The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the Atlantic didn’t press MBS harder on the Khashoggi assassination

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Nov. 20, 2019. (Handout ./Via Reuters)

The Atlantic last week printed more than 12,000 words on Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. But somehow the magazine couldn’t find space for two very important words: “bone saw.”

According to Turkish authorities, that’s the implement that Mohammed’s henchmen allegedly used on Oct. 2, 2018, to dismember Jamal Khashoggi, a Post columnist and Saudi dissident. This unspeakable crime took place at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where Khashoggi had gone to secure paperwork for his marriage. A kill team of 15 Saudi agents was waiting for him. First came sedation and, likely, suffocation. Then: “At 1:39 p.m., the corpse-dismemberment expert could be heard sawing the journalist’s body into pieces,” write Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck in “Blood and Oil: Mohammed Bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power.”

Though Saudi leaders initially denied involvement, the Turks had bugged the building; this was an extraordinarily well-documented atrocity. Faced with overwhelming audio evidence of his country’s culpability, Mohammed eventually took responsibility without taking responsibility. “Absolutely not,” said Mohammed when asked by CBS News’s Norah O’Donnell whether he’d ordered the execution. “This was a heinous crime. But I take full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia, especially since it was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government.”

The Biden administration in February 2021 released an intelligence report assessing that Mohammed approved the operation to capture or kill Khashoggi. But while eight unnamed people were convicted in a Saudi court for the crime and sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison, Mohammed escaped accountability.

Karen Attiah: The Atlantic’s elevation of MBS is an insult to journalism

He escaped prying journalists, too. The Atlantic’s March 3 piece, written by staff writer Graeme Wood, noted that his last interview with a non-Saudi outlet was more than two years ago. During this period, the crown prince, wrote Wood, “hid from public view, as if hoping the Khashoggi murder would be forgotten. It hasn’t been.” (Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg joined Wood in interviewing Mohammed.)

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The Atlantic’s interrogation of Mohammed on an early contender for crime of the century was thin. Asked if he’d ordered the assassination, Mohammed responded it was “obvious” that he hadn’t. “It hurt me and it hurt Saudi Arabia, from a feelings perspective,” said Mohammed. Mohammed also claimed that his presumption of innocence under international human rights law had been violated and that Saudi Arabia had punished the responsible parties, in contrast to U.S. atrocities such as torture at Guantánamo Bay.

We asked Wood if the Atlantic had questioned Mohammed about the dismemberment and the bone saw. He responded:

No, I did not ask what implements were used to murder and dismember Jamal, and my reporting did not focus on the mechanics of the butchery. It has been established to a high degree of certainty that Jamal's corpse was desecrated. To me that matters more than the brand of hardware.
MBS had already denied involvement, to us and to others, so these questions would have elicited more of the same. If this were a televised interview, perhaps we could have asked these questions for dramatic effect. Instead we wanted to know what the future king thought about Islamic jurisprudence; the role of the religious police; absolute vs. constitutional monarchy; U.S.-Saudi relations; corporal and capital punishment; his intra-family struggles; his decision to imprison some of his relatives and this decision’s relevance to corruption in his family; and so on. The choice was between asking about this range of issues or signaling my virtue, and I chose the former.

Withholding questions because you think the interviewee won’t answer them is not exactly fearless journalism. Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says there are a few key questions that Mohammed must answer, such as the location of Khashoggi’s remains. The Atlantic didn’t ask about that, either.

And in a passage that many compared to an O.J. Simpson-style quasi-confession, Mohammed told the Atlantic that if he did order the deaths of op-ed writers, the Post columnist wouldn’t merit targeting. “Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people on the list,” said Mohammed, who implausibly claimed he’d never read a piece by Khashoggi. “If you’re going to go for another operation like that, for another person, it’s got to be professional and it’s got to be one of the top 1,000.” (See Post columnist Karen Attiah’s column on this front.)

This was the Atlantic’s chance to step in with a forceful corrective. Not only was Mohammed credibly accused of ordering the assassination of Khashoggi, but here he was dissing his victim as an ankle-biter who couldn’t possibly have pierced his autocratic radar. As The Post reported in 2018, Saud al-Qahtani — a top aide to Mohammed — was sufficiently concerned with Khashoggi’s work to place menacing calls to the columnist. According to “Blood and Oil,” the Saudi royal family had come to see Khashoggi as a “grave national security threat” via his ability to unify Saudis who opposed “MBS’s reforms and style of running the country.”

Instead, the Atlantic whiffed, allowing Mohammed to minimize his dismembered countryman without resistance. “We did not rebut this claim because our readers are not idiots,” responded Wood, suggesting that all the readers who account for the Atlantic’s 830,000-plus total circulation walk around with a command of the Saudi dissident hierarchy.

None of this is to suggest that the Atlantic story is devoid of merit. It’s a piece of enterprise journalism stemming from Wood’s seven reporting trips to Saudi Arabia. There are compelling scenes, vivid characters and a low-to-the-ground evaluation of how Mohammed’s reforms are playing out from city to city. There’s a section on a program to reform former Islamist militants, one of whom enthused to Wood about his video-production skills: “I am a complete montage expert!” The writing is tremendous.

Yet with those merits came demerits. “Of Course Journalists Should Interview Autocrats,” reads the headline of Wood’s March 6 follow-up, which sneers at objections that the magazine gave its “platform” to such a man. By all means, give him your platform. But make him squirm, too.