How U.S. Intelligence Fell Down on Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia this spring sent shockwaves through the world when it embarked on an economically disastrous game of chicken with its petro-rival Russia. After walking away from an oil-production conference, the kingdom opened its spigots to drive down prices in protest of what it saw as a lack of Russian support, sending global markets plunging right as Covid-19 began shutting down economies. Not long before that, the Saudi government itself had undergone a dramatic purge led by Mohammad bin Salman, the young prince who appears to have rapidly consolidated power in the past three years, and who enjoys the favor of the Trump administration.
What happened? Who saw all this coming? And what does this behavior say about the person the Trump White House has chosen as an ally?
If Americans assume their intelligence apparatus has a handle on these questions, they should listen more closely to what Riedel and others have been saying.
Expert watchers such as Riedel point out that the Trump administration has embraced Mohammad bin Salman (or MbS, in diplomatic shorthand) in much the same way that the Obama administration embraced his predecessor, Mohammad bin Nayaf: with a highly politicized intelligence apparatus that likely leaves significant holes in what the president knows. Already, the results are bleak: In his time in power, MbS has plunged America into his Yemen quagmire, cavalierly murdered a U.S.-based journalist, destabilized the energy market and courted U.S. rivals Russia, China and Iran.
When it comes to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, American policy has long relied on intelligence-gathering to help determine its true motives and internal dynamics. Saudi Arabia is an opaque country, with rulers subject to no internal transparency and minimal outside accountability. The country is now ruled by the enfeebled 84-year-old King Salman, whose reign is likely to be short and is already largely serving as cover for the actual governing by his son. So trustworthy intelligence on what’s happening there— a country with which the U.S. has a multibillion-dollar military, diplomatic and business relationship—is more important than ever.
However, informed critics such as Riedel, as well as former operatives and others who have spoken out in the media, have been pointing out that the US intelligence community, and particularly its last three CIA directors, have taken a very politicized approach to Saudi intelligence gathering. Rather than asking difficult questions and then empowering collection efforts, intelligence leaders have been choosing their conclusions and then steering away from any inconvenient facts about them.
This trend appears to be continuing: According to recent media reports, Secretary of State (and former CIA director) Mike Pompeo pushed State Department officials to find an after-the-fact justification for an emergency declaration he issued last year, bypassing Congress and allowing an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
Riedel’s comments, and the recently mounting critiques, point to a worrisome turn in America’s approach to Saudi Arabia: Faced with a complex and perhaps dangerous diplomatic partner, successive White Houses have instead sought to look the other way concerning Saudi behavior, allowing themselves to be steered by intelligence chiefs with their own motives, and comfortably basking in feigned ignorance regarding the truth beneath the Kingdom’s pervasive veil.
Politicization of intelligence need not always be heavy-handed to undermine the truth. Often, the decision not to ask certain questions has the same impact as manipulating or discrediting what you already know. There’s no evidence, for example, that the George W. Bush, Obama or Trump White Houses ever sought a National Intelligence Estimate on Saudi Arabia, a thorough and forward-looking analytical document that integrates the knowledge of the entire intelligence community. Such an initiative would have generated the questions and ensuing body of evidence to provide the kind of thorough assessment that might have exposed understanding of Saudi Arabia’s leadership, politics, human rights record and internal stability, generating insights that would be shared far and wide across the government.
Though critics have levied similar charges against both the Obama and the Trump approaches to the intelligence community, the Trump administration’s current behavior is unprecedented in my own nearly four decades of service. Never have I witnessed the National Security Council and CIA so focused on controlling information that might expose, contradict or offend the president. The two most recent CIA directors, Pompeo and Gina Haspel, have prioritized control over the narrative of any public reflections concerning the CIA’s thinking, and more importantly, their own positions and comments, to shape their image with the president.
(The CIA’s objection to this article validated these observations. Despite the absence of any classified information, a CIA board, to whose review my 34 years in the clandestine service obliges me for anything I publish, pushed to redact much of the most critical prose. My ensuing depiction is therefore more vague than the reality warrants.)
For both economic or security reasons, what transpires in the Kingdom directly affects all Americans. So what went wrong with our Saudi intelligence operation—and how can we fix it?During a visit to Saudi Arabia in the not so distant past by then CIA Director John Brennan, I found myself standing in line for a lunch being hosted by Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud.
