Avi Asher-Schapiro asks the question at Lawfare: Did the Trump administration warn Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi was the Saudi insider and Washington Post columnist who disappeared after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Khashoggi had been critical of Saudi Arab’s new and reckless Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman (MBS).
The CIA, led by director Gina Haspel (who had served in Turkey) investigated and concluded, much to President Trump’s displeasure, that MBS was responsible.
The Khashoggi affair is still reverberating in Washington, where MBS is both a pariah and a pal to the president’s son-in-law Jared Trump. The crown prince wants the world to move on, but that’s not happening.
If U.S. intelligence had knowledge that MBS had targeted Khashoggi, Asher-Schapiro notes, it had a legal obligation to warn him. (Asher-Schapiro is a research associate and tech reporter at the Committee to Protect Journalists.)
In January, we joined a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit that forced the government to release documents outlining the “Duty to Warn” process, which requires U.S. intelligence officers to warn targets of “an impending threat of intentional killing, serious bodily injury, or kidnapping,” according to National Security Agency documents obtained in the suit. If an intelligence officer declines to warn a threatened subject, he or she must provide written justification for that decision, according to those documents.
The Trump administration will not say whether they followed these procedures to inform Khashoggi of the threat to his life, despite reporting indicating that U.S. intelligence agencies had prior knowledge of the threat posed to him by the Saudi government.
I don’t assume U.S. officials acquiesced in Khashoggi’s elimination but it’s not impossible either. Transparency is needed.
For better and worse, “The Report” is a Washington movie, right down to its sanitized title. The credits hint it was originally called “The Torture Report.” A bureaucratic thriller starring Adam Driver as Dan Jones, an obsessed Senate investigator, the movie deploys the iconography of the capital—the looming Capitol dome, the expansive Mall, a cushy senatorial office, a soul-crushing cubicle—to hammer home the depressingly current idea that the success of democracy is imperiled by its very structures.
Driver plays Jones as the embodiment of the Washington whiz, a self-effacing workaholic, determined to play by the rules that everyone else knows how to bend. The idea that the U.S. government tortured suspected terrorists and lied about it rankles his placid exterior and ruins his relationships. (His satchel is his significant other) Jones’ self-appointed mission: document the abuse of power, inform the public, and let his boss take the credit. Spoiler alert: he’ll learn better.
Annette Bening plays Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the paragon of D.C. pragmatism. The smart screenplay, written by director Scott Z. Burns, captures the crisp manner and agile morality of the senior senator from California, as she toggles between encouraging Jones to pursue the truth and jerking his chain when he irritates the barons of Langley and the lieutenants of Barack Obama—which happens quite often.
The report in question is Jones’ magnum opus, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,700-page account (with 38,000 footnotes) of how the U.S. government came to torture 119 men in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Completed in December 2014, the report is still off-limits to American voters and taxpayers. Only an expurgated 500-page executive summary has been made public.
“The Report” dramatizes its major findings. Up to a quarter of the men tortured were probably entirely innocent of any terrorist actions. The use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques did not prevent any attacks. The two psychologists who designed the program, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, received $81 million in government funding. The CIA, led by John Brennan, now a hero of the anti-Trump resistance, managed to keep much of the story out of public view. And the leaders of the program, including black site majordomo Gina Haspel, were promoted.
Defenders of the program, including Haspel and former CIA director Michael Hayden, insist the “enhanced interrogation” did prevent attacks. They also say that official secrecy means the public cannot see the proof of their claims. Their un-Reaganesque defense amounts to, “Trust, but don’t verify.”
So two narratives drive “The Report.” The first is the story of how the CIA implemented the torture regime, the second how the agency stonewalled the Intelligence Committee and covered its tracks when the program was repudiated by President-elect Obama. The first storyline suggests that, contrary to journalistic accounts, it was the CIA that pushed torture on the Bush-Cheney White House, not the reverse. (You’d probably have to read the whole report to know which is more correct.) The depictions of torture, starting at “Detention Site Green,” a black site in Thailand run by Haspel, are terrifyingly effective at evoking the squalor of “enhanced interrogation,” with ugly dissonant music, masked men, and naked, shackled male bodies, all captured on ubiquitous video.
The second narrative is punctuated by anti-climactic scenes where Jones gets his Washington education. He’s acting emotionally, says Feinstein, meaning he displays symptoms of a conscience when investigating the waterboarding posse. The senator advises him to stop trying to change the world. President Obama has other priorities, says national security adviser Denis McDonough. When Jones is told that his anti-torture crusade could kill the Affordable Care Act, he can only gulp. How’s a desk jockey supposed to choose between health care and international law?
The only shocking scene in Washington comes when a CIA security team invades the workroom of the Intelligence Committee staff in search of the Panetta Review, a damning document that had been accidentally shared with Jones and his team. An internal evaluation of the torture program prepared for Leon Panetta, Obama’s first CIA director, the review came to the same conclusion as Jones did: torture didn’t produce any actionable intelligence. Since the Panetta Review refuted the CIA’s talking points, the agency set out to seize it. With their gloves, vests and flashlights, the security men invading Capitol Hill bear a disconcerting resemblance to the torturers who waterboarded 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. A lawless government abroad, “The Report” suggests, is a lawless government at home.
In the eternal Washington struggle between principles and process, guess which comes out ahead? The CIA charged that Jones had stolen the document, and the Obama Justice Department opens a criminal investigation of Jones and the committee staff. Feinstein throws a fit, and Brennan backs down with a grudging apology made possible by the agency’s victory. In the end, Obama agrees the full report will stay secret.
