A lot of people have been highly skeptical of the way the Washington Post and its fellow outlets have treated the story of Jamal Khashoggi. He is the Washington Post opinion writer who was killed by Saudi Arabian operatives at their consulate in Istanbul. Regardless of the facts and circumstances, a couple of things have been clear from the beginning. First, the Turkish government has used Khashoggi’s death as the core of a full-bore information operation designed to stop US-Saudi cooperation in the Middle East. Second, the Washington Post, for reasons they haven’t fully disclosed, elected to make the death of this op-ed writer a cause célèbre in a way they never did when Obama’s BFFs, the Iranian mullahs, held their Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian in prison. In fact, you’d be excused for thinking we were back in the bad old days of yellow journalism when William Randolph Hearst wired his illustrator in Cuba (oddly enough, Frederic Remington), “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
Anyone who has dug into the the story knows that Khashoggi was not some latter day Arab democrat. In his younger days he traveled with Osama bin Laden and was sympathetic to him and to al Qaeda. He was a hard core Muslim Brotherhood operative and used his writing to serve as their apologist. He was the kind of anti-Semite you’d expect to have that pedigree. Though he was touted by the Washington Post as being in favor of a free press in the Arab world, that concept was not one we’d recognize. He’d recently complained that the Saudi government was allowing papers to say positive things about Israel.
Interestingly, just a couple of days ago, the Washington Post ran a story which started rewriting the hagiography that they’ve created surrounding Khashoggi.
Perhaps most problematic for Khashoggi were his connections to an organization funded by Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis, Qatar. Text messages between Khashoggi and an executive at Qatar Foundation International show that the executive, Maggie Mitchell Salem, at times shaped the columns he submitted to The Washington Post, proposing topics, drafting material and prodding him to take a harder line against the Saudi government. Khashoggi also appears to have relied on a researcher and translator affiliated with the organization, which promotes Arabic-language education in the United States.
But a lot more is hinted at:
Khashoggi was never a staff employee of the Post, and he was paid about $500 per piece for the 20 columns he wrote over the course of the year. He lived in an apartment near Tysons Corner in Fairfax County that he had purchased while working at the Saudi Embassy a decade earlier. [Note: how did he live in the DC Metro area for about $10K/year?]
Khashoggi also appears to have accepted significant help with his columns. Salem, the executive at the Qatar foundation, reviewed his work in advance and in some instances appears to have proposed language, according to a voluminous collection of messages obtained by The Post. [Journalists accepting “significant help” from government operatives in writing stories is a fact of how journalism is conducted in the Middle East, the Post eliding over this speaks volumes.]
In early August, Salem prodded Khashoggi to write about Saudi Arabia’s alliances “from DC to Jerusalem to rising right wing parties across Europe…bringing an end to the liberal world order that challenges their abuses at home.”
Khashoggi expressed misgivings about such a strident tone, then asked, “So do you have time to write it?”
“I’ll try,” she replied, although she went on to urge him to “try a draft” himself incorporating sentences that she had sent him by text. A column reflecting their discussion appeared in The Post on Aug. 7. Khashoggi appears to have used some of Salem’s suggestions, though it largely tracks ideas that he expressed in their exchange over the encrypted app WhatsApp.
Other texts in the 200-page trove indicate that Salem’s organization paid a researcher who did work for Khashoggi. The foundation is an offshoot of a larger Qatar-based organization. Khashoggi also relied on a translator who worked at times for the Qatari embassy and the foundation.
On Oct. 3, one day after Khashoggi’s death, while his fate remained uncertain, his researcher contacted The Post to say that he had a draft of a column that Khashoggi had begun writing before his disappearance. It was published two weeks later. [The likelihood that Khashoggi’s last column was ghostwritten to take advantage of his disappearance by making him appear to be an Arabian Thomas Jefferson appraoches certainty.]
Dave Reaboi of the Security Studies Group has been writing about Khashoggi for a while and has more to offer:
Due to their policy biases and the friendly intellectual environment created and nurtured by petrodollars inside the Beltway, American elites and policymakers have been soft targets for Qatari influence and information operations. Information operations use media and traditional tools of public relations to advance policy interests through narratives. A negative message is always more potent than a positive one, so operators of all kinds quickly find that the easiest way to advance one’s interests is to coordinate and weaponize media attacks on one’s enemies or rivals.
The narrative focusing on the death of Jamal Khashoggi was to be put into the service of both Qatar and Turkey’s main interest, undermining the stability of its rival, Saudi Arabia. When complete, the successful information operation would depict Khashoggi a heroic martyr to independent journalism and freedom, while Saudi Arabia would be the embodiment of evil and callousness. It is clear now that, not only was Khashoggi transmogrified in death into a major front in Qatar’s war on its Gulf neighbors; in life, he was Qatar’s asset in that war, as well.