At the time Salman was the kingdom’s crown prince, second in command to his brother, then-King Abdullah, but Salman himself was already an elderly man. He was courteous and polite, greeting each of his guests with a handshake that was warm but notably weak. Prince Salman’s hand trembled violently; his engagement with his guests was short, perfunctory and limited to the brief period for which he could remain standing. He did not engage in anything more than an exchange or well scripted platitudes; he took a seat and ultimately exited after but a brief period. (Riedel has speculated in the press that the elderly royal even then was suffering from at least pre-dementia.)
Another character was also present at that lunch, one whose importance was not yet clear. All the while, Prince Salman remained under the watchful eyes of not only his protocol aides, but a serious looking young Saudi male assistant. After greetings, we were ushered to another tent where a traditional Saudi meal had been prepared. The same young Saudi assistant passed a plate with a kind smile and encouraged me to feel welcome. He was deferential with the guests and struck me as a bit unsure about his own English language skills. Still, he was nothing but proper. Intrigued by the young man’s access to the crown prince, I was surprised when protocol aides identified him as Salman’s son, Mohammad bin Salman.
This was not a person that the intelligence community would have expected to be there. In fact, the intelligence community knew practically nothing about MbS beyond where his name placed in the House of Saud’s family tree. I watched as Director Brennan spoke in hushed tones with the young prince in a corner of the tent after his father had retired for the day. There was little animation in this exchange, in part because the United States had already picked its favorite among the Saudi princes.
That person was Mohammad bin Nayef, or MbN for short, then the Saudi interior minister. Appropriately referred to as “the darling of America’s counterterrorism and intelligence services,” MbN had by then become the CIA’s best friend in Saudi Arabia, if not America’s. Riedel depicted MbN as a legitimate hero in the Kingdom’s fight against terrorism, a royal who survived a nearly successful assassination attempt in 2009 by an al-Qaeda suicide bomber.
Directors of the CIA lavished praise on MbN. Former director George Tenet, who served under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, called the minister “my most important interlocutor”; Obama’s first CIA director, Leon Panetta, dubbed him “the smartest [Saudi] of his generation.”
Brennan, who Obama appointed as director of the CIA in March, 2013, was all in on MbN, selling President Obama on the value of backing this horse. But Brennan also micromanaged the CIA’s Saudi enterprise, limiting the agency’s agility to report on vibrations within the House of Saud that might reflect poorly on MbN and his prospects, and thus limiting the president’s visibility into his potential weaknesses.
In micromanaging CIA’s Saudi portfolio, and the vision of Saudi Arabia on which the president relied, Brennan effectively crossed the Rubicon: He became MbN’s active advocate with the Obama White House, with the goal of helping install him on the Saudi throne.
Brennan convinced President Obama to invest US interests with MbN that extended well beyond the Kingdom itself. The CIA director sought to leverage Saudi influence and affluence to support US initiatives that spanned the globe. Such objectives were both broad and critical, on issues ranging from Iran, Syria and Middle East peace, to Africa, Russia and even East Asia.
While Brennan could use his powers to assure that MbN was seen in the best light at the White House, he could do nothing to spare his partner’s vulnerabilities at home. And MbN, we now know, was not lacking for vulnerabilities—nor enemies within his own family. He was an intimate of King Abdullah, the ailing monarch who died in 2015, but any Saudi with whom I have ever spoken appreciated royal family dynamics enough to know there wasn’t a great deal of love lost between MbN and Crown Prince Salman and Salman’s branch of the royal family. (Although Salman was Abdullah’s brother, and thus MbN’s paternal uncle, his and Abdullah’s marriages created distinct bloodlines that resulted in friction among their respective heirs.)
It was known that the assassination attempt by Al Qaeda had left MbN dependent on narcotics. Riedel observed that “the weight of the evidence I have seen is that he was more injured in the assassination attempt than was admitted, and that he then got onto a painkiller routine that was very addictive. I think that problem got progressively worse.” In Saudi Arabia, this weakness proved his undoing: According to New York Times reporting, members of the Allegiance Council, a body of princes who approve changes to the line of succession, were told of MbN’s drug problem in justifying what was, in practicality, a palace coup in June 2017, in which Mohammad bin Salman had his cousin placed under house arrest.
