When Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov made a public statement on February 5 that the government linked the July 18, 2012, terror bombing of an Israeli tourist bus to Hezbollah, it was a spectacular development with far-reaching political implications.
This Bulgarian conclusion has significantly increased the pressure on the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. Although the EU had long avoided taking this step, the US and Israel have been pressing hard ever since the Burgas bombing to bring Europe's position on Hezbollah with their stand. Bulgaria's naming of Hezbollah as the culprit appeared to make such a European decision possible.
But was that really what Bulgarian investigators had found? A closer examination of the Bulgarian investigation reveals that the investigators had not, in fact, come to the conclusion desired by Washington and Tel Aviv by mid-January. But the Bulgarian government had to avoid being on the wrong side of the US and Israel on the issue. The result was language that telegraphed the absence of any real evidence of that Shia organisation in the crime, but which served the US-Israeli interests of getting Hezbollah listed as a terrorist organisation.
The chief prosecutor's revelations
Just how little evidence the Bulgarians had with which to make a case against Hezbollah was not clear until the chief prosecutor in charge of the investigation, Stanella Karadzhova, gave an interview to the Bulgarian newspaper 24 Hours on January 1.
Karadzhova revealed that the investigators knew little about the two or possibly three suspects believed to have helped the foreigner who was killed in the bombing, because they had travelled without cellphones or laptops. One link that had been found between two of them, according to Karadzhova, was their "very ordered and simple" lifestyle and the fact that their false identification cards came from the same country. She further revealed that it was surmised that the simple lifestyle could mean that they both had similar training.
The only other clue cited by the chief prosecutor was that both of them had fake Michigan driver's licences that were made in the same country. Karadzhova did not reveal the country, but it was later published that the printer used to make the fake Michigan driver's licences had been traced to Beirut .
Those bits of information obviously proved nothing about the political affiliation of the suspects, but they would eventually become the sole basis for a "hypothesis" that two of the suspects were affiliated with Hezbollah's military wing.
But Karadzhova also revealed a key piece of evidence that clearly contradicts a Hezbollah hypothesis. She told 24 Hours that investigators had found the SIM card that had apparently belonged to the bomber at the scene of the bombing. That evidence should have yielded valuable information on the bomber's contacts before arriving in Bulgaria. But it had not, she explained, because the telecom firm that sold the card had refused to co-operate with the investigation.
The big news, however, was that the telecom firm Maroc Telecom serves essentially the entire North African region. That would connect the bomber to North Africa and thus contradict the Hezbollah hypothesis: Hezbollah has no known operational bases in North Africa, whereas al-Qaeda has a number of organisations operating in the region.
Karadzhova was sacked a few days after the interview was published, ostensibly because the interview had not been approved, but also perhaps because she had revealed information that was not in line with what the conclusion the US and Israel wanted.
Why the investigation was not extended
The initial two-month period planned for the investigation was extended by four months, according to Karadzhova . That period was due to expire on January 18.
The investigators themselves knew very well that they were not ready to render any judgment on who was responsible, and expected that the investigation would be extended. When asked what came next in the investigation, she told 24 Hours that there was "no obstacle to the deadline being extended repeatedly".
But no such extension was announced before or after the additional four-month period had expired, despite the fact that a meeting of the Consultative Council on National Security had been scheduled for January 17 to discuss that issue. By that time, the investigation was already enmeshed in the politics of US-Israeli determination to put pressure on the EU to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group. The focus of that pressure was the meeting of the European Union's foreign ministers on February 18.
The first signs of tension between Bulgaria and the US-Israeli alliance over the issue was Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov's previously unannounced visit to Israel to meet Prime Minister Netanyahu, his National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror and President Shimon Peres. The Israelis were uncharacteristically tight-lipped about those meetings - usually an indication of significant disagreement. After the meetings, Israel's Channel 2 broadcast a report claiming that the Bulgarian report on the Burgas investigation had been given to the Israeli government, that it would be published in five days, and that it would blame Hezbollah for the attack.
