The Khashoggi affair: The art of the leak

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Nick Paton Walsh articulated it well: “The role [Turkey has] taken is not that of the virtuous prosecutor, but of the exploitative politician,” he wrote on October 18 about Ankara’s handling of, what at the time was considered the disappearance of Saudi journalist and insider Jamal Khashoggi. Why do we still know so little, he asked at the time, before Saudi Arabia had admitted to the murder. “The slow, purposeful, yet absolutely deliberate series of leaks to the media of evidence pointing towards the involvement of the Saudi Crown Prince and his immediate entourage has been disrespectful to the cause of justice itself, let alone to Khashoggi’s grieving relatives.” The BBC’s Mark Lowen identified the trend even earlier on October 10. “drip-feeding leaks on Khashoggi to pro-govt media: pics of 15 alleged members of Saudi hit squad, CCTV showing them arriving in Istanbul, checking into hotels near Saudi consulate, vehicles going from consulate to CG residence, jets leaving. Doesn’t look good for Saudis.” Deborah Amos at NPR also noted it on October 12.

Many have now come to understand that there is a strategy to the method by which leaks have been made in Turkey. Western media and commentators have gone from hanging on every outrage over the murder to wondering whether the various stories of “tapes” and other details will actually materialize. Yet they continue to stay tuned for every juicy detail. On October 23 when SkyNews suddenly claimed a body had been found many people who should know better began tweeting.

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On October 18 the Associated Press noted that at each turn of the investigation “Turkish officials leaked more shocking material to the media, making it impossible for the journalist’s alleged murder to be quietly swept under the rug.” It is an “art” some have said, to be able to provide leaks everyday like this.

When the Turkish president was going to speak on October 23 many thought that major new details would be revealed. Martin Chulov tweeted “A huge moment in the region looms, as Turkey’s President prepares to disclose what he knows..Khashoggi case has put Saudi prince right where Erdoğan wants him.” After the speech many were left wondering why Ankara’s public statements were much more sanitized then the private leaks.

At every turn salacious details, often unverified, became fact. Many of these began in the Turkish media or were ascribed to Turkish sources, sometimes official or unofficial, sometimes to various members of the police or government. It was difficult to verify what was officially known, versus rumors. BBC tried to create one timeline.

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New leaks every day

After Khashoggi disappeared on October 2 press reports began to emerge the next day. However it took several days for the leaks to begin. We may not know why it took several days, since according to the later accounts the existence of an “audio” tape would have immediately provided authorities knowledge of what happened. Later it would emerge that officials did try to rush to the airport on October 2.

October 6: Daily Sabah “Turkish police: 15 Saudis, including officials, arrived in Istanbul on two flights on Tuesday (same day Khashoggi disappeared) and were at the consulate at the same time as the journalist. They left again the same day ” “The Turkish news is reporting that Saudi’s sent a 15 men team to carry out a ‘premeditated murder’”

October 7 : “The body has been deported to S.A. already. The customs did not control the 15 Saudis when they returned back home. Surely their suitcases where filled with his bodyparts.”

October 9:Yeni Şafak journalist Kemal Öztürk participated a program on TVNET saying, “the source of claims about Jamal Khasoggi’s death is the intelligence units; there is a video of him getting killed.” Middle East Eye “On Tuesday, Turkish Daily Sabah, a pro-government newspaper, published the alleged names and photos of 15 Saudi nationals it said travelled to Istanbul the day Khashoggi disappeared.” October 9 “allegedly of #4 on Saudi security team that arrived in Istanbul the day Khashoggi disappeared with Saudi Crown Prince MBS [Mohammed Bin Salman]; October 9 “Last known photo of Khashoggi emerges.” October 9 Washington Post releases photos of Khashoggi entering consulate.”

October 10 NYT: “Saudi journalist Khashoggi was killed within two hours of his arrival at the consulate by a team of Saudi agents, who dismembered his body with a bone saw they brought for the purpose; the order came from Saudi royal court” – a senior Turkish official to NYT.” Liz Sly: “The Saudi hit team abducted & dismembered Khashoggi with a bone saw before they left. They took a video as evidence that they did the job. One member of the team was an autopsy expert.” Ben Hubbard “A top Turkish security official said Khashoggi’s killing was “a quick and complex operation” that was done in two hours and involved a bone saw brought for the purpose. But sources still anonymous. Will Erdogan own this publicly?” Business Insider “A senior Turkish official on Tuesday said the team responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s death used a bone saw to dismember his body.” Guardian:CCTV disappears from consulate, Turkish investigators believe the CCTV footage from inside the consulate was onboard.”

