In the wake of Trump’s announcement this week that his administration would continue to “stand with Saudi Arabia” despite the recent murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, America’s mainstream media elites erupted in their usual paroxysms of despair and condemnation of the president. Although this time the typical “orange man bad” stories tended to omit calls for Trump to be immediately overthrown by the military or his own cabinet, almost every other major trope was preponderant.
This was especially true of Khashoggi’s former place of employment at the Post, where journalists almost universally portrayed Trump as having blood on his hands for his refusal to directly take action against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, now widely believed to have ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
Among the most vituperative critics of Trump in this regard was Post global opinions editor Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s editor and self-described friend. In a column published on Tuesday entitled “Trump’s Defense of Khashoggi’s Saudi Murderers Will Stain Him (and America) Forever,” Attiah told her readers that [emphasis mine]:
In effect, Trump is doing his best to help the Saudi regime get away with the murder of a U.S. resident and one of the Arab world’s most prominent writers. If the administration continues down this path, it will further destroy whatever is left of America’s moral credibility on global human rights and freedom of expression. It puts truth-seekers and journalists who dare challenge the Saudi regime and other intolerant governments in grave danger, no matter where they live.
In the same piece, Attiah insisted that Khashoggi was simply a “peaceful Post op-ed writer who lived in Virginia” and that the president “turning a blind eye to the butchering of a U.S.-based journalist” is possibly one of the lowest moments of his presidency, just ahead of “Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacist violence in Charlotesville [sic]” and “mocking a sexual assault victim” (presumably Christine Blasey Ford).
Later on Tuesday night, Attiah appeared on MSNBCto reiterate many of the same points while more explicitly claiming that Trump’s decision would put her and other Saudi critics’ lives at risk [emphasis mine]:
“It made us, Trump look like we’re servants to this regime that would butcher Washington Post journalists,” [Attiah] continued. “Chris, it puts all of us, journalists, Saudi critics, anybody who dares to have an opinion against an authoritarian government around the world, it puts us in more danger. It gives people like Mohammad bin Salman a green light to erase and silence anybody that they want, wherever they might be, for whatever reason.
“I’m just really disgusted, to be honest,” she added.
It’s difficult to know where to begin when dissecting this sort of blatant dishonesty, but perhaps the best place to start is simply to note that neither Attiah nor any of her better-known colleagues are actually opposed to governments assassinating their own citizens on principle.
For example, take these two tweets from Attiah’s official Twitter account:
August babies rock! Happy Birthday to @BarackObama!— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) August 4, 2010
Happy birthday to fellow Leo and amazing leader, President @BarackObama !!!— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) August 4, 2012
While these may seem at first glance to be typical “thrill up my leg” paeans of adulation from a member of the American press (and as such are fairly unremarkable), the timing of the tweets is notable for the fact that both appeared only months after The New York Times and The Washington Post revealed that President Obama had not merely ignored a foreign government’s murder of one of its own subjects, but constructed its very own hit list of American citizens that Obama claimed the unilateral authority to judge, prosecute, sentence, and execute.
Obama’s embrace of Judge Dredd-style powers first appears to have been reported by the Washington Post back in January 2010 [emphasis mine]:
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush gave the CIA, and later the military, authority to kill U.S. citizens abroad if strong evidence existed that an American was involved in organizing or carrying out terrorist actions against the United States or U.S. interests, military and intelligence officials said. The evidence has to meet a certain, defined threshold. The person, for instance, has to pose "a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests," said one former intelligence official.
The Obama administration has adopted the same stance. If a U.S. citizen joins al-Qaeda, "it doesn't really change anything from the standpoint of whether we can target them," a senior administration official said. "They are then part of the enemy."
Both the CIA and the JSOC maintain lists of individuals, called "High Value Targets" and "High Value Individuals," whom they seek to kill or capture. The JSOC list includes three Americans, including Aulaqi, whose name was added late last year. As of several months ago, the CIA list included three U.S. citizens, and an intelligence official said that Aulaqi's name has now been added.
In April of the same year, the Times confirmed that the New Mexico-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (Aulaqi) had been officially greenlit for assassination by Obama and his National Security Council star chamber. As justification for their decision, intel officials claimed to have found evidence that Awlaki had begun “directly participating” in terrorist attacks against the United States as an official operative of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Despite providing little evidence to the American people and (more appropriately) none to the judiciary for these serious allegations, no mainstream news outlet reacted to the revelation of the existence of an executive assassination program for Americans by advocating for Obama’s impeachment, let alone by calling him a would-be tyrant or murderer (or an enabler of other tyrants and murderers on the world stage).
