BY ISHAAN THAROOR* – The Washington Post
Saudi authorities have spent almost two months obfuscating what happened to slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi. All the while, the White House has played along, seeking to tamp down the outrage over Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and shield Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince linked to Khashoggi’s death.
After first denying any hand in Khashoggi’s disappearance, Riyadh eventually admitted to presiding over his death in what the Saudis said was a botched operation carried out by “rogue” agents. Last week, a Saudi prosecutor announced charges against 11 participants in the plot against Khashoggi, five of whom could face the death penalty. The prosecutor, as well as other prominent Saudi officials, emphasized that the crown prince had nothing to do with the crime.
But that claim took a sharp blow over the weekend, when The Washington Post revealed that the CIA has concluded Mohammed himself ordered Khashoggi’s assassination.
“The CIA’s assessment, in which officials have said they have high confidence, is the most definitive to date linking Mohammed to the operation and complicates the Trump administration’s efforts to preserve its relationship with a close ally,” my colleagues reported. “A team of 15 Saudi agents flew to Istanbul on government aircraft in October and killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate, where he had gone to pick up documents that he needed for his planned marriage to a Turkish woman.”
As a European intelligence official told the Guardian, the CIA’s analysis is “highly damaging to the kingdom’s official narrative.”The agency believes it is unlikely such an operation would have been carried out without the knowledge of MBS, as the crown prince is often called. Scrutiny of audio recordings from inside the consulate in Istanbul as well as intercepted phone calls by Saudi officials — including at least one between a member of the hit squad and a close aide to the crown prince — further cemented their conclusion.
Publicly, both the White House and the State Department distanced themselves from the revelations. “Recent reports indicating that the U.S. government has made a final conclusion are inaccurate,” said Heather Nauert, the State Department’s spokeswoman. “There remain numerous unanswered questions with respect to the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. The State Department will continue to seek all relevant facts.”
Earlier in the week, White House national security adviser John Bolton insisted that the intelligence he had seen did not implicate MBS. Trump, when pressed by reporters again Saturday, said little information had been “assessed” and that his administration would make its position clear on Tuesday. As my colleagues at The Post’s editorial page argued, part of Trump’s reticence may be due to his congenital unwillingness to admit that he was wrong — in this case, in placing such a big bet on MBS as a staunch U.S. ally.
“This is a situation where everyone basically knows what happened,” said a Trump adviser who spoke to my colleagues on the condition of anonymity, indicating that Trump privately seemed to also believe that the crown prince was behind the murder.
“For more than a month, Trump has struggled to balance his interest in maintaining strong relations with the Saudi government with growing pressure in Congress and around the world to punish the Saudi regime,” noted my colleagues. “Trump has told aides that he wants Mohammed to stay in power and that he sees the Saudis as the best strategic check on Iran and as a vital source of oil. Mohammed has a close relationship with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who helps to lead the administration’s Middle East strategy.”
The right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also has publicly come to the defense of the crown prince, who shares Netanyahu’s antipathy toward Iran and reportedly harbors great admiration for Israel’s economic success. In Trump, both the Saudis and Israelis have found an American leader eager to endorse their visions for the Middle East.
Mohammed’s reckless behavior was already the subject of widespread scrutiny. Critics place blame on him for both the ruinous war in Yemen and a sweeping purge of rivals within the royal family and the Saudi business elite. But the death of Khashoggi, a Virginia resident with many influential friends in Washington, has focused attention on how the administration’s own policies have further enabled that recklessness.
Trump’s evasive messaging gave the Saudis room to brush off the latest allegations. “The claims in this purported assessment are false,” Fatimah Baeshen, a spokeswoman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, told my colleagues. “We have and continue to hear various theories without seeing the primary basis for these speculations.”
On Capitol Hill, though, it’s a different story. Lawmakers from both parties are preparing to raise the pressure on Riyadh.
“If he is going to be the face of Saudi Arabia going forward, I think the kingdom will have a hard time on the world stage,” Sen. Lindsay O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Sunday, referring to MBS. “They are an important ally, but when it comes to the crown prince, he is irrational, he is unhinged, and I think he has done a lot of damage to the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and I have no intention of working with him ever again.”