October 12: ““You can hear his voice and the voices of men speaking Arabic,” a source told the Washington Post. “You can hear how he was interrogated, tortured and then murdered.” Slate: “How much could Apple Watch tell us about disappearance.” October 12: “Khashoggi disappearance: new video aired by Turkish TV NTV purports to show a man wearing a white coat arriving in a black Mercedes at the Saudi consul’s house”

October 13: George Takei “If you ever wonder how courageous the press is, missing Post journalist Khashoggi apparently may have recorded his own abduction, torture and possible murder on his Apple watch.” Kenneth Roth: “Turkey says Jamal Khashoggi’s Apple Watch recorded his execution inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Saudis reportedly tried to delete the recording by guessing Khashoggi’s PIN and using (the dead man’s?) fingerprint. It did.” CNN: “Missing Saudi journalist’s Apple watch may have transmitted audio evidence, Turkish paper reports” CNN, same day “Experts have dismissed claims that a recording of the alleged killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi may have been transmitted using his Apple Watch.”

October 14: “An Apple watch might hold the key to what happened to missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.” October 14: Fox News “Apple Watch may have recorded evidence.”

October 15: “The security official…said the recording obtained by Turkish police has 11 minutes of audio. Technical voice analyses conducted by police identified three male voices who are believed to be Saudi’s, in addition to the voice of Khashoggi”.

October 16: “Shocking details from the tapes.” October 16 “came under attack within two minutes of entering the Saudi consulate on 2 October and was dead within seven minutes. He was dismembered in 22 minutes.” October 16 “Tubaigy began to cut Khashoggi’s body up on a table in the study while he was still alive, the Turkish source said,” according to a report at Middle East Eye. October 16: Bradley Moss tweets based on MEE “Seven minutes. They killed him in seven minutes. There was no interrogation. This was an authorized assassination.” October 16: “It seems an Apple Watch was synced to his iPhone and the phone was with Kashoggi’s fiancé outside the consulate. The Saudi Arabian hit squad seems to have been undone by modern gadgetry.” October 16 “injected with an unknown substance…Tubaigy began to cut Khashoggi’s body up on a table in the study while he was still “alive”, the Turkish source said.”; “CNN reports Khashoggi was forcibly injected with chemical to put him to sleep.” Or EHA: “When Jamal Khashoggi entered the consul generals office he saw the needles and asked what are they for, within seconds he was being beaten, and then was injected and killed.”

October 17: “Turkey’s pro-government Yenisafak has obtained the recording of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, and its description is horrific.”  October 17: “Khashoggi was not only alive, but also conscious for 7 minutes as he was dismembered.October 17: “Yeni Safak, a strongly pro-government newspaper, said Saudi consul general Mohammed al-Otaibi could be heard telling those allegedly torturing Mr Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul: “Do this outside; you’re going to get me in trouble.” October 17: “further claims that initially they cut Jamal’s fingers then beheaded him.” October 17 NYT: “Breaking News: Audio confirms Jamal Khashoggi was tortured and dismembered, a Turkish official said, revealing gruesome details and contradicting Saudi denials.” October 17: Sky News “The source said the recording later reveals the journalist was “drugged” and “killed”, before a Saudi forensics expert told others to put in headphones and listen to music while he took seven minutes to dismember the body.” or “death squad killed him immediately by sawing him up.” October 17: “Turkish Media Publishes Gruesome Audio Recording of Khashoggi’s Interrogation, Murder, “According to the report, Khashoggi dying screams could be heard before he was ‘injected with an unknown drug’ & later fell silent.”

October 18: A supposed member of the hit squad was “killed in a car accident.”

October 20: “Sources tell CNN that the Turkish intelligence agency MIT decided to review an audio-visual feed from inside the consulate — a feed whose existence Turkey has not publicly acknowledged.” October 20: “Jamal Khashoggi was strapped to a table and dismembered alive by Saudi Arabian henchmen on October 2. His blood curdling screams were broadcast to the outside world on his Apple Watch for the seven minutes it took to kill him.” CNN: Turkish officials suspected Khashoggi had been killed within hours, went to airport.

