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Trump Chooses “Relationship with Saudi Arabia” over Accountability for Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder

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Despite overwhelming evidence that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated at the order of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, President Trump stood by Saudi Arabia Tuesday in an extraordinary written statement riddled with exclamation points and subtitled “America First,” writing, “It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t! That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Trump’s statement came even after The Washington Post reported last Friday that the CIA has “high confidence” that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Saudi officials have tried to dismiss Khashoggi’s death as a rare, unauthorized killing, but a recent New York Times report suggests the kingdom has sought out private companies to assassinate perceived enemies since the beginning of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rule. We speak with the Israeli investigative reporter who helped break the story, Ronen Bergman, author of “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.” Ronen Bergman is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and the senior national security correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth. His piece in The New York Times is titled “Saudis Close to Crown Prince Discussed Killing Other Enemies a Year Before Khashoggi’s Death.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Despite overwhelming evidence that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated at the order of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, President Trump stood by Saudi Arabia Tuesday in an extraordinary written statement riddled with exclamation points and subtitled “America First,” writing, quote, “It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t! That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Trump’s statement came even after The Washington Post reported last Friday that the CIA has “high confidence” that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination. Despite this, Trump repeated Saudi claims that Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is Trump speaking to reporters Tuesday.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’m not going to destroy the world economy, and I’m not going to destroy the economy for our country, by being foolish with Saudi Arabia. … This is about America first. They’re paying us $400 billion-plus to purchase and invest in our country. That’s probably the biggest amount ever paid to the United States. This is over a long period of time. It means hundreds of thousands of jobs, billions of dollars of investment and product.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Trump’s claims that Saudi Arabia is investing $400 billion in the United States is false. A new report from the Center for International Policy found investment from Riyadh is responsible for fewer than 20,000 U.S. jobs a year and just a fraction of the investment cited by Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: Saudi officials have tried to dismiss journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death as a rare, unauthorized killing, but a recent New York Times report suggests the kingdom has sought out private companies to assassinate perceived enemies since the beginning of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rule. Last week, the Times reported top Saudi intelligence officials close to bin Salman considered a $2 billion plan to hire private intelligence operatives to assassinate prominent Iranians, for example.

Well, for more, we go to Tel Aviv, Israel, where we’re joined by an Israeli investigative reporter who helped break the story, Ronen Bergman. He has just written an exhaustive new book on the long, secretive history of Israel’s extrajudicial killing program. It’s titled Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. Ronen Bergman is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and senior national security correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest daily paid newspaper. His piece in The New York Times is headlined “Saudis Close to Crown Prince Discussed Killing Other Enemies a Year Before Khashoggi’s Death.”

Ronen Bergman, welcome to Democracy Now! Before we go into the secret history of Israel’s—

RONEN BERGMAN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: —targeted assassinations, let’s talk about this latest news, President Trump standing before reporters and explaining why he will continue to side with Saudi Arabia and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, despite the CIA saying it’s clear that Khashoggi was killed on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s orders. Can you respond to this and talk about the history of Saudi Arabia and assassination?

RONEN BERGMAN: Sure. Thank you, Amy and Juan, for inviting me to the show. I think that what President Trump just did was the highest level of what the French call realpolitik. He took one interest of the United States, as he sees it at least, to have these huge deals, or alleged huge deal, with the Saudi Arabia government in their funding of huge arms deals, and put this as only one consideration and put aside all the rest—human rights, the horrific operation to kill a journalist in their territory, in the consulate, the, I would say, very conclusive evidence suggesting that high Saudi officials, if not the crown prince himself, were deeply involved, and said “I just don’t care about that.” And I think this is—he’s not the first one who did that; we saw that a few times, or many times, in world politics before. But it’s really done in a very blunt way.

We have published—David Kirkpatrick, Mark Mazzetti and myself—last week in The New York Times the [inaudible] case. This is not [inaudible] operation by one Saudi official, that as early as March 2017, more than a year ago, the Saudis were pitched by a group of businessmen, former operatives of Israeli and American intelligence—Israeli intelligence and American businessmen, who asked the Saudis to fund a $2 billion project to cripple Iranian economy, so to create something in a sort of a small Iran-Contra affair, to create a huge private intelligence organization that would use black operations to cripple Iranian economy.

