There are a number of very different stories swirling out there this Friday. I have been trying to make sense of them and will tell you what I see, with the warning that I could very easily be wrong, so ignore at will.
One of today’s biggest stories is that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence today released its assessment of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian journalist whose criticism of his country’s government had driven him into exile in the U.S., where he worked for the Washington Post. The DNI placed blame for the murder on Saudi Arabia’s current crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, whose name is often abbreviated as MBS.
By law, the Trump administration was supposed to release the intelligence community’s assessment of the killing, but it refused. In her confirmation hearings, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines promised she would do so. The report was delayed until President Biden could speak to King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the king of Saudi Arabia. MBS is the king’s son and is the third crown prince Salman has named since becoming king in 2015. Biden has made it a point to refuse to communicate with MBS, despite the Trump administration’s willingness to treat him as the country’s de facto ruler. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner apparently considered MBS a friend. Biden will speak only with the king.
The readout of the conversation said Biden spoke with the king “to address the longstanding partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia.” They discussed ending the war in Yemen, “and affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law.” Earlier this month, Biden ended U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military engagement in Yemen, a fight launched by MBS, which has led to a humanitarian crisis there. The Trump administration’s huge arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including top-line F-35 fighters, were widely seen as a way to support the Saudi war effort; Biden has frozen the sales for review.
Now he has added sanctions to the former deputy Saudi intelligence chief and to the Saudi Royal Guard’s rapid intervention force, whose members have been identified as those behind the murder. Their assets in the U.S. are frozen, and they cannot deal with Americans. The U.S. also restricted the visas of 76 Saudi citizens and some of their family members.
Also yesterday, Biden launched an air strike against the facilities of Iran-backed militias in Syria that have been launching rocket attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq. When asked today what message he was sending, he said: “You can’t act with impunity. Be careful.”
Also yesterday, the FBI Washington Field Office tweeted a thread noting that 13 Russians are wanted by the FBI for participating in a “conspiracy to defraud US by impairing, obscuring & defeating the lawful functions of FEC [Federal Election Commission], DOJ [Department of Justice] & Dept of State” between 2014 and 2018. It explained: “These individuals allegedly took actions to reach significant numbers of Americans for the purposes of interfering w/ US political system, includ[ing] the 2016 Presidential Election.”
The FBI also offered $250,000 for information leading to the arrest of Ukrainian Konstantin V. Kilimnick, whom the Senate Intelligence Committee identified as a Russian operative. Kilimnick is wanted by the FBI for obstruction of justice and for engaging in a conspiracy to obstruct justice between February and April 2018, persuading someone not to testify in an official proceeding.
Kilimnick was the business partner of Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager; Manafort handed over detailed and private campaign polling data to Kilimnick in 2016.
So, what have we got going on here?
At the very least, it seems the Biden administration is sending a signal to other countries that there is a new administration in America, one that will not tolerate foreign intrusions into U.S. affairs the same way its predecessor did.
But I wonder if the inclusion of the wanted posters on those Russians accused of interfering with the 2016 election, including one who worked closely with Trump’s campaign manager, is a signal to the Saudis, along with the rest of the world, not to support Trump’s continuing attempt to undermine our democracy.
Today, the White House issued a statement noting that it was seven years ago that Russia violated international law by invading Ukraine. President Biden reiterated that the U.S. stands with Ukraine and its attempt to shore up democracy to withstand the aggression of oligarchy.
“The United States does not and will never recognize Russia’s purported annexation of the peninsula, and we will stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggressive acts. We will continue to work to hold Russia accountable for its abuses and aggression in Ukraine,” the statement reads.
But it is a message not just of warning, but also of hope:
“We will also continue to honor the courage and hope of the Revolution of Dignity, in which the Ukrainian people faced down sniper fire and enforcers in riot gear on the Maidan and demanded a new beginning for their country. The United States still believes in the promise of Ukraine and we support all those working towards a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future for their country.”
Heather: You bravely walk a tightrope. On one hand, you are an esteemed historian. On another hand, you are a daring, observant, and insightful commentator on the day-to-day unfolding politics of this country. On the third hand, you are wisely and generously willing to say that some of your day-to-day observations may, over time, prove less than prescient. I am glad that you are willing to walk this tightrope, and am confident that we will all become wiser if we walk it with you!
This is my first time making a comment. Hi everyone. (But I e been reading these wonderful Heather letters for a while.) I love the practical undramatic way that events are unraveled and placed in the present as well as an historical context.
Tonight I am flummoxed by all the criticism Joe Biden is receiving in the NYT for not placing sanctions on Saudi Arabia and leveling no consequences for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. If you understand all the sides of this, I’d love to know.