Washington Post Global Opinions columnist Jamal Khashoggi has been missing since entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on Oct. 2. As of this writing, Turkish officials have said that they believe Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, and details are emerging regarding the timing of his entry, where Turkish security cameras were located and the entry and exit of Saudi officials precisely around the time of Khashoggi’s disappearance. The Saudi Arabian government denies involvement or knowledge of his whereabouts.
The manner in which Turkish officials have revealed new details raises questions about what other intelligence information the government of Turkey—or other governments—may have available to them that might reveal or confirm what has happened to Khashoggi. Turkish officials are clearly being cautious by speaking to reporters without named attribution, but they are also providing—as evidenced by this New York Times report—highly detailed information regarding their conclusions.
Deciding whether and how much intelligence information to reveal can be a difficult call for a country unaccustomed to revealing its intelligence methods, especially when it involves such sensitivities as diplomatic facilities. But sometimes the gravity of a situation requires exposing intelligence collection activities.
Although not involving the same global awareness or foreign relations sensitivities, here’s an example of something that happened in the United States, decades ago:
Around 1991, the FBI was conducting surveillance of a U.S. citizen, Zein Hassan Isa, inside the United States for foreign intelligence purposes. The surveillance was directed at Isa in his home in Missouri and, in accordance with U.S. law, was conducted pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Accordingly, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) had approved the surveillance based on a probable cause finding that Isa was an agent of a foreign power. Under normal circumstances, this type of surveillance would not be revealed publicly unless an individual was prosecuted for a national security-related crime—espionage or terrorism, for example. But in this case, the U.S. Attorney General made an exception. He authorized the use of the evidence at Isa’s murder trial, which meant that the surveillance became public.
The surveillance recorded tapes that revealed Isa, with his wife’s assistance, stabbed their 16-year-old daughter to death in the family’s home. According to later written narratives of the case, Tina Isa had become too Americanized, and her father was enraged when he found her at home with a boyfriend. In his mind, perhaps, she had betrayed him, or their heritage.
Based on public reports, the picture that is emerging is that there is intelligence information Turkish officials or other international partners may have that either provides evidence of or information about what has happened to Khashoggi. Reports that U.S. intelligence may have had some advanced information regarding a plot to harm Khashoggi raises additional questions about intelligence services’ duty to warn. Under normal circumstances, intelligence services would want to protect their sources, whether human or technical. Intelligence services in Turkey and elsewhere likely have additional information that would shed light on events leading up to Khashoggi’s disappearance. The Turkish government may need to reveal sources it does not want to reveal if the Saudi Arabian government continues to deny involvement despite evidence Turkey has in its possession. Alternatively, one way for other countries to assist the Turkish government in protecting its sources while following through on its apparent desire to provide information to the public would be for cooperating governments to create a joint statement based on combined intelligence regarding threats to and the disappearance and alleged murder of Khashoggi.
Sometimes the greater public interest is served by releasing information, even if it means revealing how the information was obtained. This is such a case.