CIA officials are signaling Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman must be replaced. Is this all about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi? Professor Asad AbuKhalil says there are other political reasons
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Ben Norton.
There are new developments in the scandal surrounding the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi writer who was a columnist for the Washington Post, and was a longtime royalist and a key figure in the royal family, who was killed in a gristly assassination in Turkey. The CIA now says that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, personally ordered the killing of Khashoggi. Mohammed bin Salman has denied this, and President Donald Trump has also cast aspersions on this and actually cast doubt on the CIA’s assessment. Here’s a clip of Donald Trump.
REPORTER: Question. Did MBS lie to you, sir?
DONALD TRUMP: I don’t I don’t know. You know, who could really know? But I can say this. He’s got many people now who say he had no knowledge.
REPORTER: What if the Crown Prince, speaking to you, the president of the United States, directly lied to you about that?
DONALD TRUMP: He told me that he had nothing to do with it. He told me that, I would say maybe five times, at different points.
REPORTER: But what if he’s lying?
DONALD TRUMP: As recently as a few days ago.
REPORTER: Do you just live with it because you need him?
DONALD TRUMP: Well, will anybody really know? All right? Will anybody really know?
BEN NORTON: That was President Donald Trump responding to the new report that the CIA says the Saudi crown prince ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. What’s interesting about this is that the CIA of course has a long history with Saudi Arabia supporting many extremist groups in alliance with Saudi Arabia, including the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.
In no way is the CIA opposed to Saudi Arabia. And actually, in October we saw the former CIA Director John Brennan spell this out very clearly when he said that the Khashoggi scandal would be the downfall of Mohammed bin Salman. Here’s a clip of John Brennan in October on MSNBC.
JOHN BRENNAN: I think ultimately this is going to come out. And it’s very important for us to maintain the relations with Saudi Arabia. And if it’s Mohammed bin Salman who’s the cancer here, well, we need to be able to find ways to eliminate the cancer and to move forward with this relationship that is critical to regional stability and our national interests.
BEN NORTON: That was the ex-CIA director saying very explicitly that Mohammad bin Salman could be the “cancer” that needs to be excised, but the Saudi relationship with the U.S. must continue.
So this is the question that we want to explore today. Mainstream corporate media outlets have suddenly developed a fixation on the Khadhoggi scandal, just at the same time when the CIA has turned against the crown prince. Of course, the corporate media in the U.S. spent two years now whitewashing Mohammed bin Salman as the potential savior of not just Saudi Arabia, but potentially the Middle East as a whole.
So joining us to discuss why the CIA has turned against the Saudi crown prince is Asad Abukhalil. Asad is a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, and he blogs at The Angry Arab News Service. Thanks for joining us, Asad.
ASAD ABUKHALIL: Thank you, Ben.
BEN NORTON: So this is the question. Corporate media outlets for years now, most infamously people like Thomas Friedman, saw Mohammed bin Salman as the savior of Saudi Arabia. But now they’ve really flipped to the other side. We see corporate media outlets giving a platform to CIA officials. We also see figures in the liberal resistance attacking Donald Trump and saying, oh, the president refuses to listen to his own intelligence agencies.
Although as I mentioned, it goes without saying that for many decades the CIA has closely collaborated with the Saudi monarchy. So it’s not, as John Brennan made clear, it’s not that they want the U.S. relationship with the Saudi regime to end. They simply have turned against the crown prince. Why do you think that is?
ASAD ABUKHALIL: Well, first of all, I need to say that it’s quite ironic for the mainstream media, especially the Washington Post, which has been invoking lofty ideals about democracy as a slogan of it — even though it’s owned by the wealthiest man in the world — has been speaking in the name of democracy, and yet has been serving as the mouthpiece for the intelligence apparatus.
Mainstream media, the Post and others, imply very directly that the president of the United States has to do whatever dictates from the military and intelligence apparatus, as if this is the chain of command. I mean, it is the president of the United States who should subordinate the military intelligence agencies to its role as somebody who is elected by the United States, the American public, and so on.
However, I think because the Washington Post in particular has been a mouthpiece of the intelligence service, particularly the CIA, it should be said that there is an agenda for the CIA on this. And I’m glad you quoted John Brennan. As you know, John Brennan, before he became CIA director, was the Middle East and the CIA — and he was CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, where he cultivated very close ties with the royal family.
