In his last column for The Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi explained how the lack of a free press has impoverished the Arabs.
“A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche,” he wrote, “and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative. Sadly, this situation is unlikely to change.”
Khashoggi might have also been describing the current state of the U.S. media. Over the last several years, the press here has repeatedly joined with government officials, including intelligence officers, to wage operations influencing the American public to obtain political goals, just like Middle East media.
Take Turkey, for example. As The Washington Post explained, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used leaks about the Khashoggi affair, some true some not, as a political instrument to target Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Trump administration.
What the Post failed to disclose was that it played a role in Erdogan’s campaign. Indeed, in the last few years, a whole swath of the U.S. press and foreign policy establishment that had been openly hostile to the Turkish government suddenly began publishing almost everything the Erdogan-allied media gave them, relaying anonymous leaks from Turkish officials, often secondhand, to American audiences for the purpose of damaging a Trump ally.
Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other country in the world, thus most of what’s left of the Turkish press are journalists aligned with the president or wary of crossing him. In other words, the Turkish press is not a separate and independent institution but is instead one of the Turkish government’s political weapons.
The U.S. media meshed seamlessly with Turkish information operations because our journalists have become habituated to their new role as political assets. For two years the press has been breathlessly reporting thousands of stories sourced to unnamed U.S. officials and promising that the latest development—Russiagate, Stormygate, etc.—was certain to topple President Donald Trump. Whether you admire or disdain the so-called #resistance, the fact is that a press labeling itself as such on Twitter is one less interested in reporting facts than shaping political outcomes.
In the Khashoggi case, the press was playing the part of the pro-Iran echo chamber, originally built to sell the Iran nuclear deal. For Barack Obama, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was a geopolitical instrument realigning U.S. interests with Iran, while downgrading the 75-year-old U.S.-Saudi relationship, along with the U.S.-Israel alliance. One of Trump’s first moves in office was to restore Riyadh to its privileged place as regional partner. The echo chamber used the Khashoggi affair to target Riyadh in an effort to preserve Obama’s pro-Iran policies.
Khashoggi himself was no stranger to the ways of the Arab press. His jobs in Saudi print and broadcast media were courtesy of powerful sponsors. One of them, Turki al-Faisal, had been, in addition to the ambassador to the United Kingdom and the United States, the chief of Saudi Arabia’s general intelligence directorate. As an Arab media personality, Khashoggi’s role, as Arab news consumers all understood, was to represent publicly the political interests of his patrons.
Arab papers are widely known as platforms for the views or goals of a particular regime, political figure, or intelligence service. It’s not a free press in any meaningful sense. But taking these many outlets as a whole, it’s possible to piece together a relatively accurate picture of the political game board.
There are two profound ironies at the core of the current U.S. media operation using the murder of Khashoggi to political ends. First is that Khashoggi was opposed to pro-Iran U.S. policy that unleashed Iran across the Middle East. It’s true, as Khashoggi’s U.S. supporters say, that he was critical of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. What the Iran-friendly U.S. press corps leaves out is that he was also against Iran’s Obama-funded war against Syria’s Sunni population.
And thus, the second irony is that U.S. reporting about the disappearance and death of an Arab journalist who pleaded for media transparency in his own society marks another chapter in the ongoing transformation of what was once the freest press in the world: America’s.
What can American media audiences expect now that our press has become like those of the Middle East? Here’s the prominent Lebanese journalist Michael Young writing about the Lebanese press:
For a long time, Beirut hosted a relatively free press, as governments and political figures around the region helped to finance newspapers in the Lebanese capital to advance their own political agendas. Lebanon was a lively playing field for inter-Arab rivalries, and journalists were sometimes hired hands for governments or influential figures. This hardly made for ideal journalism, but it did make for a stimulating forum to follow what was going on in the region.
In other words, you don’t read the Lebanese press for news as such. Rather, it’s a kind of bulletin board where significant political actors, working through operatives with bylines, hint at their next moves, test the waters, warn rivals, issue threats, etc. Take Ibrahim al-Amin, for instance, the editor of Al-Akhbar, a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper. In the context described by Young, Amin is a journalist. But in reality, he’s a Hezbollah operative, running one aspect of the party’s political warfare campaign. His reports are interesting not as attempts to approach any ideal of objective truth, but for the hints they may contain about the intentions of his patrons.
Over the last several years, there have been at least three major information operations run through the American media. There was the Iran deal, which premiered the echo chamber. Next was the Russia collusion narrative, using many of the same echo chamber figures, media and government officials, to try to topple Trump. The latest is Operation Khashoggi, which is both pro-Iran and targeting Trump.