But no matter the negative press, MBS is likely to ride out the storm. Just ask the CIA. “The general agreement is that he is likely to survive,” said a U.S. official who briefed my colleagues. Mohammed’s role as the future Saudi king, the official added, is “taken for granted.”
- The Post’s Shane Harris, Greg Miller and Josh Dawsey first broke the story on the CIA’s assessment:
“In reaching its conclusions, the CIA examined multiple sources of intelligence, including a phone call that the prince’s brother Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, had with Khashoggi, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the intelligence. Khalid told Khashoggi, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post, that he should go to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to retrieve the documents and gave him assurances that it would be safe to do so.
“It is not clear if Khalid knew that Khashoggi would be killed, but he made the call at his brother’s direction, according to the people familiar with the call, which was intercepted by U.S. intelligence…
“The CIA’s conclusion about Mohammed’s role was also based on the agency’s assessment of the prince as the country’s de facto ruler who oversees even minor affairs in the kingdom. ‘The accepted position is that there is no way this happened without him being aware or involved,’ said a U.S. official familiar with the CIA’s conclusions.”
- The Trump administration’s anti-Iran agenda is already leaving its mark, reports my colleague Erin Cunningham:
“New U.S. sanctions on Iranian financial firms, including a bank that until recently handled most payments for Iran’s imports of humanitarian goods, are having a chilling effect on foreign companies that help supply medicine and other medical products, economic analysts say.
“The trade of humanitarian goods is allowed under U.S. sanctions, according to Treasury Department guidelines, permitting Iran to import food, medicine and medical devices without punishment.
“But the far-reaching sanctions on Iranian financial firms reimposed two weeks ago could endanger the flow of humanitarian goods as foreign banks and outside suppliers abandon business ties with their partners in Iran, analysts and experts warn. In recent months, some European banks have refused to process payments even from Iranian firms that are exempt from sanctions out of fear of U.S. penalties, according to people familiar with the transactions.”
- Trump left reporters baffled once more after suggesting that a solution to California’s monstrous, drought-induced wildfires could be found in Finland. The Post’s Avi Selk explains:
“Trump went on to explain that the president of Finland, whom he met on an overseas trip a week earlier, told him about raking the forest floors. ‘He called it a forest nation,’ Trump said, ‘and they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem.’
“Finnish President Sauli Niinisto later disputed this. He told a local newspaper that he had briefed Trump on Finland’s efforts to surveil and care for its forests, the Associated Press wrote, ‘but said he can’t recall anything being mentioned on raking.’”
- The Post’s Eli Saslow has a chilling read about the world of “fake news.” He interviewed a liberal blogger named Christopher Blair, whose overtly satirical posts have nevertheless attracted a huge conservative following:
“He had launched his new website on Facebook during the 2016 presidential campaign as a practical joke among friends — a political satire site started by Blair and a few other liberal bloggers who wanted to make fun of what they considered to be extremist ideas spreading throughout the far right. In the last two years on his page, America’s Last Line of Defense, Blair had made up stories about California instituting sharia, former president Bill Clinton becoming a serial killer, undocumented immigrants defacing Mount Rushmore, and former president Barack Obama dodging the Vietnam draft when he was 9. ‘Share if you’re outraged!’ his posts often read, and thousands of people on Facebook had clicked ‘like’ and then ‘share,’ most of whom did not recognize his posts as satire. Instead, Blair’s page had become one of the most popular on Facebook among Trump-supporting conservatives over 55.
“‘Nothing on this page is real,’ read one of the 14 disclaimers on Blair’s site, and yet in the America of 2018 his stories had become real, reinforcing people’s biases, spreading onto Macedonian and Russian fake news sites, amassing an audience of as many 6 million visitors each month who thought his posts were factual. What Blair had first conceived of as an elaborate joke was beginning to reveal something darker. ‘No matter how racist, how bigoted, how offensive, how obviously fake we get, people keep coming back,’ Blair once wrote, on his own personal Facebook page. ‘Where is the edge? Is there ever a point where people realize they’re being fed garbage and decide to return to reality?’”
*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.