Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and alleged murder at the hands of a Saudi hit squad has shocked the world and further roiled diplomatic relations in a tense region. The United States cannot countenance that kind of violence against one of our lawful residents, especially when his alleged assassination was apparently motivated by his free exercise of political expression. Others have rightly decried the Trump administrations retreat from human rights leadership on the world stage, and its resulting atmosphere of permissiveness for authoritarian regimes to settle scores with their dissidents and defectors. But now there are serious questions about whether components of the United States government might have known, in real time, there was a Saudi plot afoot against Khashoggi.
In response to the Washington Post reports that U.S. intelligence intercepted Saudi officials discussions of a plan to capture Khashoggi, State Department spokesman Robert Palladino stated “I can say definitively the United States had no advance knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance.” Ryan Goodman dissected Palladino’s statement against the backdrop of the intelligence community reports in order to elucidate an existing government duty to warn Khashoggi of any plot to kidnap him.
I write to raise an additional point: Based on my experience as a White House lawyer, I am wary of categorical denials like Palladino’s amid an unfolding controversy. One need look no further than the Benghazi and Operation Fast and Furious controversies of the Obama era to see how early factual misstatements in a breaking controversy can mushroom into multi-year investigations.
On September 11, 2012, terrorist militants attacked American diplomatic and intelligence facilities in Benghazi, Libya, resulting in the deaths of four Americans including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Congress rightly inquired about potential lessons from that awful episode, but that investigation devolved into a partisan effort to tarnish then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects rather than a sober discussion of diplomatic security and Libya policy. One of the chief Republican allegations leveled against the Clinton and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice was their initial representation that the Benghazi incident began as a spontaneous attack in response to an inflammatory video on the internet rather than a premeditated attack. As more information came in, the U.S. government revised that assessment. By September 28, the Intelligence Community assessed that it was a pre-planned terrorist attack.
Similarly, Republican congressional leaders spent years investigating problematic gun trafficking investigations along the southwest U.S. border under the rubric Operation Fast and Furious. One of the chief allegations they made against the Obama officials was that Ronald Weich, then-Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs, lied to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) when he denied reports that the ATF had lost track of guns they had provided alleged straw purchasers. While Weich’s information proved to be incorrect, I can tell you based on my proximity to that congressional investigation that Weich (now Dean at the University of Baltimore School of Law) provided Grassley that information in good faith on the basis of representations made to him by leaders of the ATF and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona. It turned out that those offices answered Weich’s request for information reflexively rather than conducting due diligence to obtain ground truth. Weich spent years under scrutiny due to those initial mistakes.
Returning to Palladino’s “definitive” statement, I have questions. Did he or others who drafted that statement review all intelligence products available to the U.S. government, including signals intelligence, human sources, and foreign government liaison information? Did they put out a data call to the relevant embassies? Have they looked at documents? Have they interviewed personnel? Have they looked at Khashoggi’s legal resident status paperwork, which probably included reports of interviews of him? These are the kind of steps the White House and senior agency leadership should be undertaking to get their arms around the facts of U.S. government knowledge related to the Saudi posture toward Khashoggi.
These items point to some of the specific questions that journalists and members of Congress should start asking. Categorical false statements on questions of life and death, like this one may well turn out to be, don’t help anyone. If anything, such statements generally drag out public inquiries rather than truncate them.