A demonstrator holds picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest in front of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, October 5, 2018.
(photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
An ex-CIA official told The Jerusalem Post that the agency should declassify aspects of its Khashoggi affair report leading into a major US Senate debate on support for Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen set for Wednesday.
Ned Price, an eight-year CIA veteran, who also held other national security positions in the Obama administration and now is part of National Security Action, spoke to the Post following a recent post he made on the issue in the top legal blog Just Security.
The issue of declassifying intelligence assessments is also a hot one in Israel, particularly whenever the defense establishment is viewed as having underestimated a threat, such as the threat of Egyptian invasion during the 1973 Yom Kippur War or the Hamas tunnel threat during the 2014 Gaza war.
In addition, the Khashoggi affair has made it harder and more complicated to advance relations and cooperation between Israel, the Saudis and the US.
In his Just Security post, Price wrote that besides top government officials, most of the US is “relegated to hearing one story from anonymous leakers who may have an agenda and another from senior administration officials who certainly have an agenda.
“An official document carrying the imprimatur of the Intelligence Community” regarding the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi “would, at the very least, provide a single set of facts on which opinions and policy positions could then be based,” said Price.
Price talked to the Post about several past examples in which overall CIA assessments of an issue had been declassified in general terms without revealing sources and methods.
He noted the declassification by the Bush administration of the CIA’s 2007 assessment that Iran had halted its nuclear program, though this clashed with administration policy, the declassification of the CIA’s assessment of the Syrian Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in 2013, of the 2014 downing of a Malaysian airliner by Russia and several other examples.
Pressed about whether the CIA’s assessment could be declassified even in general terms without damaging intelligence sharing relationships with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, he said that general assessments could always be tailored to avoid revealing foreign allies’ sensitive information.
Besides the general value of informing the public, Price said that declassifying the CIA’s assessment, reportedly stating very clearly that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was behind the killing, was important to the broader debate about US support for the Saudis in the war in Yemen.
Last week, the US Senate voted 63-37 to move the process forward in challenging the Trump administration’s ongoing support for that war, and the issue will be advanced even more with a debate on Wednesday.
Price said, “It is all tied up into one issue. That is part of the argument. If this were just about the murder of a journalist – that would be a tragedy, an affront to freedom of the press and freedom of expression everywhere, but unfortunately” he “wouldn’t be the only journalist killed for the pursuit of truth.”
He said the manner and location of the killing as well as the Trump administration’s ignoring the CIA’s assessment in favor of continuing to cozy up to Saudi Arabia, a major ally and Middle East power, led to him “coming down” in favor of declassification.
Questioned about whether the US and the Saudis pulling back from using military force in Yemen would meet US interests in light of Iran’s and jihadist groups’ interventions there, he said he was not remotely advocating disengaging and allowing Iran or jihadist groups to take over.
Rather, he said that he wanted to rebalance relations with the Saudis and Iran to better achieve global US interests.
Israel has been quiet about the Khashoggi affair,
caring more about normalizing relations with the Saudis, and it is assumed that it would prefer that Riyadh continue to keep pressure on Iran in Yemen militarily.
Next, Price was pressed that in many cases where the CIA’s assessment was declassified, such as regarding data on the number of noncombatant casualties killed in US counterterrorism operations under the Obama administration, or declassifying a 28-page addendum to a congressional report that detailed allegations of Saudi officials’ financial backing for the 9/11 hijackers, the declassification was done years later when the issue was less explosive.
He responded that the Syrian chemical weapons and Russia’s shooting down of an airliner were counterexamples where the CIA assessments were released close in time to the incidents in order to have relevance to the ongoing debate.
Price said the same is true about understanding who MBS is in deciding on continued support for the Saudis in Yemen.
Asked if there were counterexamples where he opposed declassifying intelligence information being debated publicly, he cited the special national security FISA-court application for carrying out surveillance of ex-Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
There he said that he backed Trump’s eventual decision not to declassify the application, because FISA applications are “operational – it is an operational warrant to get coverage of an American citizen. There is not a public interest in declassifying something like that. It is not an analytical conclusion of the Intelligence Community.”
But generally he told the Post that the Intelligence Community “could be more transparent without jeopardizing sources and methods, by making a simple statement of assessment that Y person was behind X act.”
In his Just Security post, he concluded that “Democracy may die in darkness, but excessive secrecy has the potential to put it on life support.”