There is nothing about the need for accountability in the CIA leaks which wants to bring down Mohammed bin Salman. This is all about choosing between the various lousy princes.
As you know, Mohammed bin Nayef was ousted last year by Mohammed bin Salman, his cousin. He was the choice for the intelligence agencies and the FBI, because this man, when he was deputy to his father, the minister of interior for many years, was a very close ally — client, you should say — of the U.S. government and its intelligence agency.
Mohammed bin Salman was unknown. It’s not somebody that they know for a long time. But far from wanting great accountability for the murder of Khashoggi, as if the intelligence agencies are really up in arms about the death of anybody in the Middle East, this is about worrying about the future of the Saudi regime.
In other words, I feel that Donald Trump wants what is best for his administration. He has somebody, he has Mohammed bin Salman, as he best can have him. He is holding him by the neck. And if he survives, he — Mohammed bin Salman — will be greatly indebted to Trump, and to Netanyahu, because those two stood by him and kept him afloat. And because of that situation, Mohammad bin Salman will be obligated to make so many concessions — political, military, and financial — to the United States, and even to Israel. Some of it would be more direct now. Perhaps he would even visit the Israeli occupation state.
On the other hand, the intelligence agencies, I think, my reading, is that they do not think that Mohamed bin Salman is capable of steering the regime in a direction that is more in the interest of the stability of the regime. As a result they would rather make a change in order to save the regime. They worry that bin Salman is too reckless, and his thinking is ruled too precarious, which endangered American interests in that region.
BEN NORTON: There’s a lot to respond to there. I want to talk first, before we talk about the tension within the royal family — you mentioned Mohammed bin Nayef, who was slated to be the next king and was replaced by Mohammed bin Salman. Before we get to that, though, let’s talk a bit about the relationship between the CIA and Saudi Arabia.
As you mentioned, John Brennan, the former director, had a longstanding tie to Saudi Arabia, worked a lot in the kingdom. And of course, I mentioned the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in which the CIA worked with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to arm Islamist extremists to fight against the Soviet Union, and the Afghan government backed by the Soviet Union.
We also saw in Syria that the CIA worked with Saudi Arabia to arm and train rebels, many of whom were also Salafi-jihadist extremists. So this relationship continues to this day. It’s a very close one.
So can you talk a bit more about the relationship between the U.S. intelligence services and Saudi Arabia, and maybe the different figures aside from Muhammad bin Salman and what their roles have been in the CIA? Because there is speculation that Jamal Khashoggi himself might have been a CIA asset.
ASAD ABUKHALIL: Well, I mean, I do not know about that. But I’m glad in your introduction you accurately — contrary to the way the media refer to the past of Jamal Khashoggi — accurately described his background. Jamal Khashoggi, it should be said over and over again, was part of the establishment and the propaganda outlets of the Saudi regime for many years.
This is a man who’s been made by Human Rights Watch and mainstream media as if he’s a longtime critic of the Saudi government. This is a man who spent a career making money from being a propagandist for the Saudi royal family, and moving between one prince and another.
And in fact, he only fell in trouble — he did not count on democracy. He counted on the wrong prince, which is the Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who fell out of favor in this new regime in Saudi Arabia. And as a result he was in trouble himself, and he fled.
And he suddenly discovered the love of democracy and freedom in the United States, in the really lame articles he’s been writing for The Washington Post, which reads to me as being heavily edited by his editors over there, which is fine.
I should also say that Jamal Khashoggi was very mild in his criticism of the Saudi regime. He did not in any way call for an overthrow. He always committed himself to the preservation of the monarchy, and even played, he even played on the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. This is left unmentioned in the media coverage.
So John Brennan himself — and this is a graduate of the Obama administration — suddenly now they are now posing as advocates of democracy in the Middle East when they themselves were characteristic of every administration since World War II; have been advocates of dictatorship and despots throughout the region.
In fact, propaganda brochures that I have seen in Arabic, produced by the Saudi regime, have quotations from John Brennan in praise of the Saudi regime and American-Saudi relations. And if you look now on social media to the graduates of the Obama administration, the various functionaries, you will see now that they are pretending as if Trump suddenly changed the course of American foreign policy and made it not in any way pay too much attention for democracy.