In September 2011, American forces finally tracked down Awlaki in Yemen and killed him with a drone strike. American citizen Samir Khan, the editor of al-Qaeda’s propaganda magazine Inspire, was also killed in the attack. Two weeks later, Anwar’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki (also an American citizen) was killed along with several of his friends by another drone strike in Yemen even though he was not reportedly on Obama’s kill list and had never been accused of engaging in terrorist or other criminal activity. At the time of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan’s deaths, Obama made a public announcement praising their killings as a “major blow” to al-Qaeda. Once again, no major mainstream media hubbub about Obama being an authoritarian dictator materialized, nor did any calls for world leaders to diplomatically and economically punish or boycott the United States.
In fact, it was not until May 2012 when a frontpage New York Times story laying out the assassination program in greater detail was published that Obama began to receive significant pushback for his “targeted killings.” Although the Times article itself went to great lengths to portray Obama’s assassinations as the carefully considered product of his “lawyerly mind” put to the task of “carving out the maximum amount of maneuvering room to fight terrorism as he saw fit,” some journalists and commentators in the civil liberal and libertarian camps still voiced strong objections to Obama’s campaign of extrajudicial killings.
One of the most notable among these was Glenn Greenwald, who would later become famous for his part in reporting Edward Snowden’s leaks about mass government surveillance. Specifically speaking about a then-recently released government white paper justifying the assassination program, Greenwald noted[emphasis in original]:
The most extremist power any political leader can assert is the power to target his own citizens for execution without any charges or due process, far from any battlefield. The Obama administration has not only asserted exactly that power in theory, but has exercised it in practice...
What has made these actions all the more radical is the absolute secrecy with which Obama has draped all of this. Not only is the entire process carried out solely within the Executive branch - with no checks or oversight of any kind - but there is zero transparency and zero accountability. The president's underlings compile their proposed lists of who should be executed, and the president - at a charming weekly event dubbed by White House aides as "Terror Tuesday" - then chooses from "baseball cards" and decrees in total secrecy who should die. The power of accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner are all consolidated in this one man, and those powers are exercised in the dark…
Obama not only claims he has the power to order US citizens killed with no transparency, but that even the documents explaining the legal rationale for this power are to be concealed…
Last night, NBC News' Michael Isikoff released a 16-page "white paper" prepared by the Obama DOJ that purports to justify Obama's power to target even Americans for assassination without due process… This is not the primary OLC memo justifying Obama's kill list - that is still concealed - but it appears to track the reasoning of that memo as anonymously described to the New York Times in October 2011…
[W]hen this memo refers to "a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida" [and justifies his indefinite imprisonment or death], what it actually means is this: someone whom the President - in total secrecy and with no due process - has accused of being that. Indeed, the memo itself makes this clear, as it baldly states that presidential assassinations are justified when "an informed, high-level official of the US government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the US".
This is the crucial point: the memo isn't justifying the due-process-free execution of senior al-Qaida leaders who pose an imminent threat to the US. It is justifying the due-process-free execution of people secretly accused by the president and his underlings, with no due process, of being that.
Although Greenwald’s criticisms of Obama’s assassination program have certainly been echoed by a few other voices in the media at some point, most condemnations of Obama seem to have been published in lesser-known left-wing or alternative press outlets and blogs. In the meantime, and especially since the election of Donald Trump, many mainstream outlets whitewashed Obama’s entire term by uncritically repeating his claim that his presidency was “scandal-free” while serious considerations of the implications of the assassination program were largely limited to the same people who had raised concerns about it back in 2012 and 2013.
Which brings us back to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by his own government and — let’s allow for the sake of argument — Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. If it was okay (or at least not overly unpleasant) for our president to assassinate one of our own citizens for his alleged ties to terrorism and jihadis, then what serious objection could one have to the Saudi crown prince assassinating one of his own citizens who was also intimately tied to Islamist terrorists and political organizations who want to overthrow his government?
