Via CNN, since it has no paywall, CIA has concluded Saudi crown prince ordered journalist’s killing: Washington Post. Quoting,
The Post, citing people familiar with the matter, said the CIA reached its conclusions after examining 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….Khalid told Khashoggi 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, the Post said…The newspaper, citing people familiar with the call, said it was not clear if Khalid knew Khashoggi would be killed but that he made the call at his brother’s direction.
In Khashoggi Killing a Rogue Op? Saudi Renaissance, I wrote,
(CNN)Saudi former diplomat called ‘pivotal’ in Khashoggi’s apparent killing. Did Saudi intelligence officer and diplomat Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb have a case of double vision, deciding himself to murder Khashoggi? Or was it Prince Salman’s decision? Given Salman’s age, either is possible. It is possible that Prince Salman enabled Mutreb, without actually approving the deed. The recent suppression of dissent, which has dismayed supporters of the prince, could have given Mutreb his inspiration to murder.
Open source cannot compete with U.S. signals intelligence. But the quality of the given explanation is poor. For the open source enthusiast, this is an opportunity to study nuances.
Absent additional information, which may exist, the phone calls shows only Prince Salman’s awareness that Khashoggi would visit the consulate. The implication of the phone calls requires an additional predicate, such as Salman’s desire to murder Khashoggi, or to kidnap him. The dispatch of the “kill team” does not directly follow from the phone call. Yet C.I.A. conclusion may be valid, relying on information that cannot be released. Fact may be presented as opinion, with reasons other than the actual, to cloak clandestine methods and sources.
For the intelligence community, protection of methods and sources is paramount. Even if it is desirable that the end product be made public, these considerations frequently intervene. The C.I.A. conclusion has possible basis in three general areas:
- C.I.A ‘s team of Prince Salman’s specialists have developed a composite behavioral model over many years, from multiple sources, including signals and humint. This cannot be part of the public statement.
- Signals intelligence that cannot be disclosed shows that Salman gave the order to kill.
- Poor analysis. This is unlikely. The C.I.A. does not pay analysts to present prejudice as considered opinion.
The same ambiguity presents in Poisoned Door Handle Hints at High-Level Plot to Kill Spy, U.K. Officials Say. Quoting the NY Times,
This operation is seen as so risky and sensitive that it is unlikely to have been undertaken without approval from the Kremlin, according to officials who have been briefed on the early findings of the inquiry.
Quoting (NY Times, 9/18) U.K. Charges 2 Men in Novichok Poisoning, Saying They’re Russian Agents,
“This was not a rogue operation,” she said. “It was almost certainly also approved outside the G.R.U. at a senior level of the Russian state.”
This may be true, obtained from methods and sources, that cannot be disclosed, but as with the Khashoggi murder, the given reasoning is weak. In both cases, the element of competence of the perpetrators, expected from a nation-state, was missing. Khashoggi’s killers were unfamiliar with the bugging of consulates. The Soviet Union had a wide variety of assassination weapons and poison applicators, yet Skripal’s assassins lacked a specialized applicator for Novichok, relying instead on a modified perfume bottle, contaminating multiple locations in Salisbury and London. For a serviceable tool design, see Poisoned Door Handle Hints at High-Level Plot to Kill Spy, U.K. Officials Say.
The fascination with the whodunit aspects distracts us from important matters. All nations have savagery in their past, but for some, the past is more recent than others. Although Joseph Stalin is not noted as a moralist, he did say, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
Five men may lose their heads so Salman can save his. Yet monsters with unknown faces wait in the wings to take his place. This results from the judgment of barbarity by our own exalted standards.