The triumph of process is sealed by a final assist from Jones. When the committee’s report is buried, Jones has one last chance at truth-telling. He meets a reporter from the New York Times in his car. The reporter, played by Matthew Rhys, tells him the paper will publish the whole report if he leaks it. The scene reminded me of “The Post,” another recent Washington flick, in which Rhys plays Daniel Ellsberg, who gave the Times the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
But Jones is no Ellsberg. When the reporter asks him how he will feel if, after five years of work, the public can’t see what he found, Jones says, “I’ll feel I didn’t do my job,” and gets out of the car. He assumes personal responsibility, which is admirable, rather than blaming others, which would be entirely understandable. He obeyed the law, rather than becoming a whistleblower.
If he wasn’t so dutiful, Jones could have pulled an Ellsberg or an Edward Snowden. The New York Times and Washington Post probably would have published the entire torture report, just as they ran the Pentagon Papers and reported on Snowden’s NSA files. If Jones had leaked the report, we would have had a thorough public accounting of the U.S. government’s descent into barbarism from 2002 to 2008, and “The Report,” the movie, never would have been made. We would have had the real thing in our hands. Jones might well have gone to jail, but so might some of the torturers.
In the end, realism trumped idealism. We got cinema, not justice. As the credits rolled, you could almost hear the echo of the last lines of “Chinatown,” the 1974 noir thriller. “Forget it, Dan. It’s Washington.”
“It will be incumbent on her to protect the whistleblower — and by extension, the organization — moving forward,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a senior CIA operations officer who recently retired. “This is a seminal moment for her leadership, and I’m confident she will do the right thing.”
CIA director Gina Haspel has managed to avoid alienating President Trump, even as he turns his wrath on former director John Brennan and the still-anonymous CIA whistleblower who called attention to Trump’s Ukraine deals. But Haspel crossed Trump during his bid to enlist the Ukaine government in his 2020 reelection campaign, the Daily Beast reports.
Haspel reportedly objected to Trump’s withholding of military assistance as he sought to pressure the country’s president into announcing a public investigation of Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential contender, Joe Biden.
The NSC had a series of meetings about the decision to withhold military support from Ukraine, including meetings that included cabinet secretaries. “At every meeting, the unanimous conclusion was that the security assistance should be resumed, the hold lifted,” Taylor said. Mike Pompeo, CIA Director Gina Haspel, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and the secretary of defense tried to meet with Trump to urge him to release the assistance. “[S]uch a meeting was hard to schedule, and the hold lasted well
When Gina Haspel, director of the CIA, gave her first public speech last fall at the University of Louisville, she mentioned in passing that she had gone to boarding school in England.
Where? I wondered.
The formative years of spies can illuminate the trajectory of their otherwise shadowy careers.
James Angleton, the legendary chief of counterintelligence from 1954 to 1974, attended Malvern College, an exclusive secondary school in England as young man. He absorbed the class prejudices of the English upper class which blinded him to the fact that his great good friend in British intelligence, Kim Philby, was a Soviet spy.
William Colby, CIA director from 1973 to 1975, was Angleton’s nemesis. He grew up as an itinerant Army brat who attended public high school in Vermont. He became one of the agency’s most democratic (small “d”) directors. Colby dragged the agency, kicking and screaming, into the modern era in which it had to submit to congressional oversight.
Gina Haspel’s education, it seems, had both exclusive and democratic elements.
A friendly source informs me that Haspel attended Lakenheath American High School, located on a U.S. air base northeast of London. Then calling herself Gina Walker, she graduated in 1974.
A co-educational school with 430 students today, Lakenheath American is one of 164 accredited institutions run by the Pentagon’s public school system, known as Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA).
All of the students at Lakenheath are children of U.S. officers, enlisted personnel or support staff. The school is not open to British students.
Lakenheath American, according to alumnus Joe Pinatubo on Facebook, “has produced, half a dozen astronauts, a Miss America, the band, America, countless fighter pilots and another famous CIA agent notoriously known for being the only CIA agent to successfully defect to USSR.”
That would be Edward Howard. a CIA who spied for the Soviet Union and fled there in 1985 when he was on the verge of arrest.
School photographs from the period show a racially mixed student body adorned with the inimitable hairstyles of the 1970s.
Frank Kelley, a Lakenheath alumnus in the 1960s, describes the school as “top notch” academically with mandatory study halls and a “great camaraderie” among the students. Other students later told me they disagreed.
Haspel was born in Ashland, Kentucky, the daughter of an Air Force enlisted man. She had lived in many places before landing at Lakenheath. Given rapid rotation of U.S. military, Gina Walker may have only attended the school for her senior year. It’s not clear whether she was a day student or a boarder.
Did Lakenheath foreshadow her controversial career? Her education would have been insulated, demanding and militarized. was liberal, challenging, and, even in a foreign land, all-American.
As a counterterrorism officer, Haspel helped capture suspected terrorists and supervised the torture of at least one of them in 2002. When the Justice Department began to investigate, she advocated destruction of the videotaped evidence of the waterboarding sessions.
As director, Haspel has not shied from stating agency’s positions at odds with the president’s. She broke with Trump on the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. She verified Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.
Perhaps Lakenheath was a place where a girl learned she could be as tough as the boys, a place where a young woman learned how to hold her own and make her way in a male-dominated institution. Only Haspel could say for sure.
Upon graduation Gina Cheri Walker returned to the United States to attend University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville, where she graduated with honors in 1978. She went to work as a bank teller, tutor, librarian, and paralegal. Along the way, she married and divorced.
In January 1985, she applied for a job at the CIA. Later that year Lakenheath alumnus Edward Howard fled to the Soviet Union, the most embarrassing CIA defection ever. Her rise to spymaster had just begun.