Michael Morell, a Post contributing columnist, was deputy director of the CIA from 2010 to 2013 and twice its acting director during that period.
The attempted pipe-bomb attacks on a number of prominent Americans, followed by the horrific killings in Pittsburgh, have dominated the recent news. And for good reason: These homegrown attacks on Americans are devastating and hark back to the darkest times in our nation’s history.
But even amid the cacophony of tragedies we face, we cannot afford to move past the murder of Post contributing columnist, U.S. resident and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And the United States needs to respond — beyond simply enforcing a travel ban on those Saudis identified by their own government as having been involved.
A robust process for formulating that response would include considerable work by the Central Intelligence Agency.
In the early days of his first term, President George W. Bush told me that the CIA had two roles in serving him. The first, obvious to most people, was to uncover clandestine information the president needed to know to keep the nation secure.
The second — less obvious but just as critical — was for the CIA to provide him with all the context and perspective he needed to make informed foreign policy decisions.
These two roles have always struck me as excellent mission statements for the operational and analytic sides of the CIA, respectively — and presidents have used both. The two roles were, for example, fully harnessed by the Barack Obama administration as we closed in on Osama bin Laden.
In that case, the agency had to answer the obvious question — whether bin Laden was hiding at the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan. But there were less obvious questions that the president needed answered. They included what a raid on the compound would mean for U.S.-Pakistan relations, whether taking out bin Laden would lead his followers to conduct attacks on U.S. interests, and, should the raid result in bin Laden’s death, how the various options for disposing of the body would play in the Muslim world. By the end of the policy process, a thick briefing book contained the answers to these questions and dozens of others.
I hope President Trump is utilizing all the CIA has to offer while thinking through the Khashoggi case. Of course, the CIA should be collecting its own intelligence and providing it to the White House and Congress. For instance:
What was the Saudis’ plan for when Khashoggi walked into their consulate in Istanbul? (CIA Director Gina Haspel may well already know, since she reportedly has listened to a recording of the killing.) Who in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, knew about the operation in advance? Most importantly, did Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman know — and did he subsequently lie about it to Trump? Who in Riyadh was involved in the initial coverups? What is the status of the Saudis so far deemed responsible — including the crown prince’s closest aide, Saud al-Qahtani? Have they been fired from their government positions? Are they in custody?
But the CIA should also be providing answers to a number of key analytical questions. For example, the agency should assess the Saudi reform program — how important is it to the future of the kingdom, how integral is the crown prince to its success, and is the crown prince’s move toward authoritarianism necessary for reform or a step that will cause it to ultimately fail?
The agency should also analyze the implications of possible sanctions against Saudi Arabia. Would the crown prince be damaged politically by sanctions? Would they create political instability within the kingdom? How would the Saudis — and the rest of the world — react? Would the Saudis try to repair their relationship with the United States or would they escalate, using oil as a weapon? Would Russia and China see an opening to strengthen ties with the Saudi government, shifting alliances eastward? How would the Iranians try to take advantage of a U.S.-Saudi rift?
And, importantly, what about deterrence? If we choose not to impose sanctions, will the Saudi regime — or others around the world — be emboldened to commit similar atrocities in the future? Would taking action against Riyadh deter other countries? Or would it not make a difference?
The skills of the CIA’s operations officers and the breadth and depth of the expertise of its analysts give the agency an unparalleled ability to follow these lines of inquiry. Prior administrations understood these capabilities and used them to make critical decisions. The CIA may already be pursuing both the obvious and not-so-obvious questions about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. But it will be up to this White House and Congress to turn their answers into actions.