The Washington Post published an interesting piece last weekend about its slain contributor Jamal Khashoggi that painted a very different portrait of the man transformed into an avatar of pure journalistic integrity by most of the media.
The new Post article conceded that Khashoggi was a political activist and admitted his writing may have been “shaped” by the government of Qatar, including an executive linked to that government “drafting material” for Khashoggi’s columns.
Before diving into the Washington Post’s revelations, it is sadly necessary to restate for the record that nothing disclosed in the piece justifies his murder by Saudi agents at the consulate in Istanbul in October. Being honest about who Khashoggi was, and taking a closer look at connections he preferred to keep secret, is not the same thing as blithely accepting his murder.
It is also necessary to stress just how different this portrait of Khashoggi is from his customary depiction as a “guardian of truth,” an impartial journalist interested in nothing but getting the story out, an innocent martyr to press freedom. At the height of media furor over his killing, it was considered a thought crime to point out that Khashoggi was a political actor and a true believer in Muslim Brotherhood ideology.
The new Washington Post article from Souad Mekhennet and Greg Miller has nothing good to say about the Saudi government, which menaced Khashoggi from the moment he left for America in 2017 to the moment he died in Istanbul.
The piece slams President Donald Trump for prioritizing “protecting an oil-rich ally over humanitarian concerns” by deciding not to make the monarchy pay a higher price for the killing, but it also acknowledges the difference between Khashoggi’s mythic stature in death and reality of what he did in life. It also touches delicately on the fact that Khashoggi’s writing for the Washington Post and other media may not have been the reason he was killed.
As the article notes, Khashoggi remained active in Saudi politics, describing himself as generally supportive of reform but worried that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was moving too quickly and acting brutally to consolidate power. He even tried to get the Saudi government to kick in $2 million for a Washington-based think tank project in 2017.
Khashoggi was most definitely a political activist, and his activism was not confined to maintaining contacts in Saudi Arabia:
Among Khashoggi’s friends in the United States were individuals with real or imagined affiliations with the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, and an Islamic advocacy organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, regarded warily for its support of the public uprisings of the Arab Spring. Khashoggi cultivated ties with senior officials in the Turkish government also viewed with deep distrust by the rulers in Saudi Arabia.
After leaving the kingdom, Khashoggi sought to secure funding and support for an assortment of ideas that probably would have riled Middle East monarchs, including plans to create an organization that would publicly rank Arab nations each year by how they performed against basic metrics of freedom and democracy.
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.
The editors of the Washington Post told Mekhennet and Miller they were completely unaware of these connections or Khashoggi’s political activities, which is either hard to believe or remarkably lax vetting for a major newspaper when hiring a man who spent the 1980s driving around Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden.
The Post is excused in the article for this relaxed attitude because Khashoggi made it clear he had a political agenda and he was hired as an op-ed writer, not a reporter — which, again, is very different from how he has been lionized by the media in death.
David Reaboi at Security Studies Group responded to the Washington Post article by noting that Khashoggi remained a combatant in the information war after his death:
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.
The effort to transform Khashoggi from the political operative he was into a journalist and martyr for freedom was an information operation waged largely in the United States. It targeted a diverse audience spanning from “echo chamber” commentators and media figures to politicians, who would then be moved to act based on the new attitude and information the campaign had inserted into the discussion. This operational aspect is of primary importance; as information operations always work to advance policy interests, in order to succeed, these perceptions must affect policymakers and cause them to alter policy.
Reaboi found it shocking the Washington Post would suddenly disclose these details and complicate the Khashoggi narrative unless the paper was trying to get out in front of even more damaging revelations to come.
“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,” he noted.
If carefully chosen facts, heavily promoted narratives, and strategic falsehoods are the artillery of information warfare, then suppressed details are its stealth fighters and commando squads. Reaboi found the Saudis incredibly clumsy and perhaps breathtakingly arrogant to go radio-silent for a few days after Khashoggi’s death and leave the information warfare battlefield wide open for Turkey and Qatar, which effortlessly seized control of the Western media narrative.
Turkey effectively controlled the entire Western media apparatus with strategic leaks about the case, with some wild stories “confirmed” by anonymous Arab officials Reaboi suspects of being Qatari.
The confluence of interests involved in the Khashoggi information war got what they wanted: the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia was badly damaged, American policy in the Middle East was altered, and President Trump’s domestic critics were handed a new cudgel with which to beat him.
Of course, none of that would have happened if the Saudi team had not ambushed Khashoggi in Istanbul, but the volume of information kept hidden from American news consumers in the aftermath of the murder is astonishing. In a time when the press endlessly agonizes over Russian “meddling” in the 2016 election, the influence of foreign powers and special interests on some news stories is not disclosed because it might complicate media narratives.
The Washington Post article concludes with a passage that raises questions about whether Khashoggi actually wrote the final column published under his name or if the piece was edited by his Qatar-linked researcher:
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.
In it, Khashoggi lamented that “Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate,” and that the region was “facing its own version of an Iron Curtain, imposed not by external actors but through domestic forces vying for power.”
“We need to provide a platform for Arab voices,” he said.
The governments of Qatar and especially Turkey certainly seem to think they have “free rein to continue silencing the media.” Information warfare operations can only be conducted in the absence of sunlight.