top of page

Was Jamal Khashoggi Warned – and If Not, What Now?

By Maria Stratienko

At 1:30 PM on October 2, 2018, prominent journalist and activist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey to obtain a document that would allow him to wed his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, the next day. After four hours of waiting outside the consulate, Cengiz contacted the Turkish police. In the days immediately following, a steady stream of confusion and deceit swirled, with news outlets publishing reports in direct contrast to government releases. The disorientation came to a head on October 19, when the Saudi government confirmed Khashoggi’s death in a “brawl” in the consulate two weeks prior. He was 59 years old.

What has followed Khashoggi’s death – which the intelligence community has increasingly attributed directly to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – has raised questions in a number of spaces, including protection for journalists and activists and Saudi Arabia’s disregard for human rights. However, in the national security realm, Khashoggi’s death has raised a major concern: namely, whether the duty the United States had to warn Khashoggi of the threats on his life was fulfilled. While the substance of the inquiry remains unknown, U.S. federal law provides both rights and responsibilities to guide this duty, and, absent compliance, the intelligence community may be faced with painful oversight examinations from Capitol Hill.

On July 21, 2015, under the authority of Executive Order 12333 and the National Security Act of 1947, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper signed Intelligence Community Directive 191, an order availing the entirety of the intelligence community of a duty to warn both U.S. and non-U.S. citizens of “impending threats of intentional killing, serious bodily injury, and kidnapping.” Though exceptions underlay Directive 191’s mandate, mainly to protect sources and methods, one could reasonably expect that Khashoggi, who resided in Virginia on an “O” visa and was reportedly applying for permanent residence, could be easily contacted in a secure manner. Further, as his final column in the Washington Post noted, Khashoggi was aware of threats to Saudi dissidents like his friend Saleh al-Shehi, who is now serving a prison term for criticism of the royal court.

Given the climate, Khashoggi presumably knew of his relative danger – but was he warned specifically? As the Washington Post reported just days after Khashoggi’s death, intelligence officials intercepted communications between Saudi officials “discussing a plan to capture him” and seeking to “lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and lay hands on him there.” While the level of specificity in light of the circumstances would generally catalyze the intelligence community’s duty to warn, absent unknowable factors, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) chose not to comment when prompted by CNN’s Jake Tapper.

ODNI’s stonewalling, which has been directed from the White House, has been met with disdain from Capitol Hill, where Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) expressed frustration at his repeatedly denied efforts to obtain an intelligence assessment of Khashoggi’s death. However, notable is the bipartisan response Senate leaders have undertaken in the aftermath of October 2, as both Corker and SFRC Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-NJ) expressed widespread reticence in the body to approve a major Saudi arms deal championed by President Trump. Legislators have stopped short, however, of calling for an oversight inquiry of the intelligence community on the matter – though others, including Khashoggi’s former Washington Post colleague David Ignatius, have.

With increasing incidences of politicization of the intelligence community’s findings and conclusions writ large, lawmakers have sorely missed the opportunity to conduct meaningful, bipartisan oversight in the space. Jamal Khashoggi’s death is enraging, horrific, and heartbreaking. However, it is also an opportunity to evaluate the efficacy of the intelligence community’s processes, ensuring that duties are met and that the nation’s commitment to justice in the face of threats to democracy is true.


bottom of page