Warning: This post mentions violent content
PARIS—The documents have been handed over by the Trump administration ever so slowly. There may be hundreds of thousands to sift through, and at the rate things are going, as a federal judge has pointed out, that could take at least eight years. So far, after more than nine months, only a couple of thousand pages have been culled from the intelligence community, the Defense Department, the Justice Department, and the State Department, released reluctantly under the Freedom of Information Act. And most of those pages are blanked out.
The subject is the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and columnist for The Washington Post. He was killed and butchered—literally butchered, his head cut off, his joints severed—in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, one year ago on October 2. And ever since, the Saudi government and the Trump administration have insisted that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, was oblivious to the plot. Never mind that it was carried out by a well organized and well resourced hit team composed of people from the prince’s entourage.
We know from multiple reports in the press that the Central Intelligence Agency knew better; that it judged with “medium to high confidence” that MBS personally targeted Khashoggi, whose dissident opinions and influential contacts had made him seem a threat to the Saudi state as MBS wants it ruled, which is to say, with absolute power.
But it is clear the CIA is not going to part with that damning report any time soon, so I asked Amrit Singh with the George Soros-funded Open Society Justice Initiative, who has spearheaded the fight for the documents, the most important thing to be learned from them thus far.
“What the documents reveal,” she said bluntly, “is that the Trump administration’s cover-up of the murder continues.”
Bleeding the Corpse
Other sources have yielded graphic details of the killing and listed the participants, drawing heavily on recordings the Turkish government made with bugs placed in the consulate.
The most complete and reliable public account so far is the report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary killings, Agnès Callamard, published last June. But over the weekend, the BBC aired an interview with Baroness Helena Kennedy, who was invited to join Callamard’s team listening to the tapes, and who added some grim nuances.
"The horror of listening to somebody's voice, the fear in someone's voice, and that you're listening to something live. It makes a shiver go through your body,” Kennedy said.
We know from the U.N. report and other leaked details that Khashoggi, who had gone to the consulate to pick up some papers certifying his divorce, realized very quickly he was going to be kidnapped or killed. He struggled. He was suffocated. And then he was dismembered by a Saudi forensic pathologist, Dr. Salah al-Tubaigy.
What Kennedy recorded in her notes injects an added bit of horror to an already grotesque scene. The doctor apparently was trying to be nonchalant, half-joking about what was to come, about “the sacrificial animal.”
The doctor talks about doing autopsies, which are usually on a table. “He says, 'I often play music when I'm cutting cadavers. And sometimes I have a coffee and a cigar at hand,'" Kennedy told the BBC. “You can hear them laughing."
There really was not much doubt about the way the hit team expected things to play out, little question that they’d be taking Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia alive.
"It's the first time in my life, I will have to cut [up] pieces on the ground," al-Tubaigy said, according to Kennedy’s notes. "Even if you are a butcher you hang the animal up to do so."
But there was no place to bleed out Khashoggi like a slaughtered sheep or camel, so the floor of an office in the consulate had been covered in plastic.
The Litmus Test
In some form, perhaps a bit more sanitized, all this gore must be in the CIA report and other documents currently withheld by the Trump administration. But thanks to leaks from the Turks, the general picture of what happened was available to the press and the public everywhere in the world by the end of October last year.
By mid-November, after changing stories multiple times, the Saudi Public Prosecutor’s Office was announcing officially that 11 suspects in the Khashoggi murder had been indicted and five of them charged with murder, but no names were given except to say that MBS knew nothing about the crime. His foreign minister followed up by denouncing a “vicious” campaign to politicize the assassination.
When CBS interviewed MBS just last week, it didn’t really advance the story. He acknowledged “responsibility” but not guilt, and the trials that were supposed to have begun in January have remained completely opaque.
