The Khashoggi Tape and the Limits of ‘Raw’ Intelligence

There’s a logic to John Bolton’s refusal to listen.

President Donald Trump's national-security adviser, John Bolton, speaks during a press briefing at the White House on November 27, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

There’s an especially gruesome clue in a notorious international murder case. The killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the widespread suspicion that the Saudi crown prince himself directed it, have roiled U.S.-Saudi relations and politics in the United States, where the Senate is challenging the Trump administration to take stronger measures against the Saudis. And the hit was, reportedly, all caught on tape.

By President Donald Trump’s account, the tape records a “very violent, very vicious, and very terrible” incident—and it’s one the president told Fox News he hasn’t heard and doesn’t want to hear. His national-security adviser, John Bolton, echoed that this week, prompting bafflement at a press briefing where journalists pressed him on why he wouldn’t want to hear the raw intelligence about one of the major national-security issues confronting the United States.

But why should he? It’s not necessarily typical for the president or the national-security adviser to consume that much raw intelligence. In fact, one of the major controversies of the Iraq War era was precisely that high officials were seeking raw intelligence to form their own conclusions about the connection between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda.

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.”

Yet there’s the appearance of the refusal to listen, which, amid all the other public reporting about details such as a team of assassins and a bone saw and a still-missing body, seems to suggest a lack of curiosity about what actually happened. “If John Bolton was genuinely interested in finding out what happened in that consulate, then I think he ought to listen to it,” Pillar said.

In both the Iraq War case and the Khashoggi case, the intelligence can inform policy but doesn’t dictate it. Bush-administration officials began planning to invade Iraq within months of the attacks of September 11, 2001, which had nothing to do with Saddam. Formal intelligence assessments also helped the administration bolster the case for war, and also proved seriously flawed. The “raw” account of the Prague meeting was not the decisive turning point in the march to war; it was a reflection of preexisting policy preferences. “The president and the vice president didn’t need convincing” to go to war in Iraq, said Mark Lowenthal, an assistant director of central intelligence from 2002 to 2005.

Similarly, Trump, Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have all made clear the administration’s policy preference: that they have no intention of formally blaming Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing, and that the CIA’s reported analysis is just that—an analysis.

“We have no smoking gun that the crown prince was involved,” Mattis told reporters on Wednesday. “Not the intelligence community or anyone else.” If it’s somewhere on the tape, Trump and Bolton won’t hear it.