Leaks, media and the Khashoggi affair

Former Obama officials see case as measure of Trump administration’s ‘morality.’

Turkish forensic officials arrive to the residence of Saudi Arabia's Consul General Mohammad al-Otaibi in Istanbul, Turkey October 17, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/OSMAN ORSAL)
Turkish forensic officials arrive to the residence of Saudi Arabia's Consul General Mohammad al-Otaibi in Istanbul, Turkey October 17, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS/OSMAN ORSAL)
The latest details of the alleged murder of Saudi journalist and insider Jamal Khashoggi look like a scene from a gruesome Hollywood mafia movie. He was “killed in seven minutes,” one report said. A recording allegedly documents him being “dragged” onto a table in the Saudi consul general’s study before being dismembered.
The salacious details came out in Turkish media and then spread through other media until the original details and who leaked them were no longer clear. Middle East Eye even made a video claiming to explain the final minutes of the journalist’s life. He was “injected with a substance” by a Saudi head of forensic evidence, then the Saudi security member “cut Khashoggi’s body while he was still alive,” the video claimed, further alleging that the Saudi who did the cutting even “put on earphones.”
Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times called it “barbaric.” In a tweet he claimed that the Times quotes “Turkish officials as saying that the Saudis beat Jamal and cut off his fingers, presumably because they were what he wrote with.” Perhaps. The Bolivian commander who captured Che Guevara cut off his hands to preserve them in formaldehyde for his fingerprints. So there might be other reasons for cutting off someone’s fingers.
Like the other brutal details of the murder of Khashoggi, the cutting off of the fingers and apparent beheading, are part of a story that involves contradictory leaks from officials. For instance, how would an 11-minute audio recording, which is what various newspapers say exists, tell us that a person is being put on a table, injected with a sedative and beheaded? Does someone narrate the tape and say, “Now we will put him on the table”? The leaks never say that the officials are studying the tape, they always seem to know with absolute clarity what happened.
The latest details are part of a two-week saga in which the death of Khashoggi has become an international scandal that is increasingly pressuring the US to do something about Saudi Arabia, one of its key allies. But major media have also begun to question why consistent leaks from the investigation are coming in this manner.
Nick Paton Walsh slammed Turkey in an article at CNN, arguing that details of the case are not being presented in a public manner, but “drip-fed first to Turkish media, who will presumably be less questioning, and then to their foreign counterparts to be sure the case never falls from public attention.” Journalist Hassan Hassan says that the leaks “appear to be inconsistent” and that it is “starting to sound irresponsible [and] counterproductive.”
THERE IS a lack of basic information and experts to confirm the details of the case. For instance, the unsubstantiated report saying the dismembering of Khashoggi’s body “took seven minutes” came from Al Jazeera. But how can the dismembering take only seven minutes? The full tape supposedly also includes the beating, torture and beheading of Khashoggi, along with the consul general telling the hit squad to “do it somewhere else outside or I will be in trouble.”
The consul in Istanbul, Mohammed al-Otaiba ordered his staff to take the day off on October 2, allegedly before Khashoggi came to the consulate. The hit squad, according to Turkish sources and a BBC timeline, arrived at 3:28 a.m. that day, apparently knowing Khashoggi would come by the consulate to get a marriage document. Now, apparently, the staff had left, but the consul general was there with the security team that had come in for this special “job.”
Then why is the consul general surprised hours later when the team decides to dismember the body, and asks them to “do it outside”? Why didn’t the consul general just leave and let the bloody business take place? According to the timeline, the vehicles that arrived at the consulate with the alleged hit squad came at 12:13 p.m. and left at 3:08 p.m. to drive to the consul-general’s house.
On October 17, Turkey searched the consulate and men in scrubs were filmed leaving, one of them with blood on his pants. More details keep emerging, but the body of the missing journalist has not been found. Yet Turkish media says investigators are searching for a “corpse.” This would imply that the “dismembered” body was not taken back to Saudi Arabia in the two jets that arrived and left on October 2.
In the US, the missing Saudi journalist has become a political issue with which to pressure Trump. Ned Price, a former Obama administration official, wrote, “[Turkey] is trying to pressure America, us, to act with moral clarity. Only under Trump could an authoritarian foreign counterpart play this role.” Aaron David Miller describes the “amorality of Trump administration’s public reaction to Khashoggi’s murder.” Ben Rhodes writes, “It is profoundly immoral and destabilizing to have a US president who believes the false reality of dictators over the objective reality,” a reference to Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
The Khashoggi affair has become a litmus test on Trump. As such it is now playing into local American politics. As that happens, the actual details of the affair – whether he was killed on a table or if it took 10 minutes or more – will become less pertinent to the larger question about Donald Trump’s handling of the case. It may make the US relationship with Saudi Arabia a partisan issue, the way the US relationships with Russia, Israel and some other countries have become increasingly an election issue, rather than part of a consistent foreign policy.