Read: The Saudi crown prince gets a pass on Khashoggi at the G20.
That effort showed that raw doesn’t always mean right. In one famous instance, officials in the Pentagon seized on a report of a supposed meeting in Prague between the 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and a high-level Iraqi official in the apparent belief that the CIA had missed something important; the CIA had actually doubted the report’s veracity at the time, and later investigations found that the meeting had never happened.
Bolton asked what he would get from hearing the tape, which he said was in Arabic, a language he doesn’t speak. Setting aside the fact that the U.S. national-security adviser has access to translators, his comment underscores an important point about what the intelligence community does: It takes raw pieces of information such as the Khashoggi tape and interprets them for policy makers, through context and analysis.
“Raw intelligence in the hands of policy makers is always a risky proposition,” said Amy Zegart, an intelligence expert and a contributing editor at The Atlantic, via email. “Raw intel typically does not include assessments about the credibility of a source. It does not include context like what happened just before the recording started? Was the person whose comms were intercepted being coerced? Were there more forces at play? Was the recording genuine? What exactly was said? What accents and words were involved, and what do they tell us about who was in the room, where they came from, and what their relationships with each other are?”
This was why the hunt within the George W. Bush–era Defense Department for raw intelligence that could bolster the case for war in Iraq was so controversial—because some reports, absent good analysis about their credibility, ended up painting a misleading picture. Which is not to say that analysis can’t also mislead, as evidenced by the CIA’s assessment of Iraq’s efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction.
But if the Bush administration was looking for intelligence to indict a dictator, the Trump administration seems to be avoiding it to protect one.
It’s this, more than anything else, that makes both Trump’s and Bolton’s apparent disinterest in the tape telling, if not important from an investigative perspective. After all, the key question now is not whether Khashoggi was murdered—Saudi officials have confirmed this. It’s whether and how the crown prince was involved, and it’s unclear whether the tape contains any information that answers that question.
“There is a repeated tendency, on different episodes, to latch on to … one piece of juicy reporting, whether it’s a tape or something or intercept, often that goes beyond what its significance is likely to be in answering the main questions that need to be answered,” said Paul Pillar, who served in the CIA until 2005. “I think this might be another instance of that.”