The UN’s Agnès Callamard summed up the inadequacy of MBS’s recent declarations in a thread on Twitter. “The identity of the killers and planners point to a far closer relationship between them and him than he is prepared to admit,” she wrote Monday. “The operation could not have been implemented with such flagrant confidence, resourcing and then—to this day impunity—without State sanction at the highest level.”
So, no, I didn’t find anything new about the actual murder as I leafed through hundreds of pages of American cables and emails from late 2018. But I did find something else that hadn’t struck me before.
It is a measure of the fear that Mohammed bin Salman imposes not only on his people but on his neighbors that defending his personal innocence in the Khashoggi case quickly became a litmus test for loyalty and friendship on an international level.
Many of the State Department documents obtained by the Open Society Justice Initiative are round-ups of reaction in the Arab world, and what we see is governments, directly or through official media, genuflecting before MBS, the rising son of Saudi Arabia’s fading King Salman.
The government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who seized power with Saudi backing in 2013, was especially obsequious. The heavily censored press ran coordinated coverage on October 29 “proclaiming the strength and importance of the Egypt-Saudi alliance,” one State Department cable noted before pointing out some of the headlines, “Egypt and Saudi Arabia, part and parcel,” was typical, and then there was this flowery gem: “The rains of Cairo irrigate the date palms of Riyadh.”
Barely three weeks after Khashoggi’s murder, a Future Investment Initiative conference, meant to be a sort of “Davos in the Desert,” was held in Riyadh. MBS, the driving force behind it, was also the guest of honor. Many American and European companies had dropped out because of the murder allegations, and U.S. embassy personnel were not allowed to attend. But those people who did show up seemed frantic to demonstrate their enthusiasm for MBS with standing ovations.
Mohammed bin Rashid, the ruler of Dubai, went one step further, posting what the U.S. embassy cable calls an “impassioned poem” on Twitter: “Do not heed the noisemakers [also translated as ‘screaming voices’], let them make noise,” it concluded. “May you thrive and be safe, and may you win your bets.”
A month later, in late November, President Donald Trump was still being asked questions about the slaughter of Jamal Khashoggi, and while he couldn’t compose a poem to obscure the facts, he could weave his responses into a dense, inconclusive fog, as shown in a White House press pool report in the documents handed over by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Asked if failure to penalize Saudi Arabia for the murder sent a message to other countries they could do as they please, Trump rambled on about how great the Saudis are at keeping the price of gas down—so great that he, Donald Trump, is blamed for traffic jams. “Can you believe this one?”
“But very importantly,” Trump said, “they’re investing billions of dollars, they’re buying their equipment from us. And remember this: they don’t have to buy from us. They could buy from Russia, and they could buy from China.”
When the pool reporter said, “The CIA has concluded...,” Trump cut him off. “No, they did not. They did not come to a conclusion. They have feelings, certain ways, but—I have the report.
"They have not concluded. Nobody’s concluded. I don’t know if anyone could conclude that the crown prince did it. But I will say this, whether he did or whether he didn’t, he denies it vehemently. His father denies, the king, vehemently. The CIA doesn’t say they did it. They do point out certain things, and in pointing out those things, you can conclude that maybe he did or maybe he didn’t. But that was another part of the false reporting. Because a lot of you said yesterday that they said he did it. Well they didn’t say that. They said he might’ve done it. That’s a big difference.”
Trump went on about the Saudis “vehemently denying it” then segued to “we have hundreds of thousands of jobs. Do people really want me to give up hundreds of thousands of jobs, and frankly if we went by this standard, we wouldn’t be able to have anybody as an ally. Because look at what happens all over the world… Maybe the world should be held accountable because the world is a vicious place. The world is a very, very vicious place… Till this happened, a lot of people were saying a lot of good things about the crown prince. So he strongly denies it, he denies it. And my policy is very simply: America First, Keep America Great Again. And that’s what I’m doing and we're doing better than anyone thought possible… Have a happy Thanksgiving!”
The short version of all that? Mohammed bin Salman won his bets.