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The Problem With the Declassified Report on Khashoggi’s Death
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The Problem With the Declassified Report on Khashoggi’s Death

It presents little new evidence and is unlikely to appease critics of Mohammed bin Salman.

On February 25, new Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines declassified an assessment blaming Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Khashoggi was, of course, the Saudi dissident and U.S. resident who was brutally executed in Istanbul, Turkey, in early October 2018. 

Bin Salman, a young royal commonly known by his initials, MBS, was immediately suspected of ordering Khashoggi’s grisly assassination. Turkish reports say Khashoggi was dismembered with a bone saw. To date, no one has really offered a credible alternative explanation for Khashoggi’s demise. Everyone knows the Saudis did it. The Trump administration even sanctioned 17 Saudis for their alleged roles in the killing.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration downplayed suspicions of MBS’s personal guilt. For instance, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed in late November 2018 that there was “no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi.” It appears that Pompeo wanted to sidestep the issue of MBS’s role in the name of maintaining friendly relations with the Saudi Kingdom.

The ODNI’s assessment is intended to undercut Pompeo’s claim of ambiguity. The document bluntly states: “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

There’s just one problem: The document doesn’t include any intelligence showing MBS’s direct role. Even the summary line quoted above introduces a hint of ambiguity, as MBS could have approved a “capture” operation of some sort.  

Now, let me make this clear: I’m not advocating on behalf of MBS. If I had to bet my house on the matter, I’d wager that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s murder. 

There was an attempt to lionize MBS in the press early on in the Trump administration. MBS granted interviews with influence peddlers, and his spinmeisters planted favorable stories in the American media. But none of the U.S. officials I spoke with at the time bought into the hype. One official I trust referred to MBS as “a modern-day Caligula.” 

While lacking new evidence, the ODNI’s assessment is logical. As the ODNI points out: MBS controls “decisionmaking in the Kingdom,” members of his “protective detail” and his “key adviser” were directly involved in Khashoggi’s killing, and MBS “has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations.” The last observation makes it “highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.” Keep in mind that Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. It is simply inconceivable that an official diplomatic establishment would be used without approval from the highest authority in the Kingdom—and that person is MBS. 

In other words, it is highly likely that MBS did in fact order, if not directly oversee, the murder of Khashoggi. Still, the ODNI assessment doesn’t add much, if anything, new in this regard. We already knew the facts contained within it. You can piece together as much from public reporting. 

For instance, the ODNI’s newly released assessment names 18 Saudi individuals who “participated in, ordered, or were otherwise complicit in or responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi on behalf of Muhammad bin Salman.” But at least 17 of these individuals—including MBS’s “key adviser,” Saud al-Qahtani—were already designated by the Trump administration under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act in November 2018. That is, they were publicly fingered for their role in Khashoggi’s murder just several weeks after the fact. “The Saudi officials we are sanctioning were involved in the abhorrent killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” Steven Mnuchin, then the treasury secretary, said at the time. Mnuchin called on the Saudi government to “take appropriate steps to end any targeting of political dissidents or journalists.”

As for MBS’s personal culpability, however, the ODNI’s assessment is peppered with phrases that fall well short of new, direct evidence. The ODNI observes some basic facts about how the Saudi Kingdom works. The ODNI’s analysts logically place MBS at the center of the circle of individuals who killed Khashoggi and conclude that they wouldn’t have acted without the crown prince’s approval. Fair enough. But there is no new intelligence here. 

If all of these facts were already well-known, then why did the Biden administration release the ODNI’s assessment? 

Some in Washington and elsewhere have been clamoring for the U.S. government to do more to hold MBS personally accountable. There is likely a mixed bag of motivations in play. Human rights activists have legitimate criticisms of MBS’s track record, including the killing of Khashoggi. Other, foreign-linked parties have a different agenda. After all, Khashoggi himself was a complicated character. 

Khashoggi once knew Osama bin Laden and even lamented the terror master’s death in 2011. In a tweet, he portrayed bin Laden as someone who gave into “hatred” after their time together in the 1980s. But the al-Qaeda founder was always an Islamist and an extremist. Khashoggi also had his own “Islamist sympathies,” as the New York Times put it. The Times added that Khashoggi joined the Muslim Brotherhood earlier in his life, and though he “stopped attending” meetings, “he remained conversant in its conservative, Islamist and often anti-Western rhetoric, which he could deploy or hide depending on whom he was seeking to befriend.”

In some of his tweets, Khashoggi expressed anti-Semitic, conspiratorial views. And then there were his ties to Qatar. Although Khashoggi formerly ran in elite Saudi circles, he eventually sided with the kingdom’s rivals. Saudi Arabia had an extensive feud with Qatar during the Trump years, and Khashoggi’s writings in the Washington Post neatly fit Qatar’s agenda. 

As the Washington Post itself reported in late 2018: 

Perhaps most problematic for Khashoggi were his connections to an organization funded by Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis, Qatar. Text messages between Khashoggi and an executive at Qatar Foundation International show that the executive, Maggie Mitchell Salem, at times shaped the columns he submitted to The Washington Post, proposing topics, drafting material and prodding him to take a harder line against the Saudi government. Khashoggi also appears to have relied on a researcher and translator affiliated with the organization, which promotes Arabic-language education in the United States.

In response to this revelation, the Washington Post’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, argued that regardless of his problematic Qatari connection, Khashoggi demonstrated “independence” in his writings. But in his column for the Post, Khashoggi continued to advocate on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood—an extremist organization with a sordid history and cozy ties to Qatar. Khashoggi portrayed the Muslim Brotherhood as a force for democracy in Egypt and throughout the broader Middle East. A version of this argument was popular in Washington foreign policy circles in 2011 and 2012. It was always a dubious political theory, which relied on a cherry-picked collection of evidence regarding the group’s statements and behavior. However, by 2018, when Khashoggi was writing in the Post, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had lost any credibility as a real force for democracy. 

The Brothers won power following the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. A military coup ended their rule and Mohamed Morsi’s presidency in 2013. In the interim, the Brothers’ totalitarian agenda became clear. As Eric Trager documents in his masterful book, Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days, Egypt “was never likely to progress toward inclusive, let alone liberal, democracy under the Brotherhood’s rule,” because the Islamists simply couldn’t “tolerate criticism.” Trager documents the Brotherhood’s autocratic moves throughout Morsi’s short-lived reign. It is impossible to square Trager’s impeccable research with Khashoggi’s broad claims about the group’s supposedly democratic intentions. It is obvious that some Islamists are simply willing to use the ballot box—one time—to acquire power for themselves and their ideology. This doesn’t make them a force for moderation. 

None of this justifies Khashoggi’s murder or is a defense of MBS—not in the least. And the U.S. government should regularly reexamine its partnerships and alliances, including ties to Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration is doing that, but MBS’s critics are unlikely to be satisfied. 

In addition to releasing the ODNI’s assessment, the Biden administration announced a new “Khashoggi ban,” which restricts the travel of individuals suspected of targeting dissidents abroad and prohibits them from entering the U.S. 

There were 76 Saudis included on the initial list of banned individuals. 

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.