He notes that even though Washington has been abuzz with rumors of Khashoggi being a paid agent of Saudi Arabia’s nemesis Qatar, that the Washington Post persisted in lionizing Khashoggi as a bold truth teller. Until now.
Now, shockingly, the Washington Post itself has largely revealed those rumors to be true. We now know that Jamal Khashoggi was never a journalist—at least, not in the usual sense of the word; he was a highly-partisan operative who worked with a handler to publish propaganda at the behest of the Emirate of Qatar. He was, in other words, an agent of influence.
Rumors have floated inside the Beltway about the contents of Khashoggi’s text messages and, potentially, evidence of wire transfers from Qatar found at his residences in Turkey and in Virginia. The Post’s pre-Christmas release of this information is almost certainly in an effort to get ahead of a story that another outlet is pursuing, and frame some rather explosive revelations in the least damaging way.
I think this is spot on. There is no incentive for the Post to publicize the fact that their martyr to a free press was taking dictation from Qatari intelligence to push anti-Saudi Arabian propaganda themes.
As Brad Patty and Nick Short concluded in their assessment of this information campaign, SSG’s “Firehoses in the Khashoggi Case,” this happened within hours of Khashoggi’s disappearance in Ankara. Turkey took advantage of the silence from Saudi Arabia in the crucial first 36 hours of the controversy to shift the narrative from Khashoggi’s disappearance to leaks of increasingly-brutal and graphic reports of his death at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Officials from Turkey’s Erdogan government—a longtime regional rival of the Kingdom’s power and influence and, lately, an Islamist nation building a growing alliance with Qatar and Iran—began to distribute weaponized, unverified information to the press. They gave it directly to reporters at prominent American media outlets, especially David Kirkpatrick at the New York Times and a massive team from Khashoggi’s alma mater the Washington Post.
Another major source of news about Khashoggi was, unsurprisingly, Qatar’s Al Jazeera network, and Middle East Eye, a relatively new outlet with ties of its own to Qatar. Some of the most scandalous, unverified stories in the press were sourced to Turkish officials and conformed “by a high-ranking Arab official.” There is a very high likelihood this is a home-town official from Qatar. For months, US major media outlets and high-profile “echo chamber” pundits were knowingly assuming the risk of broadcasting false Turkish and Qatari narratives, without adequately informing their readers of the risk being passed on to them.
By December 2018—when the campaign had done great harm to the US-Saudi relationship and America’s alliances in the Middle East—Erdogan was publicly bragging about his part in this successful information operation, and as well he should. It caused tremendous damage to the Kingdom and the Crown Prince, but also elevated Turkey and Qatar and gave it leverage to use with the US and others.
Read the whole thing. He breaks down the information operation and leaves little doubt that Khashoggi was useful to the Turkey-Qatar axis alive but he was a devastating weapon dead. The fact that Turkish intelligence had a bug in the Saudi embassy and allegedly taped the plot being hatched, the implication is that Erdogan’s intelligence service knew Khashoggi was going to be killed and had already decided he was more useful dead than alive.
This is not the last word on the subject, but it will be close to the last word. The outrage of Khashoggi never extended beyond a handful of newsrooms and anti-Trump groups. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Arab journalists getting offed by Arab governments isn’t particularly newsy and the fact that this was a Saudi killed by Saudis outside of the US makes it not an issue that most Americans are interested in getting upset about. Particularly when the guy lionized Osama bin Laden, was cheered by 9/11, and only looked to the US as refuge when his brand of Islamism fell out of favor in Saudi Arabia and most of the Middle East. Don’t be deceived, Khashoggi was not a free speech advocate, he was not in favor of liberalizing the Arab world, he was “not our friend.” His death, while a tragedy for his family and loved ones, really has no greater meaning than one variety of Islamist ran afoul of an authoritarian regime and he got killed. Ugly and unfortunate but probably preordained for some time.
If this develops in the way that it seems, the Washington Post is going to be left with a lot of egg on its face for acting as the conduit for an information operation directed against one of our major allies in the Middle East. Won’t that be fun?
WaPo itself now reports he was not a journalist, but something very different. When did Karen Attiah know she was publishing Qatari drafted & paid words?
Perhaps she knew but didn’t care when his Qatari paid “translator” submitted a piece in his name AFTER he was dead. pic.twitter.com/b25HwW6WUi
— Josh Block (@JoshBlockDC) December 25, 2018
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