The assassination of a Washington Post columnist is a stain on the Saudi crown prince who ordered it, those in the Saudi Arabian government who abetted it and now the United States that is allowing an attack on its independent press to go unchallenged. His death sends chills through every corner of our country that values a free and independent press.
The U.S. government released a report Friday that fixed blame for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and Post columnist, on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A frequent critic of the Saudi government, Khashoggi, 59, had been lured to the Saudi consulate in Instanbul, Turkey, in October 2018, to pick up paperwork he needed in order to marry a Turkish woman. Once inside, Khashoggi never emerged, and the Saudi government for two weeks denied knowledge of his whereabouts.
Eventually the Saudis conceded the journalist had been drugged and killed, and his body dismembered. Dozens of Saudis were later charged in the crime, though the most serious sentences were commuted.
In reality, Khashoggi, who often challenged the policies of the crown prince who effectively runs the government of Saudi Arabia, encountered 15 agents dispatched to Istanbul to “capture or kill him,” according to the intelligence report. The declassified memo by the Director of National Intelligence says Salman is believed to have personally approved the mission, which involved key members of his security detail.
“Since 2017, the crown prince has had absolute control of the kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the crown prince’s authorization,” the report concluded.
That a repressive Middle Eastern regime targeted a dissident journalist, living in exile in the United States and writing for an American newspaper, is not especially surprising. The weak response of the U.S. government, however, is both frightening and an affront to a basic tenet of our democracy — the freedom of its press.
The Central Intelligence Agency knew as early as November 2018, a month after Khashoggi’s murder, that Salman was its mastermind. However, former President Donald Trump questioned that conclusion, according to the Washington Post, even after being presented with evidence that includes an audio recording of the murder and the dismemberment of Khashoggi’s body. The recording was captured by a Turkish listening device placed inside the consulate, according to the Post. The Trump administration eventually imposed financial sanctions and travel restrictions on 17 Saudis involved in the plot.
One factor in Trump’s reluctance to hold the crown prince to account may have been Salman’s friendship with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. But other issues clearly weighed upon the U.S., and continue to get in the way, even now. Those include Saudi Arabia’s role in the global war on terror and confronting Iran, among others. Dennis Ross, a former diplomat, told the New York Times, “there isn’t an issue in the Middle East where we don’t need them to play a role.”
“This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests,” he said.
And, as the Times reports, that’s frozen the Biden administration’s reaction to the killing of a journalist, despite Biden’s harsh criticism of Saudi Arabia in the 2020 campaign as a state with “no redeeming social value.” While the White House announced new travel restrictions on some Saudi officials, those sanctions don’t reach the man responsible for ordering Khashoggi’s murder.
Khashoggi’s assassination, carried out half a world away, is not the nearest attack on the U.S. press and certainly not the most recent. For that we need only turn the calendar back to the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol, where a violent mob turned on the journalists it encountered, en route to the chambers of the U.S. House and Senate. Indeed, over the past four years, members of the U.S. press corps have been the regular targets of Trump’s populist political movement — both rhetorically and, in too many cases, physically.
The U.S. government’s tepid response to the appalling murder of a journalist who lived and worked here, without so much as a gesture to limit the travels of the Saudi crown prince, serves to reinforce the devaluing of one of our democracy’s most important institutions. Regardless of its occupant, we expect a White House to be far more committed to defending press freedom, here and abroad.