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Former CIA Official John McLaughlin On Jamal Khashoggi's Death

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Facing reports of damaging intelligence about Saudi Arabia's crown prince, President Trump insists he believes the crown prince. Several news outlets report a CIA conclusion and assessment that Mohammed bin Salman ordered a journalist killed. President Trump dismissed that finding in a talk with Chris Wallace of Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He told me that he had nothing to do with it. He told me that I would say maybe five times at different points...

CHRIS WALLACE: But what if he's lying?

TRUMP: ...As recently as a few days ago.

WALLACE: Do you just live with it because you need him?

TRUMP: Well, will anybody really know?

INSKEEP: John McLaughlin joins us now. He was acting director of the CIA under President George W. Bush, a career intelligence official. Mr. McLaughlin, welcome back to the program.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Will anybody really know, the president says. Does Mohammed bin Salman's involvement really seem like a totally unknowable fact to you?

MCLAUGHLIN: No, it's not in the unknowable category. It is in the knowable category. And it sounds, based on the reporting I've seen, as though the CIA has figured out that indeed he was involved.

INSKEEP: Oh. And so we should just mention - I mean, you know how the CIA works. You probably were not privy to this particular bit of information, but it sounds credible to you what the CIA is saying.

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah, correct. I haven't read this report of course. I'm relying entirely on what's been in the press. But I'm assuming that that is fundamentally correct. There may be some nuances left out and so forth. But I'm taking the press as accurate on this.

INSKEEP: Do you have some sympathy for the president's position because the United States is allied with Saudi Arabia and perhaps if you're president, you have to be polite in some way to the crown prince even if you're pretty sure you know what he did?

MCLAUGHLIN: I do not. I think I understand where the president may be coming from here because he's put a lot of eggs in this particular basket - his Iran policy, his policy towards the Palestinians, his whole idea of how the Middle East works, his hope that Saudi Arabia would assist in pressuring the Palestinians to accept whatever peace plan that Jared Kushner comes up with. That's a lot of freight on the Saudi alliance right now. But our alliance with Saudi Arabia has never depended on a single individual that has been an alliance with the royal family, with the regime, not with a despot or with a fiefdom or with a particular individual. So it may be time to step back and take a look at that whole alliance and gauge its worth and gauge exactly how we're going to manage it.

INSKEEP: All right, let me ask about the leak itself. This originally was reported by The Washington Post a couple of days ago, the leak of the CIA assessment that Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing. Now, the blog Lawfare, which has been very critical of the president, published a note by Paul Rosenzweig critical of this leak. He said it violated an important norm because maybe there were good reasons for the intelligence community to let this information out because they suspected the president would not take it seriously. But nevertheless, the essay suggests it was a bad idea to do this because it revealed sensitive information and might tie the hands of future presidents. Are you troubled that we're hearing from the CIA at all about this?

MCLAUGHLIN: I do not think and I strongly doubt that the CIA leaked this report. What tends to happen here is that a CIA report like this is circulated to a handful - perhaps a large handful - of policymakers. And it's usually someone, I believe in this case, in that arena who leaks something like this for some political purpose. I'm very confident that's what happened here.

INSKEEP: Do you think it is worth - it is valuable that the public has learned what the CIA thinks in this case?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I - you know, I never endorse a leak of classified intelligence, particularly one - in this case that includes apparently some sensitive material. But in these times when I think frankly - I hate to say it - the president's credibility is very low, it's not a bad thing.

INSKEEP: John McLaughlin is the former acting head of the Central Intelligence Agency. Thanks for your time.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you, Steve.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a Lawfare blog post to Benjamin Wittes. In fact, the post was written by Paul Rosenzweig.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 19, 2018 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a Lawfare blog post to Benjamin Wittes. In fact, the post was written by Paul Rosenzweig.
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