By 2006, Saudi Arabia had largely contained its own terrorism problem—at times using methods that highlighted the difference between American interests in counterterrorism and values of rule of law, including arbitrary detention and torture, as Amnesty International detailed in a 2011 report. The success of day-to-day counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and the kingdom (which consists, among other things, of intelligence sharing about threats as well as training, countering terrorist financing, and Saudi funding for efforts like the counter-ISIS campaign in Syria) is difficult to measure, though former national-security officials from the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations told me it was useful. “They gained tremendous experience and capability,” said Townsend.
The most notable public evidence of a payoff was when, as Riedel has detailed, then-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef tipped off U.S. officials in 2010 that al-Qaeda had smuggled bombs into printer cartridges on UPS and FedEx planes already in flight, disrupting the plot. In another high-profile instance, The Washington Post reported (though the administration has never confirmed) that the CIA began operating a drone base in Saudi Arabia around 2011 to target Yemen’s al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; the newspaper said that the drone mission flown to kill the American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was flown in part from that base.
Yet Obama was famously skeptical of what the Saudis brought to the table—at one point before becoming president labeling the Saudis “so-called allies,” and as president telling The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that Saudi Arabia needed to “share” the region with its archrival, Iran. But the Trump administration, according to Riedel, made Saudi Arabia the cornerstone of its regional strategy. Bob Woodward recounts in his book Fear that it was Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner who encouraged the president to bet big on the young crown prince, though this wasn’t an unusual affinity in Washington at the time; Mohammed bin Salman’s reformist drive looked promising to many, and he got approving headlines for his economic vision and his decision to lift the driving ban on women in the kingdom.
Read: The Obama doctrine
“I think all of us were very optimistic on the president’s first trip,” said Christopher Costa, who previously served as senior director for counterterrorism on Trump’s National Security Council and is now the executive director of the International Spy Museum. “My focus was narrowly on counterterrorism, and it was very promising … I was very optimistic, but I took a wait-and-see attitude with the Saudis.”
As more time passes, it looks more doubtful that Khashoggi will reappear. Yet at the same time it looks more likely that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will avoid a major rupture in their relationship. But that doesn’t mean the Khashoggi affair won’t harm the relationship in subtler ways. Michael Hayden, who served as CIA director from 2006 to 2009, noted that U.S. intelligence sharing is bound by U.S. law. “If you think the Saudis are going to put your information to a use you could never do, you’re not allowed to give it to them,” he told me. “If … you have information on somebody you’re interested in, too, but you have reason to believe if you told the Saudis what his route of travel was, they’d go kill him—if you didn’t have the authority to kill him, you couldn’t tell the Saudis where he was. And so the more they act in a way that’s inconsistent with our policy and law and approaches, the more our intelligence sharing with them has to be constrained.”