While they were discussing this, and on the Saudi side, the manager of these negotiations was General Ahmed al-Assiri, the—I would say, the chief assistant to Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, to MBS, one of the Saudi officials came to the Israelis and Americans and said, “Do you also do kinetics?” They understood him. They said—they knew that kinetics means to kill people—and said, “Who do you want us to kill?” He said, “We want you to take out some Iranian officials.” They asked, “Like who?” And he answered, “We want you to take out a few Iranians, including Qassim Suleimani,” the commander of the al-Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guard. That’s probably the most important Iranian official, the most powerful Iranian intelligence operative. And when the foreigners said no, the people of Saudi intelligence, the official said, “Well, maybe you can recommend us to someone.” And they recommended them a group of the former special operation expert, British one in London, who might do the kinetics.

What this proves is that as early as last—early last year, early 2017, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia changed its policy, and instead of diplomacy based mainly on bribes, on money and various things, very much away from secret operation, targeted assassination, they took a much proactive [inaudible] and considered and pitched even private businessmen. This is, you know, a very unprofessional move to involve people who are not among your own forces in these kind of sensitive operations. They asked them whether they are willing to take the assign of a lot of money [inaudible] some of the kingdom’s enemies.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Ronen Bergman, I wanted to ask you, in terms of this attempt by the Saudi government to get involved in these kinds of assassinations, is it your sense—I mean, Israel, as you document in your book, has been practicing targeted assassinations now for decades. But I recall back in the '60s, or even going back further to the ’50s, this was a rare situation. I remember, for instance, the story of a professor from Columbia University, Galíndez, who the dictator Trujillo had been kidnapped off the streets of New York City, a Columbia University professor, and he was put on a plane to the Dominican Republic and thrown out of the plane. Subsequently, the two assassins who had kidnapped him were themselves killed by Trujillo. But this was considered a rare situation back in the ’50s and the ’60s. Can you talk about how—whether your sense is that governments are now increasingly resorting to this kind of assassination to settle their political aims? I'm thinking now, for instance, of the several assassinations we’ve seen linked to Russian dissidents by the Putin government. Is this becoming an increasing trend across the world?

RONEN BERGMAN: Well, first, I think we need to differentiate. Israel has been using targeted killing more than any other country in the West post the Second World War. But Israel has defined enemies and defined targets for targeted killings either proliferators of weapons of mass destructions or terrorists. We are now talking about something very different. This is killing political opponents. And I think maybe someone in Saudi Arabia saw what Putin has been doing—allegedly, at least, doing—in the last few years, which is killing [inaudible] poisoning [inaudible] shooting them, and got maybe jealous of what the Russians have been doing, intimidating other rivals and dissidents, and tried to do the same.

But in that case, the operation was done in such an amateurish way, in such an unprofessional, so to speak, way, it was very easy to discover. I think that it’s either the Saudi [inaudible] and train [inaudible] very hubris, thinking that they can get away with everything. What we see, the technology, the ability of the Turkish intelligence to intercept calls and phone conversations and conversations inside the consulate, the fact that everything is being monitored by cameras, the way that metadata is being achieved, that makes operations for terrorists, but also to state-supported assassin, much, much harder these days. And here we have the British [inaudible] crack down the assassination [inaudible] and Turkish intelligence basically cracking open the botched operation to kill Mr. Khashoggi.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. I’m sorry, we’re having some trouble with dropout—Ronen Bergman is speaking to us from Tel Aviv—but we’re going to forge forward. But we’re going to end this segment back on the lawn with President Trump, when he was asked by CNN reporter Jim Acosta—that’s right, Jim Acosta, who, because of a court order, has had his press pass given back to him. He asked President Trump if he’s letting Saudi Arabia get away with murder.

JIM ACOSTA: Are you letting the Saudis get away with murder?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, no. No, no. This is about America first. They’re paying us $400 billion-plus to purchase and invest in our country. That’s probably the biggest amount ever paid to the United States. This is over a long period of time. It means hundreds of thousands of jobs, billions of dollars of investment and product. And if you think I’m going to let Russia have that money or—or those—or those things, if you think I’m going to let China make the military equipment—hey, China and Russia would love to make $100 billion worth of military equipment from Saudi Arabia. We have the contracts. They wanted those contracts. That would be a big, fat, beautiful gift to Russia and to China. They’re not going to get that gift. Just so you understand, it’s about “make America great again.” It’s about “America first.” We’re going to stay with Saudi Arabia.

AMY GOODMAN: “We’re going to stay with Saudi Arabia,” President Trump says, despite what even the Central Intelligence Agency is telling him, that the crown prince himself was responsible for ordering the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, both an immigrant to this country as well as a journalist, a columnist with The Washington Post, both targets of President Trump over his two years. We are speaking with Ronen Bergman, and we’ll continue with him on his book Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. Stay with us.

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