That report prompted the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry spokesperson to issue a firm denial , saying, there was "no such report" and that the results of the investigation would be made public once Bulgarian authorities had enough evidence that would stand up in court. Furthermore, Prime Minister Borisov himself confirmed that denial, adding that there would be no Bulgarian statement on the investigation until "indisputable evidence has been discovered".
While Mladenov was in Israel, the Bulgarian weekly 168 hours published an article by one of Bulgaria's leading investigative journalists and the editor of the publication, Slavi Angelov, reporting that one of the suspects in the bombing whose fake IDs had been traced to Beirut had been linked by a "closely allied intelligence service" to a wing of al-Qaeda.
The story was mentioned briefly by the Jerusalem Post, which reported that it cited officials in the Interior Ministry as saying there was no evidence of Hezbollah's involvement in the bombing, and that one of the bomber's suspected Arab accomplices had an al-Qaida connection in the past.
Bulgaria adopts the Hezbollah 'hypothesis'
Although Bulgarian officials denied that they were pressured by the Obama administration on the outcome of the investigation, it is clear that the wording of Bulgaria's report on the investigation was under negotiation with Washington in the second half of January. The Obama administration wanted wording that would leave no one in doubt that Hezbollah was guilty of the crime.
Washington and Sofia eventually agreed on a formulation that was remarkably weak in accusing Hezbollah but was enough for the US and Israel to use to push for listing Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. Far from claiming "indisputable evidence" of Hezbollah's involvement in the bombing, the February 5 statement by Interior Minister Tsvetanov to the Consultative Council on National Security said the investigators had made what was translated either as a " reasonable assumption " or as a " well-founded assumption " that the suspects belonged to Hezbollah's "military formation".
Reflecting just how uncertain the Bulgarian judgment was, the full sentence in which Tsvetanov used that phrase actually used the passive voice and repeated the carefully chosen formulation for emphasis. "A reasonable assumption, I repeat, a reasonable assumption," he said, "can be made that the two of them were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah."
When asked a few days later on a television talk show why he chose to announce the finding of the investigation as "only a guess", Tsvetanov did not dispute that characterisation. This time, he called it a "grounded hypothesis for the complicity of the Hezbollah military wing".
Senior Bulgarian officials didn't have their story straight on when and why the government had adopted its Hezbollah "assumption". Prime Minister Borisov, speaking to press in Brussels on February 7, said he decided to "name Hezbollah" after investigators had found the SIM card at the site of the bombing. That was well before Karadzhova gave the interview on January 1. But when Interior Minister Tsvetanov was asked by reporters after the government assumption was "made clear", he acknowledged that it was only "after the middle of January".
The discovery of the SIM card could not have provided the basis for the Hezbollah hypothesis. It had pointed the investigation toward a region where al Qaeda - not Hezbollah - has strong organisational bases. Borisov obviously wanted to avoid the implication that his government had come under pressure in the final weeks before its announcement to favour that Hezbollah "assumption".
A 'clear and unequivocal' conclusion?
Ignoring the Bulgarian signals that the finding was extremely tenuous at best, the Obama administration used it aggressively to increase the pressure on the EU to list Hezbollah as a terrorist group. A press statement by the new Secretary of State John Kerry declared the finding "clear and unequivocal" in assigning responsibility to Hezbollah. Kerry called on "our partners in Europe" to "take immediate action to crack down on Hezbollah".
John Brennan, Obama's counter-terrorism adviser and choice to be next CIA director, issued a similar statement, declaring that Bulgarian authorities had "announced their judgment that Lebanese Hezbollah was responsible for carrying out this act of terrorism". Brennan called on "our European partners" to "take proactive action... in order to prevent future attacks".
The US and Israel thus continue a pattern of ignoring the actual evidence in high profile terrorism cases in order to advance their political interests in relation to Iran and Hezbollah. That pattern was established nearly two decades ago with the US-Israeli pressure on Argentina to finger Iran in the 1994 AMIA bombing despite the absence of any evidence for such an accusation.
Some EU officials have indicated that they will demand actual evidence before listing Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. If so, it will be the first challenge to US-Israeli insistence on blaming their main regional adversaries for terrorist actions, even when the evidence points elsewhere.
Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian specialising in US national security policy and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism.