What happened to dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi after he was last seen stepping into his country’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 is now clear: He was interrogated, tortured, and, ultimately, killed.
After a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a. MBS) on Tuesday, it is still anticipated that Saudi Arabia will claim Khashoggi’s death was an accident. This comes after two weeks of Saudi authorities denying that they had anything to do with the Virginia resident’s disappearance.
MBS told President Donald Trump on Monday that he had no knowledge of how 15 men, including the country’s chief of forensics, entered the consulate and killed Khashoggi (Trump actually used the term “rogue killers” to describe the kill team).
The real fallout (if any) from this incident is still undetermined. So far, some big players have backed out of a Saudi “Davos in the Desert” conference, the Saudi ambassador to D.C. (MBS’s brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman) has returned to Riyadh, and the Saudi Consulate General left Turkey on Tuesday, before Turkish authorities could search the consulate, which, according to Reuters, has been repainted and where Saudis have left “toxic chemicals.”
No matter what happens, Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi state and writer for The Washington Post, lost his life in an apparently gruesome manner. How could this happen during the course of an interrogation? What are the protocols? Why were special forces and an autopsy expert even part of a team sent to question a 59-year-old unarmed man in a consulate office?
ThinkProgress spoke to John Nixon, a retired CIA analyst, and Jeffrey Ringel, former FBI agent, about Khashoggi’s case.
Although there are different rules for interrogating someone in the United States (as the FBI might do), dealing with a prisoner of war (as the CIA might), and whatever it was the Saudis were doing with Khashoggi, Ringel and Nixon have extensive knowledge of interrogation techniques and are well aware of the steps one might take to get information from a subject and keep them alive.
A 21-year FBI veteran, Ringel, who currently serves as director of the Soufan Group, told ThinkProgress that the whole point of an interrogation is to get information — usually something rather specific. That requires doing a lot of research on the subject and “knowing all the answers” in an effort to let the subject know that he or she will be caught in a lie.
It might also involve other psychological tricks that can knock the subject “off balance.”
Here’s what it does not involve: Striking them in any way or threatening to physically harm them. Also, an autopsy specialist “is not anybody that you would need for an interrogation. So what is that person doing there?”
Usually, there would be two agents in the room. And, in cases where someone is being extracted or renditioned to another location for questioning, Ringel said a doctor or medic would accompany the agents traveling with the subject, “Just to make sure if there was a medical problem, there could be a medical response,” because the agency in charge of the subject is responsible for them.
If they wanted to question Khashoggi in “a rendition type situation,” they would likely have drugged and sedated him, then “gotten him out of the embassy, put him on a plane and taken him overseas, where he would now be alive in Saudi Arabia. That does not appear to have been the plan…it doesn’t look like they were there to question Khashoggi.”
But having a forensic specialist on hand “makes no sense, unless the idea, at the onset, was that this person isn’t coming back alive,” said Ringel.
“It seemed like it was a very well-planned operation with one goal in mind,” he said.
MBS figured he could ‘get away with it’
Nixon, a CIA analyst who once interrogated Saddam Hussein only laid out one possibility for how things might have gone so wrong: “He might have found himself cornered, surrounded by people who might have demanded that he make some sort of statement…and then things get out of hand and people lose their temper and then blows start being traded…and then things went too far.”
He said the best way to get information out of someone like Khashoggi would have, in fact, been to “downplay” the situation.
“Maybe have two or three people there, and usually you’d have people from the consulate there. When I heard that they had a 15-man team there…my first feeling was this was about intimidation and perhaps detaining the person with the idea of renditioning them back to their home country,” said Nixon.
He said only Saudi officials would know the intention of the mission. One thing is clear: Sending a team of 15 who, Nixon said were probably “not bookish people, they’re goons, basically,” only increased the odds of things escalating, even if that wasn’t the intention.
While interrogating Saddam Hussein was a very different scenario, Nixon was part of a team of three: A polygraph specialist and an interpreter. There was no need for anything else, and Nixon can’t say why so many people were required to deal with Khashoggi.
Even if the journalist was being difficult, Nixon said there are other ways to persuade a subject to speak — let them know that perhaps they are putting their loved ones at risk by not cooperating, for instance.
It’s all about “leveraging information against people and letting them know how much trouble they’re in,” said Nixon, who was with the CIA for 13 years.
The way Khashoggi was treated almost has the hallmarks of a crime of passion — Khashoggi’s family, after all, had been close to the Saudi government in the past. But having at least at one point been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (viewed as a terrorist group by several states in the Arab world) before turning himself into a vocal critic of the Saudi regime, Khashoggi’s transition was seen as a major betrayal.
“And, in any government, once the top dog has expressed certain feelings, it doesn’t take much for people to go out and execute on that,” said Nixon. He added, if things are as they have been reported, that seems to have been the case.
The details continuing to come out of Turkey on Tuesday are horrific — that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the consulate. The toxic chemicals found there, said Nixon, might have been used to help dissolve Khashoggi’s remains.
Nixon said this kind of interrogation might take place “in war time,” when they are not condoned by international law, but that things can get messy. It certainly seems that MBS feels like he can operate with impunity, and that his messes will have little consequence.
“I think the [Trump] administration has invested a lot of political capital in his country, and he’s almost like [MBS] may have thought, ‘I can do this and get away with it…it’ll be fine,'” said Nixon, who added that the Saudi crown prince embodies a “too big to fail” principle, being as close as he is to Jared Kushner and having Trump’s “seal of approval.”
But someone is going to have to take the fall, and, he added, it will likely be someone in that Saudi kill team.
“If I’m one of the guys who is member of the 15-member detail, I’m going to be real nervous about going home,” said Nixon.