If you look at the agenda or the record of the Obama administration it doesn’t differ at all from the Trump record. If anything, Trump is more honest than the duplicitous Obama administration. And in fact, in Ben Rhodes’ book about Obama’s foreign policy, John Brennan himself is quoted as opposing any change for democracy in Egypt and for standing up to the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. And he made the old classical colonial point that “Arabs are not ready for democracy.”
So in that sense the military intelligence apparatuses basically have various intelligence agencies in the Middle East that they basically work at their pleasure. So they have a great relationship with them. Sometimes they are paid by them, like in the case of Saudi Arabia. Or sometimes they pay them, as in the case of Egypt and Jordan, where the intelligence agencies there are subcontractors of the CIA and the various intelligence agencies.
And it is, in fact, for this reason that the American intelligence agencies were caught totally by surprise with the Arab uprising in 2011; because they relied too much on the advice and wisdom of intelligence agencies in Jordan, Egypt, and elsewhere that they pay a lot of money for, in order to provide them with work that perhaps they were too lazy to do on their own.
BEN NORTON: And then, finally, let’s talk a bit — you mentioned earlier Mohammed bin Nayef — let’s talk about the internal dynamics. Mohammed bin Nayef, who was supposed to be the original crown prince; he was supposed to replace the current king, King Salman, who is likely senile. Mohammed bin Salman took his place, took Mohammed bin Nayef’s place.
MBN was the interior minister. He oversaw the so-called “counterterrorism” program inside Saudi Arabia. He also studied in the U.S., and he trained with the FBI. In 2015, in this kind of ceremony, when he was appointed crown prince, he visited with Obama in the White House. It was very clear that NBN was the U.S. man, who was going to be the next king.
Also, you’ve mentioned before in a previous interview here at The Real News that Khashoggi was very close to Turki bin Faisal, as well. Turki bin Faisal was the head of Saudi intelligence; he was the Saudi ambassador to the United States. And when he was here in the U.S., Khashoggi was actually his spokesperson.
So can you talk about who the U.S. and the CIA potentially — of course, this is largely speculation — but who they would prefer to have over MBS? It seems to me that they want to go back to MBN. Do you think that’s one of the main reasons?
ASAD ABUKHALIL: You’re absolutely right. And I want to say that — just one minor correction. Mohammad bin Nayef did study in Portland for college, but he did not graduate. Most Saudi royal princes study in the United States, but they never bother to graduate, for some reason. In fact, and this is scandalous, in my opinion, Turki al-Faisal is now a professor at Georgetown University. This man studied at Georgetown University in the 1960s at the School of Foreign Service, but he never graduated. He in fact was awarded a degree that he did not earn only many years later thanks to the generous donations he and his family made to the university.
As far as Mohammed bin Nayef is concerned, you are right in mentioning that he studied in the United States because, this has become very clear in many Western media writings. They really like princes who study in the United States. They assume that they are much easier to do business with, for some reason. And one of the complaints that I have read, I think even in Thomas Friedman’s article, as annoying as they are on the eyes, that Mohammed bin Salman is somebody who did not study in the United States.
Well, I think the preference has been very clear for many years that Mohammed bin Nayef is their choice. It is not that Mohammed bin Salman has been unreliable, or he has not been loyal. But they worry that by his recklessness and impulsiveness he may jeopardize the very security of the Saudi royal family. This is something that was missing of the coverage.
So I think the CIA’s interest is that they are really worried about the precariousness of the Saudi regime. More than ever, in a long time of contemporary history of the regime, maybe the first time since the 1960s, early 1960s, when the regime was really in trouble with the rising tide of Nasserism, there is a real danger about the cohesiveness of the royal family and the stability of the regime.
Because for this reason, I think that the CIA and other intelligence agencies of the U.S. government, and the military, would rather have any other prince. It doesn’t have to be Mohammed bin Nayef. But this guy in particular [Mohammed bin Salman] has proven to be too adventurous, too troublesome. And sometimes he seems to act on his own. And that really worries the United States. Not so much out of concern about the people of Yemen, or about about the plight of journalists who may be killed by this prince. But it’s more about the stability of the region due to his action over there.
BEN NORTON: Well, we’ll have to end it there. We were speaking with Asad Abukhalil, who is a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. As always, thanks for joining us, Asad.
ASAD ABUKHALIL: Thank you very much. Take care.
BEN NORTON: For The Real News Network. I’m Ben Norton.