One of the main players behind this campaign appears to be a former architect of Obama’s pro-Iran Middle East policy, Robert Malley. Now president of the International Crisis Group, Malley has been arguing for months that the United States should cut support for Saudi Arabia’s war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Thus, as the Washington policy establishment demanded punishment for Khashoggi’s disappearance and death, Malley gave their grief and anger form. He provided specific policy goals—punish the Saudis in Yemen. Eventually, others picked up Malley’s rallying cry, as here in The New York Times and here in a Washington Post editorial—“Editorial Board calls for a ban on all U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s bloody war in Yemen.”
To understand the nature of the Khashoggi campaign, it’s worth comparing Malley’s policy points now to the argument he made more than a decade ago regarding another Iran-related issue. Back then, the George W. Bush administration was reconsidering its Syria and Lebanon policy after the 2005 murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syrian President Bashar Assad was thought responsible for the crime. In this instance, however, Malley recommended that the White House not let the assassination of an Arab official color U.S. relations with his suspected murderer. Washington shouldn’t ostracize Assad, Malley wrote in 2007—shortly after then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Damascus to embrace the man suspected of murdering Hariri.
Is there a consistent principle underlying Malley’s two policy recommendations, one regarding a suspected murderer ruling Syria and another ruling Saudi Arabia? Yes. In both instances Malley advocated policies that benefitted Iran and its allies.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials also have a stake in the Khashoggi operation. When Mohammed bin Salman replaced Muhammad bin Nayef as crown prince, U.S. spies whose ties to the Gulf and access to Gulf money went through the latter, found themselves on the outside looking in.
As former FBI agent Ali Soufan told NBC, overturning the line of succession is “the original sin of this relationship. Mohammed bin Nayef was the most important counterterrorism official in the Middle East [and] had worked with the U.S. for decades.”
Other former U.S. intelligence officials who have joined the anti-Salman campaign, include ex-CIA director John Brennan, who suggested the United States freeze arms sales to Riyadh, ex-deputy CIA director John McLaughlin, and former CIA official Ned Price. All three are MSNBC analysts, along with other former agency officers. One upside of the Khashoggi operation is that it has helped illuminate another part of the map of the new U.S. media—MSNBC appears to be a destination of choice for CIA leaks.
Blurring the lines between journalists/analysts and officials/operatives is not simply a matter of convenient nomenclature. It’s part of a conscious strategy to legitimize the nature and structure of information operations by obscuring their political character. How dare Trump strip John Brennan’s security clearance! He’s infringing on the former CIA director’s free speech rights—as a journalist.
Branding political operatives and intelligence officials as “press” is also intended to shield these newly minted “analysts” from possible prosecution. Evidence of their crimes and abuses may be found in the steady stream of classified intelligence illegally leaked to a complicit press corps for the purpose of marketing the Russia collusion narrative. By relabeling government officials as “journalists,” the media is protecting both its clandestine confederates and itself.
An analysis of Russiagate coverage also seems to suggest that the Federal Bureau of Investigation tends to favor The New York Times as a delivery mechanism while the Department of Justice prefers The Washington Post. Last month, the Times published a story sourced to memos written by FBI officials, including former deputy director Andrew McCabe, portraying Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as a conspirator plotting to bring down Trump. According to the account, Rosenstein told FBI officials that he’d wear a wire to record the president and gather evidence to remove him from office. When it was time for Rosenstein and allies at the DOJ to do damage control, their story went to the Post, published hours after the Times piece, explaining that Rosenstein was being sarcastic about spying on Trump, those FBI guys can’t take a joke!
The smart take is that the media keeps getting gamed. A gullible and inexperienced press corps can’t help but be taken advantage of by savvy political operatives, especially when they’re working in foreign lands. Most reporters don’t know Arabic, which is why the press mistranslated, for instance, a statement from the Saudi Justice Ministry saying that it had received the Turkish government’s claims that the Khashoggi murder was premeditated and was further investigating. The press reported instead that the Saudis had admitted it was premeditated.
Yet, the U.S. media did have the accurate translation. However, what seemed to appear in print were only those parts that were helpful in furthering the operation: Saudi Arabia is an instrument to damage Trump and preserve Obama’s policies. In this reading, the media is not getting gamed. It’s part of the operation—the indispensable part of the operation.
How did the U.S. press get here? As I’ve written previously in Tablet, the financial collapse of the press also led to its professional collapse. After the rise of the internet, the press spent years figuring out whether or not to charge for content in the hope that, eventually, digital advertising would make up for the loss in print advertising. So it gave its product away for free on Google, Facebook, and Twitter, thereby turning their prestige press brands into little more than blogs supplying free social media content. Among other reasons why Americans distrust journalists more than ever is that for two decades the media have been telling the U.S. public that its own product was worthless.
“Sadly,” as the late Jamal Khashoggi wrote, “this situation is unlikely to change.”
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).