the beautiful intention of the Polish pope.

In the nearly 15 years between one papal visit and the other, the Church has gained ground in the public life of our nation. But to do so its hierarchy has had to make concessions that have disappointed some of the faithful, laypeople, and even some hopeful atheists. When priests are asked about the slow and cautious steps the Cuban Church has taken, they always respond with the line, "We have survived two millennia despite worse difficulties, we cannot be rushed now."

But the life of a country, the existence of several generations of its children cannot be cast or built in periods of thousands of years, at the rhythm of an eternally oscillating censor.

John Paul II said, "Man is the primary route that the Church must travel," and the defense of human rights is the cornerstone of that premise. In Cuba, and faced with evidence that civil liberties are prohibited and demonized in other spaces, temples and seminaries need to assume a less cautious role.

The negotiations between the Cuban government and Cardinal Jaime Ortega over the release of political prisoners from the Black Spring crackdown in 2003 were expected to increase the Church's prestige on the island, but they did not. Instead, they raised questions and criticisms, even among the families of those who were released. In part, this was because the Ladies in White, who had spent seven years exerting pressure in the streets to bring their husbands home, did not have a voice at the negotiating table. The Cuban government chose a less uncomfortable interlocutor to deliver the hostages, brushing aside the role of those who had managed to bring it to that point by the sheer weight of their denunciations.

The Pope will arrive in a country where the ecclesiastical hierarchy has expanded its facilities, opened a new seminary, and created a chair for the discussion -- with very select guests -- of social issues. He'll greet a nation where no one is fired from his or her job or expelled from school for reciting the Lord's Prayer, and where official television broadcasts Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and many other homilies.

But he will also find a cardinal who is past the age of retirement, a president who is 80, and a population with a shortage of young people because of emigration and a low birth rate. He will come at a time when the economy is becoming more flexible and the political discourse more radical, a time of commercial expectations and ideological disappointments.

His visit, undoubtedly, will not be preceded by the whirlwind of hope, curiosity, and humor that John Paul II inspired in us. But who knows. Perhaps not even that little Pepito of our jokes can anticipate the surprises Joseph Ratzinger will bring us. As for me, I dream that in the atheist and exclusionary Plaza of the Revolution, he will propose that "Cuba open itself to Cuba."

Franco Origlia/Getty Images