October 21: “Pro-govt Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak says when Khashoggi entered Saudi consulate, Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman rang him personally & asked him to go to Riyadh. Khashoggi refused. Within seconds of putting the phone down, his butchering & murder began.” October 21: Saudi crown prince spoke to Khashoggi before he was killed.

October 22: Daily Sabah and Reuters: “Saudi Crown Prince’s Advisor Al Qahtani was beamed into a room of the consulate via Skype, Insulted at Khashoggi over the phone,  Turkish intel source: At one point Qahtani told his men to dispose of him. “Bring me the head of the dog”, October 22: “Abdulaziz Mutreb who is considered as the leader of assassination team against journalist Jamal Khasoggi has called Saudi Arabian crown prince Salman’s office-manager 4 times after the murder.” October 22: “Operative Mustafa Madani-born in 1961- donned Khashoggi’s clothes, eyeglasses and Apple watch and left through the back door.” October 22: “A video showing Saudi staff burning some documents in the Saudi consulate garden one day after the killing.”

October 23: Abandoned Saudi car found and searched

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November 1: Khahsoggi strangled, dismembered, Turkish prosecutor says. “The body of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was dismembered after he was strangled as soon as he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the chief prosecutor’s office in Istanbul said Wednesday.”

November 8: “Traces of chemicals” found at consuls home. “The source said traces of hydrofluoric acid and other chemicals were found in a well at Consul General Mohammed al-Otaibi’s home in Istanbul.”

November 9: Fiancee shocked that “body was melted.”

November 10: Authorities end search for body

November 10: Turkey turns over recordings to Saudis, UK, US

November 11: “I’m suffocating,” Khashoggi’s last words, according to Al-Jazeera. “‘I’m suffocating … Take this bag off my head, I’m claustrophobic’, according to an audio recording from inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, suffocated to death while a plastic bag covered his head, Nazif Karaman told Al Jazeera. ”

 

Critiquing the agenda

Some have critiqued the propensity of many media to rely on tabloids in Turkey and launder it into apparent facts. “The results are considerable and should be studied: Ankara has created a single point of contact, controls the information, and has managed to get the NYT, WaPo, MEE, Sabah, and Yeni Safak to all write the same exact thing,” noted Aaron Stein on Twitter. Tobias Schneider also noted “my impression has been that the Turkish and Qatari reports (exempting Yeni Safak and similar loony bins) have received pretty consistent leaks from the start. It was international media that added a creative interpretation to some partial reports (see ABC on Pompeo).” Ceylan Yeginsu claimed “Yeni Safak, a pro-government Turkish newspaper notorious for fabricating stories leads with the headline: ‘the world talked about Yeni Safak‘ listing all the media outlets that attributed to their report detailing the gruesome killing of Jamal Khashoggi.” Adam Klasfeld wondered why “all of the world” seemed to accept these “scoops.”

Other journalists looked back at various leaks to see if they were true. Referring to the story of the Saudi Crown Prince phoning Khashoggi, Tamer el-Ghobashy notes, “But those details were ones that other Turkish outlets carried as well. This one hasn’t been touched by other Turkish media as far as I’ve seen.” Borzou Daragahi wrote that the car accident story didn’t pan out either. Graeme Wood notes “If the same sources start denying the existence of what they once described graphically, the reporters to whom they lied are within their rights to name the sources.” As early as October 15 different outlets and the BBC and others took on the “Apple watch” story and called it “unlikely.”

Some pointed to a wider agenda. “Middle East security services playing Western media like a fiddle because they share pro-Muslim Brotherhood sympathies,” wrote David Reaboi. Tony Badran asserted that after the Washington Post called for a ban on all US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, “And there you go. This is where the Obama people’s pro-Iran campaign wanted to get to from day one. The info op’s terminus.”

Others claims that attempts to “smear” Khashoggi were driven by Gulf money or pro-Israel links. Joe Scarborough wrote, “If you wondered how low right wing hacks could go, read about their sleazy smear campaign against a man who was tortured and cut to pieces while still alive because he championed reform in his Washington Post columns.”

