Is the Khashoggi Mystery Now a US Scandal?

Virginia Mayo/AP

The fate of exiled Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi has been bubbling through the news for the last week while most of our focus was on Brett Kavanaugh and the impending midterm election. But tonight it took a decidedly more ominous turn, one that involves not only the possibility of a brutal extra-legal killing but scandal reaching into the Trump administration itself.

You likely know the basics of the story: exiled Saudi journalist with deep, though erstwhile ties to the royal family, enters a Saudi consulate in Turkey and never comes back out. Turkish police tell reporters that their investigation suggests Khashoggi was murdered in the consulate, after visiting to pick up documents for his impending wedding. According to the Turks, his body was allegedly dismembered and disposed of, either in Turkey or abroad after being secreted out of the country.

New details out tonight describe an execution team sent from Saudi Arabia with an extraordinary level of detail: flight records, the identities of the fifteen member team. They know the details of the private jet flights into Turkey, the identities of the 15 members of the alleged execution team. Critically, members of the personal protection force of the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (generally called MBS), appear to have been part of this execution team. In other words, there’s a growing body of evidence that Khashoggi’s killing was ordered at the very highest level of the Saudi government.

One bit of uncertainty in the story is that the claim the Khashoggi was killed seems to come from a Turkish police investigation, leaked to the press in Turkey and abroad. But they’re not sharing the evidence upon which they base these accusations. But if we’re inclined to doubt, we’re still left with the central mystery. If Khashoggi wasn’t killed, where is he? He went into the consulate and there’s no evidence he ever emerged.

When this story first broke, I saw it through a very American prism. Saudi Arabia has long been a brutal, if slow moving autocratic regime. But this is a particularly brazen act, if the allegations are true. To me the bigger story is the rise of strongman government around the world — something President Trump is very much a part of — and also the new rules of the road Trump has brought in his wake. That is to say, no rules — friends can do anything they want. I continue to think that’s essential to this story. But tonight a darker range of possibilities emerged.

Tonight’s article in the Post contains this passage …

Before Khashoggi’s disappearance, U.S. intelligence intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture him, according to a person familiar with the information. The Saudis wanted to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and lay hands on him there, this person said. It was not clear whether the Saudis intended to arrest and interrogate Khashoggi or to kill him, or if the United States warned Khashoggi that he was a target, this person said.

In other words, U.S. intelligence seems to have picked up discussions of some version of this alleged plot. This is the first mention of this possibility — that the U.S. picked up some advance word. My understanding is the Khashoggi had permanent resident status in the U.S. at the time of his disappearance. So there may have been some legal obligation to warn him of his peril. The bottom line is that though the clues or evidence is now fragmentary, it now seems possible that the U.S. may have made itself complicit in this drama by having advance knowledge and either failing to or refusing to act.

The final, most important part of the puzzle is the relationship between the head of the current Saudi government and the Trump family. MBS has developed close ties to President Trump, even closer ties to Jared Kushner and financial ties with both. The Saudis even play a significant role in one part of the Russia investigation. They were one of the government’s most thrilled with Trump’s election. The relationship between the Crown Prince and the Trumps is deep and has geopolitical and personal financial dimensions.

These are all extraordinarily corrupt ties. They bring together young and headstrong princelings like MBS and Jared Kushner who are capable of all manner or willful and dangerous actions. Thus far we have only very limited information. But there’s a distinct possibility that Trump administration dirtied its hand in this affair. This bears very close scrutiny.

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