Shadow Government

Neither U.S. Senators nor Trump’s Team Is Lying About Khashoggi’s Killing

But the White House’s spin tactics are not doing it any favors.

CIA Director Gina Haspel arrives to brief legislators on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Capitol Hill on Dec. 12. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
CIA Director Gina Haspel arrives to brief legislators on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Capitol Hill on Dec. 12. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The past two weeks have seen the emergence of divergent public interpretations of highly classified CIA assessments on the question of whether Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

On one side, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said respectively that there was “no smoking gun” and “no direct evidence” that the crown prince authorized Khashoggi’s murder. On the other, several senators emerged from a briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel and pronounced that they had no doubt of Mohammed bin Salman’s guilt.

Who’s telling the truth? Perhaps all of them. The two cabinet secretaries deployed carefully scripted talking points in service of the policy on which President Donald Trump had already decided—an approach dedicated to maintaining the status quo with Saudi Arabia at all costs. Mattis and Pompeo may not have lied—they just didn’t tell the whole truth.

The senators who accused the crown prince of complicity were outraged by his behavior and seeming expectation of impunity, and by the Trump administration’s willful blindness to the ugly facts and failed attempt to prevent the CIA director from briefing.

Both versions may be accurate. Intelligence judgments are rarely completely definitive: They are based on an array of information, some of which is subject to interpretation. Given the substantial evidence reportedly pointing to Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement, both cabinet secretaries had to know that they were overstating the case. Anyone with Mattis’s deep experience in consuming intelligence knows there is rarely a smoking gun. Pompeo, formerly the CIA director but also a Harvard University-trained lawyer, fully understands that circumstantial evidence can be as compelling—and as legally probative—as the direct evidence he claims is lacking. And, as Elephants in the Room contributor John Hannah noted in a recent essay for Foreign Policy, critical decisions in national security are often made based on imperfect, or incomplete, intelligence information.

That said, the spin by Trump’s agents didn’t just fail to convince: It caused collateral damage to their reputations and to the administration’s efforts to defend its Saudi Arabia policy. Hard as it may be for outsiders to believe, credibility is currency on Capitol Hill. Senators who believe they were misled will now look at Mattis and Pompeo with a jaundiced eye. The two secretaries have learned a hard lesson: Reputational risk comes with the territory of working for Trump.

There is a crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations, yet neither government seems to realize it. Anger in Congress over the Khashoggi killing has been compounded by the Trump administration’s inept response to it and its ill-advised decision to keep Haspel from an all-senators briefing. Many in Congress seek to end U.S. support for the kingdom’s ill-fated war in Yemen, as evidenced by the Senate’s approval on Dec. 13 of a joint resolution to that effect. The same day, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution stating plainly that the body believes that Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for Khashoggi’s death and calling on the kingdom to ensure “appropriate accountability” for all those responsible and moderate its “increasingly erratic foreign policy.” While nonbinding, it was drafted in the form of a joint resolution, which means it would be presented to the president for signature or veto if revived in the new Congress (the current House leadership took a procedural step this week that will block consideration of it this year). This kind of condemnatory language is usually reserved for adversaries, not longtime partners like Saudi Arabia, and should be a wake-up call for the king and the Trump administration. When the Democrats take power in the House next month, they may pursue other measures. Anyone in the U.S. or Saudi government who believes this matter will soon blow over on Capitol Hill is badly miscalculating.

Trump’s unquestioning support for Mohammed bin Salman is putting at risk broader U.S. interests in the Middle East. As longtime Middle East hands Aaron Miller and Richard Sokolsky recently wrote in a piece for Politico, “everything [Mohammed bin Salman] has touched in the region—Yemen, Qatar and Lebanon—has turned into a hot mess in a dumpster fire.” Pompeo and Mattis should recognize the danger and push for a reassessment of the U.S. position on the Khashoggi case—and the U.S.-Saudi relationship—rather than engaging in obfuscation.

Brian P. McKeon was a senior national security official in the White House and the Pentagon under President Obama.

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