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Former CIA Officer Discusses Agency's Conclusions On Killing Of Jamal Khashoggi

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's talk next about 11 electronic messages, messages sent by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, sent to a key aide in the hours during which that aide is believed to have been overseeing the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. We know about these messages because a secret CIA assessment has leaked. This was first reported by The Wall Street Journal. The assessment concludes that Crown Prince Mohammed probably ordered the Saudi journalist's death.

I want to bring in Bruce Riedel. He is a career CIA officer with a lot of experience in the Middle East. Bruce Riedel, good to speak with you.

BRUCE RIEDEL: Great to speak with you.

KELLY: How unusual is it for an intercept like this to leak?

RIEDEL: Unfortunately not that unusual. The American national security community is enormous. Even if this material is more closely guarded than most, we're still probably talking about thousands of people who have access to it or who have access to reports about it.

KELLY: Do you have a theory for why this was leaked?

RIEDEL: I think there are a lot of people in our government who have thought that Donald Trump's embrace of Mohammed bin Salman has been a mistake for some time.

KELLY: The Trump administration, as personified recently on Capitol Hill by the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has consistently said, look; there's no smoking gun that links the crown prince to Khashoggi's death. To you, would something like this, 11 messages from the crown prince to his closest adviser in the exact time window that Khashoggi died - does that qualify as a smoking gun?

RIEDEL: It certainly qualifies as a smoking message. I find it hard to believe that the secretary of state and the secretary of defense don't also know that the crown prince was involved in all of this, but I think they're getting their marching orders from the Oval Office. And the Oval Office wants to brush past Khashoggi and this whole thing as quickly as possible and hope that people forget about it.

KELLY: So the leak of something like this, of a highly classified CIA assessment, would be strategic, trying to force the administration's hand.

RIEDEL: That's undoubtedly the thinking behind it. It's also going to force the director of the CIA to appear before the Congress probably in closed, classified session and explain to key members, what exactly does this - messages refer to? Does she know what the content of those messages are? I think she will now sooner or later have to appear.

KELLY: And may I push you a little bit on your contention that it's not so unusual for something like this to leak? I've covered national security for a long time. I'm hard-pressed to think of a case where we knew this kind of specific detail - the number of messages, 11 - and where a reporter - in this case, reporters at The Wall Street Journal - had full sentences from a highly classified report that either they've looked at or had read to them. What's an example you would point me to in recent history of that?

RIEDEL: Well, most intelligence issues don't boil down to a question of who ordered the murder of a specific individual in a specific place. That's more police work than it is conventional intelligence. That's why I think this stands out to you, and rightly so, as a really extraordinary leak.

KELLY: Do you have concerns about the potential for burning whatever surveillance the CIA was using to get these messages?

RIEDEL: That's always a concern. Back in the years before 9/11, reports that we were monitoring Osama bin Laden's phones led to him changing his methods of communicating. So we might lose some capability, but I'm pretty confident that with the people that work at NSA, we're going to continue to be in the game.

KELLY: Although it does prompt one to wonder whether whatever means Mohammad bin Salman was using to message his key aides, he might switch to a different service going forward.

RIEDEL: This should be a lesson to the crown prince that you may think you're getting away with something, but someone else is always listening to what's going on.

KELLY: Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel - he is the author of "Kings And Presidents: Saudi Arabia And The United States Since FDR." He is now at the Brookings Institution. Bruce Riedel, thank you.

RIEDEL: Thank you very much.

KELLY: And this updated - since we taped that interview, we've learned the director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, will brief Senate leaders tomorrow about Jamal Khashoggi's death. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.