White House response to murder of Khashoggi threatens First Amendment

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Editorial, by Jason Velázquez

Our nation’s president has put the First Amendment on the block. And, at a mere $110 billion worth of arms deals, we’re talking fire-sale pricing.

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi in March, 2018; photo courtesy Project on Middle East Democracy; [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Journalist Jamal Khashoggi in March, 2018; photo courtesy the Project on Middle East Democracy; [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

You have already heard, in gruesome detail, how a permanent American resident and journalist for the Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi, was allegedly lured to the Saudi consulate in Turkey, abducted, interrogated, and likely tortured, murdered, and hacked into pieces small enough to be smuggled out of the embassy in satchels by 15 assassins. The whereabouts of his remains are still unknown.

Despite brazenly lying to the world for weeks that Khashoggi left the embassy in Istanbul in perfect health, the administration of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, now acknowledges that the journalist was murdered, but denies any foreknowledge or involvement in the crime. The official Saudi story, as of yesterday, is that the 59 year old Khashoggi took on more than a dozen thugs, some from Mohammad bin Salman’s own personal security force, with his bare fists. And died, accidentally, in the “brawl.” Oh, and that the murderers handed off the victim’s corpse to a “local collaborator” in the ensuing cover-up.

On October 15, President Trump speculated, “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers,” he added. “Who knows?” Over the weekend, Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that their investigation had indeed determined that Khashoggi’s killing had been a “rogue operation.”

Just Friday, the President of the United States called Saudi Arabia’s explanation “credible.” He has so far indicated that any U.S. response to the killing will not include cancellation of weapons sales to the kingdom, despite Germany’s announcement this morning that they have decided to suspend any and all arms deals with the monarchy.

Although a relationship based in military hardware between the two countries goes back to the first half of the last century, a high water mark in the sordid history was in the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, when the journalist’s uncle, Adnan Khashoggi, then the wealthiest and most powerful arms dealer in the world, acted as the “fixer” in the Iran-Contra scandal. Almost no Americans involved in the illicit sale of weapons to Iran in exchange for the freeing of seven hostages (and funding extremist right-wing rebels in Nicaragua) were punished over the affair, Adnan Khashoggi’s fortunes headed south in the next decade, and he was forced to sell off most of his assets. His super-yacht, the Nabila, featured in the James Bond film, “Never Say Never Again,” was purchased by none other than Donald J. Trump, who later sold it to Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who himself was ordered arrested by his cousin, the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, on corruption charges in November of 2017.

As a slightly twisted further aside, in addition to being the journalist’s uncle, Adnan Khashoggi was also uncle to Dodi Fayed, Lady Diana’s lover who died with her in a 1997 car crash in Paris as they were reportedly fleeing paparazzi.

As for Jamal Khashoggi’s death, President Trump prevaricated, “We don’t like it…But whether we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country knowing they have four or five alternative — two very good alternatives — that would not be acceptable to me.”

The House of Trump seems to be in complete agreement with the House of Saud, which, in a statement published by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, declared that “The kingdom also affirms that if it receives any action, it will respond with greater action.”

In an interview on Fox News, the president’ son, Eric, seemed flabbergasted at the notion that the murder of a single journalist might threaten pending arms sales. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “You’re going to take [that relationship] and you’re going to throw all of that away?”

Friday at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, the president claimed that cancelling the U.S. deal with Saudi Arabia (which is fueling the Saudi genocide against their Yemeni neighbors) would cost Americans 600,000 jobs in weapons manufacturing and 1,000,000 jobs in total. Where do these numbers come from? I’ll tell you. He’s pulling them out of his ass whole-cloth. I won’t get into the details, since Alexia Fernández Campbell provided such a good breakdown in Vox this past week. Far more important is it to drive home, again and again, the point that it doesn’t matter how many jobs are created if the Bill of Rights ends up as the blotter upon which are signed the blood contracts with every sleazy, murderous dictator who can afford what Boeing or General Dynamics or Raytheon are peddling.

The realization slammed home Thursday night that this administration is preparing to ashcan all pretext of respect for norms of civilized governance. I watched footage of the president’s rally in Montana praising Republican Representative Greg Gianforte for body-slamming and punching Ben Jacobs, reporter for The Guardian, in May of 2017.

I felt absolutely queasy listening to the president say that a conviction for misdemeanor assault against a journalist is “nothing to be embarrassed about.” By that time, the White House had made clear that it was prepared to give the Saudis as much time as they needed to conduct their own “investigation,” and the probability is high that at least some American officials had been in communication with the crown prince’s team to engineer the roll-out of an explanation that smells, even to a growing number of Republicans, like the utter bullshit it clearly is.

But NONE of this should surprise anyone. Mohammad bin Salman could have made the journalistic thorn in his side disappear without a trace any time he wanted. The strongest probability is that nothing about this alleged execution was botched. Everything quite likely went exactly as intended. A hit-squad 15 men–strong is not discreet. If, as reported, the group contained agents of the prince’s personal security team, they would surely know that cameras are pointing at the embassy from all sides 24 hours a day. They should suspect that the embassy is secretly bugged (since, you know, everybody’s doing that these days). And they might have guessed that Khashoggi himself might have been suspicious about the whole setup—after all, he told his fianceé to wait outside, right? Granted, who among us wants to tag along with a loved one to, say, get paperwork at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, but c’mon—it’s pretty obvious that the columnist had a bad feeling about walking through the door of Saudi consulate. I’d hardly be surprised to hear his bride-to-be testify that he went in alone out of fear for her safety. After all, he was concerned enough about his own hide that he left his home country permanently.

