The US intelligence assessment released by the US President Joe Biden Administration on the murder of late journalist Jamal Khashoggi was “an abuse of the intelligence community’s power,” Kirsten Fontenrose, who was serving as senior director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council at the time of Khashoggi’s murder said.
Fontenrose was so concerned at the time that she warned the CIA that if the report was included in the president’s daily intelligence briefing, she would attach a memo that warned him, “this is intelligence based on supposition and triangulation and being used to force your hand.”
Fontenrose was not a political appointee, but rather a career civil service officer who worked for presidents of both parties in the Pentagon and the State Department. She left the National Security Council in late 2018 because she clashed with senior Trump White House officials.
Fontenrose told Eli Lake in Tablet that the declassified document released last month used very similar language to the classified report that crossed her desk in 2018. “The only piece of this that is high confidence is the last paragraph,” she said, noting that this paragraph lists the names of the Saudi henchmen who were outed by Turkish intelligence at the time.
Phrases like “high confidence” are important to intelligence assessments because they convey how certain the analyst is of the conclusion.
Presuming that MBS, as the Crown Prince is often known, signed on in some way to the operation is very different than presenting proof that he personally ordered Khashoggi’s murder. Nor does it seem reasonable to necessarily assume that the Saudis intended to murder a highly visible regime opponent inside their own consulate in Turkey — a country with which the Kingdom has had uneven relations. Rather, the Khashoggi killing has many hallmarks of an attempted kidnapping gone wrong.
This distinction matters a great deal to American foreign policy. Fontenrose told Lake that the 2018 assessment provided no “smoking gun” proof of the Crown Prince’s role in a murder plot. “Without that smoking gun there is insufficient justification to trash the US-Saudi relationship when Bin Salman is going to lead that country for decades unless the US wants to get back into the business of regime change.”
On Feb. 26, the Biden administration disclosed perhaps the worst-kept secret in Washington: The US intelligence community blames Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman for ordering the operation that ended in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, writes Eli Lake in Tablet.