So within two years, the horses that the US had bet on were suddenly sidelined. The ailing Salman became king when Abdullah died in January, 2015; in June 2017, MbS engineered his palace coup, leaving the U.S. dealing not with the ally it had cultivated, but with an ascendant star it had known little about.
How did the intelligence community get it so wrong? Despite being himself a self-professed Saudi expert and career CIA analyst, trained to inform decision making with unbiased, intelligence-driven assessments, Brennan had politicized his role, and certainly the CIA’s. As he told NPR in 2015, “we don’t steal secrets.” Rather, he said “we solicit.” To his proud espionage service, trained to uncork information, this was a demoralizing sentiment, but it was deeply reflective of how Brennan fancied himself more policymaker and emissary than spymaster. Implicitly Brennan was not only redefining the Agency’s mission, but grading its analytical homework. The facts, after all, had to align with Brennan’s recommendations to the president. Conveying too much about how the sausage was made could have jeopardized Brennan’s vision of American partnership with the Kingdom concerning Syria, Iran and Yemen—issues all publicly placed within MbN’s official portfolio.
Brennan’s recipe of half-measures, micromanagement and unreliability in delivering on his promises to MbN and other Middle East partners would wind up doing far more harm than good. Ultimately, his conduct torpedoed MbN, whose advisors were savvy enough to see the writing on the wall apparent in MbN’s vulnerabilities and MbS’s ambition, and turned their support to MbS. It could do little to spare their patron from the coming catastrophe to which he had long made himself vulnerable. With MbN out of power and a young, little-known prince in the ascendant, the United States now found itself out of the loop when it came to an important but troublesome ally.Some seven years after backing the wrong horse, it’s not clear if the US intelligence community has learned its lessons. And in Trump, it has a leader with another problem: an instinctive style in foreign policy, and an unwillingness to hear contradictory information from his own experts.
In Pompeo, during his tenure at both CIA and State, the president has a security and foreign policy adviser who lacks curiosity, depth or a willingness to introduce possibilities and reasoning that do not already align with his boss’s point of view. Moreover, there’s risk in “stealing secrets,” and Pompeo has shown no appetite to rock the boat and enrage the president for the sake of providing him with better information.
Unlike Brennan, current CIA director Gina Haspel has made no pretense of developing or leveraging engagement with MbS or any other Saudi star. That’s not necessarily a bad approach, so long as one empowers and enables those whose job it is to develop allies. But despite being a career operations officer and former Chief of Station herself, her approach is more suited to Europe’s stately capitals than the frontier. Haspel is no Near East hand, and not the type who can cultivate and leverage the personal relationships so critical in Saudi society. Sitting in a tent and affecting a smile, telling stories and swapping politically incorrect jokes over ceaseless cups of green Saudi coffee at hours well past bedtime is not Haspel’s style.
To her credit, Haspel has been more forthright in carrying the CIA’s mail to the president concerning the Kingdom’s realities. She did not divorce herself publicly from what the press reported to have been the CIA’s confidence that MbS was culpable in the despicable 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Unfortunately, much like her predecessor, she’s reluctant to look hard for bad news that might contradict or embarrass her boss. Indeed, Trump, who holds a rather positive personal impression of MbS, publicly derided his own CIA’s assessment of the young crown prince. Were Haspel to support greater collection against the Kingdom, she’d have to answer to Trump for opening a Pandora’s box he preferred kept shut.
As president, Trump has been both boon and source of worry for MbS. Trump has backed him in some areas where another president would hold him accountable—especially the Khashoggi murder and Saudi conduct in Yemen. But at the same time, Trump’s policies with regard to Syria, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iran have been more problematic for the young Saudi ruler. The president’s deployment of US military personnel and material following the Iranian facilitated September 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia’s refineries was little assurance that American forces would come to the rescue if the Kingdom faced direct hostilities. Indeed, they have since been redeployed to support our own forces in Iraq and address North Korea’s more threatening posture in East Asia.Saudi Arabia is a complex and fascinating country with all manner of permutations among the various tribes, sub-tribes, cliques and regional bases of power. The House of Saud itself is hardly homogenous, with assorted blocs, bloodlines and drama that influences decision making but known best to insiders. It would behoove President Trump and the US to hedge their bets at least to some degree. After all, MbS currently operates under the protection of his elderly and weakened father. Upon King Salman’s passing, MbS could, like his cousin, face “the night of the long knives,” as Riedel observes, if he is unable to comprehensively check each and every possible internal threat. And MBS is taking no chances.