As for the president, his praise for a Montana tech millionaire turned politician who believed he was entitled to violently attack a journalist for asking a question shouldn’t be too shocking, given his reckless anti-press propaganda. The remarks were delivered to a crowd of drooling, howling MAGA trogs, but the intended audience was Mohammad bin Salman. The message was crystal clear — “Don’t sweat it, prince. This flack is going to blow over, and meanwhile, we’re still open for business.”

In fact, the reassurances were probably aimed at rising authoritarians across the country and around the world. Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Kim Jong Un in North Korea. And very likely Jair Messias Bolsonaro in Brazil on October 28.

No—all of this was sickening, but not shocking. But then journalist Shaun King retweeted this photo taken last week:

Not in Coeur d’Alene. Not in Little Rock. Not in Tulsa. But in Brooklyn…like, the one in New York City.

Reporters face significant hostility already. The animosity comes from the public, from politicians, from business owners, from advertisers, you name it. It’s part of the job. You get used to it, mostly. I’ve been ignored, cursed, shoved, and threatened with physical violence. As a staff writer for a print daily, I was threatened with arrest by police for doing my job. In Massachusetts. Three times.

That was almost 20 years ago, and I would be lying if I suggested that I’ve faced genuine danger on any regular basis. Today, though, the national atmosphere is becoming toxic to a free and independent press. The polluting influence is greed, a greed that causes a specific madness in the minds of the powerful. The corporate aristocracy is now so out of control that leaders of the Free World must, on bended knee, pledge fealty to the kingdoms of fossil fuel, big pharma, big ag, finance, and, of course, weapons manufacturers and the military industrial complex.

Of the danger of corruption from the power of the military industrial complex, Eisenhower warned in his Farewell Address, “The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.”

If you haven’t read the text of that speech, you should—it’s not long, but I get chills absorbing just how prescient it is on so many subjects. For our purposes today, we need to turn our attention fully towards the truth that the People of the United States did not heed Eisenhower’s warning concerning the military industrial complex. We have arrived at a moment when the president can shrug and say that none of the centuries of struggle to form “a more perfect union” matter—not in the face of shareholder demands. Members of this sector have wormed their way into, and bought the silence of, local officials, charities, educational institutions, and trade organizations.

After more than 17 years of non-stop war in the Middle East (during which the jobs still went down the toilet, by the way) the normalization of defense contractors as critical to daily life has reduced the community posture around these death pedlars to a fawning, groveling, mewling subservience. Their shadow has promoted an attitude that encourages a calcifying self-censorship in public discourse and the media. One wonders if, in response to a reinvigorated anti-war activism, local law enforcement would enjoy a newly widened latitude in the use of tools and tactics to keep the peace, particularly in the vicinity of our local weapons manufacturers, by arresting both protesters and reporters, as is becoming commonplace in America.

When the president of the United States teases his jeering, snarling audiences as to whether or not he would murder “lying, disgusting” journalists, when even one member of Congress fails to condemn, in the strongest possible terms, what increasingly appears to have been the premeditated political execution of a U.S. resident, when the tangled webs of wealth and privilege conspire to decouple prosperity for the few from basic humanity towards all, we are all left to question how many of our American history lessons retain the patina of democracy.

Just asking these questions seems oddly subversive in these surreal times, which is a pretty good sign that more people, and especially journalists, need to be asking them. Unfortunately, the President of the United States has fueled a hatred against the press that is seeping into every corner of the country. Reporters have not only to fear blow-back from powerful interests in their communities, but now also that common thugs lurking amongst the masses might at any time assault them in the course of their duties to serve that same public. Worse yet, journalists sense an erosion of protection from the very authorities sworn to defend their persons and the principals of the First Amendment, from local police departments all the way up to the White House.

Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake in these geo-political conflicts, but so is our liberty. We must all do what we can to fight the corrosive influence of this blood-soaked greed. Calling your representatives is one idea, except that there’s a good chance he or she has already accepted staggering amounts of campaign contributions from weapons manufacturers. No, it is the press, the vaunted, if somewhat tattered, fourth estate, that truly is the last line of defense against oligarchy and fascism. Journalists around the country and world are sacrificing their reputations, freedom, and lives to honor a sacred obligation with the public to keep them informed. As our voices are silenced, through fear or violence, truth becomes first a whisper, then a rumor, then just a grainy memory.

Please, support independent journalism today. Subscribe, donate, or become a member of whichever news organizations you rely on to protect democracy, both here in the Berkshires and beyond—out in a tempestuous and troubling world that seems to be getting closer all the time.

Jason Velázquez, editor
Jason Velázquez, editor

Jason Velázquez has worked in journalism and publishing for the better part of 20 years now, even though he knows it’s a filthy habit. He writes the shows, sets up and records the interviews, edits the audio, and publishes the episodes. He also handles the web page maintenance, marketing, sales, finance, and administration. He would welcome an e-mail from you. If, however, you have confidential or sensitive information to pass along, please visit our Contact Page to learn about more secure options.

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