Turkish public statements, private leaks

But Turkish officials have stayed on message publicly. “This is an assault against Turkey’s right of sovereignty. Turkey is expecting a convincing explanation,” said Yasin Aktay who was one of the first to speak to Khashoggi’s fiancee when he went missing and who is a key advisor to the president. He hinted early on that the state would look at this seriously but also that there might be a way to Riyadh to climb down by pointing on October 10 to a Saudi “deep state.”Screen Shot 2018-10-23 at 6.40.10 PM

Analysts and reporters have now begun to call the leaks in Turkey as a form of “drip drip” feeding of the story. Bloomberg published a piece arguing that Turkey’s leaks were harming the investigation. Thomas Juneau, who followed the case from early on, “The constant drip-drip of information coming out of Turkey on the Khashoggi case is fascinating (and of course it has to be taken with a truckload of salt). It shows how Turkey is the major leagues and Saudi the minor leagues in terms of crisis management skills.” Kyle Orton argues that “Incidentally, this might explain what Turkey is actually doing: the drip-feeding of this story might not be intended to extract something from #Saudi, but to build an audience for Erdogan to deliver a serious blow to MBS and US-Saudi relations tomorrow.” One man even postulated that a thesis might be written on this tactic. “One can write a whole thesis about Turkey’s mediatization of Khashoggi case, the ways in which Turkish media’s slow but steady drip of leaks (intelligence) created the conditions of possibility for TR to bring the US on-board while seeking to drive a wedge btw US-SaudiArabia!” And it appeared to be working. “In less than two weeks, Turkey’s “slow drip” strategy has forced the Saudis to move from denial to admission,” wrote Ragip Soylu on October 19. Carlotta Gall at the NYT agreed. “In Khashoggi Case, Turkey’s Slow Drip of Leaks Puts Pressure on Saudis.” It kept it in the news everyday.

Geostrategy or just a confluence of interests?

The strategy is portrayed as some kind of genius Machiavellian Sun Tzu technique of geostrategy. A piece at the Washington Post noted “Turkey has controlled the narrative of Jamal Khashoggi’s death with a steady drip of leaks.” The Wall Street Journal aslo reported on October 22 that “Turkish authorities embraced a strategy to leak evidence slowly in the days after Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, to blunt Saudi Arabia’s international standing.” Who has been running or orchestrating the “drip drip” or whether it is orchestrated remains a clear question.

Erdogan was in Hungary during the key early days of the case, hosting a press conference on October 10 in Budapest. He also visited Moldova from October 17-18. The two visits would seem to imply that the Khashoggi affair was important but also perhaps not orchestrated in exactly the manner that has been suggested. Nevertheless it has turned out well. Soylu, who has become one of the main sources for information in Turkish media, noted on October 23, “I think people didn’t understand what Erdogan was trying to do with this speech. He doesn’t back down at all. No deal with Saudis. He is playing his cards smart. Don’t be surprised if the leaks continue. This issue will be around for some time.” But it leaves others like Chulov wondering. “After haunting Saudi Arabia over a fortnight of potent leaks, Erdogan opted out of a coup de grace, right when he had the world’s attention.” Nicholas Kristof, who has consistently expressed outrage over the murder on Twitter called on October 21 to release the tapes. On October 23, after Erdogan’s speech, he again noted, “he didn’t release the tape or a transcript; I wish he would.”

Backfire potential 

That major media are all not analyzing the “drip drip” method and some have begun to wonder about the claims made over the course of the case, there is a chance the “art of the leak” may backfire. If journalists who passionately care about this case feel they have been played, or they feel Turkey is making a behind-the-scenes deal, they may turn their ire on Ankara. Many western journalists took this case seriously for a variety of reasons. Some felt the Saudi crown prince was out of control or that US President Donald Trump enabled the killing through a close US alliance. Others were angry because they were close to Khashoggi or felt targeting a journalist crossed a red line. All of this means they are not driven by an agenda to support Turkey. Turkey happens to be the place where the murder happened and insofar as Turkey appears to be doing the “right thing,” it will receive support.

But media moves on and will become skeptical. “Erdogan added little new to the accounts that have already emerged from private briefings by Turkish officials,” CNN wrote. CNN also claimed that Turkey “holds all the cards,” but then the cards were not presented. Why not? The art of the leak has worked so far. But it can’t do everything. It drove coverage, particularly in the US. However the SkyNews report about a body being found on October 23 showed that when western media gets ahead of itself, it can be embarrassing. Soylu warned readers to be “beware” of the Sky News report, “Sources also said a picture circulating on social media purported to be the corpse is fake…So maybe we should wait to be sure about these kind of things?”

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