I assume the primary objection to this question from journalists like Karen Attiah would be very similar to the already above-mentioned criticism of Trump in her column. Specifically, the WaPo editor and her compatriots would likely argue that Khashoggi was just a “peaceful” journalist who wanted democracy in his home country and that my mention of his darker connections (and comparison of them to al-Awlaki’s) is just more “Saudi lies” and propaganda. Far from being that, however, my knowledge of Khashoggi is not primarily based on what others have written about him, but what he has written himself in praise of jihadis like Osama bin Laden and Islamist sharia-supporting organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood.
The most obvious recent example of this was a column Khashoggi wrote for the Post in August titled “The U.S. is wrong about the Muslim Brotherhood — and the Arab world is suffering for it.” In this piece, Khashoggi openly praised the theocratic Brotherhood as heroes for democracy and freedom and insisted that “political Islam” must be a part of any true political reform in the Arab world [emphasis mine]:
The United States’s aversion to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is more apparent in the current Trump administration, is the root of a predicament across the entire Arab world. The eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes. In turn, this will mean the continuation of the causes behind revolution, extremism and refugees — all of which have affected the security of Europe and the rest of the world. Terrorism and the refugee crisis have changed the political mood in the West and brought the extreme right to prominence there.
There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it. A significant number of citizens in any given Arab country will give their vote to Islamic political parties if some form of democracy is allowed. It seems clear then that the only way to prevent political Islam from playing a role in Arab politics is to abolish democracy, which essentially deprives citizens of their basic right to choose their political representatives…
It is wrong to dwell on political Islam, conservatism and identity issues when the choice is between having a free society tolerant of all viewpoints and having an oppressive regime. Five years of Sissi’s rule in Egypt makes this point clear.
Despite Khashoggi’s dishonest claims to the contrary, the Muslim Brotherhood would not be a counter to “authoritarian” or “oppressive” regimes, at least not by typical Western standards. The Brotherhood, which is the parent organization of peaceful democratic rocket throwers like Hamas, has the ultimate goal of using democratic means to eventually establish total domination over any society that it conquers such that homosexuals and critics of Islam are executed while men beating their disobedient wives and marrying children are encouraged. This is not even the vision of freedom that most confused Post readers probably have in their heads (at least I hope not).
But even though Khashoggi had mastered the repetition of meaningless American liberal talking points about oppression and democracy and seamlessly integrated them into his propaganda by 2018, in 1988 he was far more straightforward about his support not just for the political Islam espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, but violent jihad more specifically. In a piece from that year entitled “Arab Youths Fight Shoulder to Shoulder With Mujahedeen,” Khashoggi wrote approvingly about the Arab “martyrs” and their commanders who were fighting and dying in the “jihad” (Mujahideen also literally refers to people engaged in jihad) against the Soviet infidels who had invaded Afghanistan. Among the commanders that Khashoggi held up as a supreme example of devotion to political Islam was his acquaintance “Osama Benladen” (yes, that bin Laden). Repeatedly referring to bin Laden by the familiar name “Abu Abdullah,” Khashoggi praised the terrorist leader’s “experience and capabilities” for the “vital role” they had played in facilitating the growth and training of the Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan and puffed up bin Laden and his jihadis as being on track to achieve “a great victory in the next campaign” against the infidels. At the top of Khashoggi’s piece, as it appeared in the Arab News, one can also see Khashoggi smiling while holding an RPG next to other armed jihadis.
A readable picture of the article has circulated on social media and can be found below:
(Note: The user above was using Khashoggi’s adulatory article about Osama bin Laden to criticize Khashoggi’s comparison of the 9/11 attacks with Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.)
In short, Jamal Khashoggi was certainly not on the same level as Anwar al-Awlaki — Khashoggi was arguably much worse. As someone who never seems to have openly advocated for violent jihad against the West, Khashoggi was instead able to take a far more effective path towards promoting political Islam than either bin Laden or al-Awlaki ever did. By rubbing shoulders with and ingratiating himself among Washington D.C.’s media and political elites, Khashoggi was having immense success (as is evident from all of the recently published mainstream media pieces lauding him) convincing top-placed American decision-makers and influencers to support one of the most dangerous political forces in the world — a group that would, if it had the influence and power to do so, enslave the entire Middle East (if not the rest of the world) under the yoke of Islamic supremacy and sharia law.
So, even if you support sanctioning Saudi Arabia for the murder of Khashoggi, it’s worth asking yourself why. If you really support punishing all world leaders who engage in political assassinations, then do you (or did you) support going after Obama for his actions?
If we as Americans want to seriously and credibly stand up for human rights, due process, and the rule of law, shouldn’t we start with our own cherished prince?