In actions that reflected MbS’s growing uncertainty over how long King Salman will be able to provide top cover, he ordered the March 2020 arrest of his father’s brother, former Crown Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, along with his son Nayif Bin Ahmad. Former rival MbN was also detained, as was his brother Nawaf bin Nayif. All were accused of treason.
The U.S., which had eased Prince Ahmad’s return from self-imposed exile in London with security assurances, did nothing. It likewise offered no resistance to the detention of stalwart one-time partner MbN, in whom the U.S. had long invested. MbS followed by pressuring former Saudi intelligence official Dr. Sa’ad Bin Khalid Bin Sa’ad Allah Al Jabri to return to the Kingdom by arresting his two youngest children remaining in the country.
As a senior intelligence official and long-time MbN adviser, Jabri was a key Western partner. He got things done that advanced his country’s interests, as well as America’s, without gamesmanship or pretense. A man who the press correctly suggests “knows where the bodies are buried,” he prudently fled the Kingdom following MbN’s removal and his own sacking. Despite his close U.S. ties, Jabri is hiding out in Canada, fearful that the Trump administration would deport him to Saudi Arabia.
By arresting those considered close to the U.S. or who otherwise believed themselves safe based on past American security assurances, MbS has shown his ruthlessness, and has sent an unmistakable message about the risks of cooperation with the U.S., the price of dissent and the powerlessness of America to protect its interests within the Kingdom. Meanwhile, the last thing Trump wants is illumination of such dynamics from the intelligence community, which could threaten his unconditional support to the Kingdom and its young prince.
MbS has his own domestic challenges. He needs to contend with the powerful Al-Shaykh family, which includes Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al-Shaykh. Descendants of Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th-century Wahhabi founder, the family formed a power-sharing arrangement nearly 300 years ago with the House of Saud, in which the Al-Shaykh family retains authority in religious matters in exchange for supporting the House of Saud’s political authority. The families are also integrated by marriage. One must wonder how supportive the al-Shaykhs are of the social reforms MbS has imposed, allowing women to drive, music to play in restaurants and men and women to mix in public. All that now occurs without the watchful eyes of the since defanged Mutawa, Saudi Arabia’s once pervasive and intimidating religious police.
As in Iran prior to the Shah’s fall, it’s not that CIA can’t learn the realities that foreshadow Saudi Arabia’s future, or assess its decisionmaking today. Rather, it’s a deliberate choice. Knowledge incurs a level of responsibility, and the CIA steals only those secrets and produces assessments that its political leaders request. That the agency’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment reported optimistically on the Kingdom’s stability, reforms and economic progress reflects the reality that little was based on anything but public information, and that information usually comes from palace-controlled media and messaging.
Saudi Arabia’s 34 million people, resources, and military capabilities can’t be ignored or wished away. The Kingdom has for years been spending between 9 and 13 percent of its annual GDP on military procurements, making it one of the best-equipped forces on the globe. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the International Institute for Strategic Studies regularly place Saudi Arabian military spending third after only the US and China.
Saudi’s economic gamesmanship as reflected by the oil machinations of this spring also demonstrates its ability to inflict economic pain on the U.S. as well, when it chooses. Without the foresight of the Covid pandemic’s forthcoming economic impact, MbS’s measures were, like Russia’s, aimed at the competition felt from the U.S. energy sector, with collateral damage more broadly ensuing across the entire American economy.
“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” is a dangerous business model for the US to embrace concerning this important country, one that likewise reportedly has nuclear ambitions. Whatever the reality is in Saudi Arabia, US interests are best served with a cold look at the facts and more calculated leveraging of its influence. While it’s the president’s prerogative to chart US foreign policy, Americans have the right to see that their duly elected representatives have the opportunity to provide advice, consent and oversight.
Trump should be able to make the case for his positive relationship with the Crown Prince, but based on the facts our intelligence services are charged to provide, and which can withstand scrutiny. Not doing so risks the kinds of failures that have caused America’s greatest embarrassments in the Middle East—failing to see the coming of Iran’s 1979 revolution, and the manipulation of intelligence to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq—but with perhaps even more frightening consequences yet to come.

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