Editor’s Note: Nick Paton Walsh is a senior international correspondent for CNN International. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
“I don’t want to talk about any of the facts” – Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, King Salman Air Base, Riyadh, October 17, 2018.
A truer statement has not been made, frankly, since October 2, when Jamal Khashoggi disappeared into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
While a hunger for the truth has rarely been more acute in a bizarre and macabre story like this, the three parties most involved appear substantially disinterested in providing it.
In fact, 15 days on, all three sides seem, one way or another, involved in some form of cover-up.
First, the Saudis.
Obviously, whatever happened, one of its citizens at the very least – even if Khashoggi miraculously turns up alive in a Dubai hotel – was involved in some form of woeful misconduct.
At the worst, a large part of the Crown Prince’s inner security circle premeditated and executed a gruesome and unprecedented dismembering of a mildly outspoken critic, on foreign soil, using diplomatic immunity as cover.
If what happened is as alleged, then it was a bizarrely naive, arrogant and blundering plot that exposes the likely brash and short lifespan of the current de facto Saudi administration.
If it can overreach like this, in a relatively small matter, it will soon overreach in ways that damage Saudi Arabia both regionally and permanently.
By floating – or having floated on its behalf – the idea that a key figure could be thrown under the bus as the culprit, the Saudis provided themselves with an off-ramp that can be gratefully seized upon by unscrupulous and overly pragmatic allies.
But in no way will Saudi Arabia exonerate itself. What’s startling, this far on, with the resources that Saudi Arabia has even to bring in outside help, it has put up no convincing refutation of the slow drip of charges against it.
It gets worse every day. And every day the strategy from Riyadh is to hope that another major world event sweeps in and distracts everyone.
It hasn’t happened yet. And the longer it goes on, the bigger the event will have to be.
Second, the Trump White House.
Its top emissary has just flown to meet a possible accessory in a gruesome alleged murder that has appalled even the US President. He grinned next to him and shook his hand.
You can’t but find it bizarre that Pompeo had Trump call Mohammad Bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince, while he was there to repeat the Saudi denial.
Then Pompeo leaves and emits the line that facts are not what he wants to talk about.
This from a former CIA director, who surely at one point in the last 18 months walked past its motto, etched on their lobby wall: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
Perhaps he remembered it as: If you know the truth, it’ll likely be a serious pain in the ass, as you’re really gunning for Iran now, and don’t need high oil prices.
It is impossible to believe that the US – with its own startling technology and assistance from NATO ally Turkey – doesn’t have a clear view of exactly what happened both inside and outside the Istanbul consulate.
The paucity of the actual alliance between Saudi’s new rulers and the US’s most powerful diplomat is tragically on display.
He traveled across the world to shake their hands, rather than grimace sternly, and was still unable to patch this up. The Saudis didn’t appear to want to concede anything at all to Pompeo.
He left with the very strong denial of Saudi royalty and its promise to investigate quickly. It is testament to the spinelessness of the West’s current political elite that this explanation was deemed something that could be presented in public.
Surely a proper alliance would have found a scapegoat faster, had them arrested, accepted a few tokenistic sanctions or travel bans and a lukewarm admonishment of the Crown Prince – all safely delivered with the knowledge that it’ll be business as usual in a few months when the world forgets and moves on.
Instead, President Trump makes comparisons to the Kavanaugh affair and the lack of presumed innocence there. Actually, perhaps the surest similarity the Kavanaugh affair affords is that of an elite bent on never losing face, regardless of charges against it, and insisting their order of things be upheld.
Third is Turkey.
The leading per-capita jailer of journalists (according to the Committee to Protect Journalists) has been cast in the unlikely role of Chief of Outrage about an outspoken journalist’s murder.
But the role its taken is not that of the virtuous prosecutor, but of the exploitative politician.
The slow, purposeful, yet absolutely deliberate series of leaks to the media of evidence pointing towards the involvement of the Saudi Crown Prince and his immediate entourage has been disrespectful to the cause of justice itself, let alone to Khashoggi’s grieving relatives.
Turkish officials have used what information they have to keep up the pressure on Riyadh - and on the White House to demand explanations.
The passports, the CCTV, the alleged audio tape that may have recorded the ghastly moment of death and dismemberment, the phone calls from Saudi phones. These were surely all in the hands of the highly competent Turkish intelligence – MIT – within hours of the crime.
Yet they are not retained and later laid out in full, in the open, to present a public case about a crime committed on Turkish soil, against a man with significant connections to its ruling party.
They are not even presented swiftly to explain Khashoggi’s disappearance. Instead, they are drip-fed first to Turkish media – who will presumably be less questioning – and then to their foreign counterparts to be sure the case never falls from public attention.
Turkey clearly does not want to go it alone, in its confrontation with Riyadh, and wants the US to put pressure on them.
But it is clearly enjoying antagonizing the House of Saud.
Just over a year ago, regional alliances were taken to the brink when the Saudis banded together Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain in a blockade against Qatar, who they believed were getting too close to Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis, Iran.
Qatar was dubbed a financier of terrorism. Yet Erdogan upped food exports to the Qataris and dubbed the effective siege of the tiny peninsula: “a death sentence”.
He said: “Along with Turkey, it is the country with the most resolute stance against ISIS which has caused grave damage to our region.”
Trump at first seemed to join the Saudi onslaught, but later calmed his rhetoric. In return, the Qataris have helped Turkey with a bailout in its currency crisis this year.
Erdogan clearly sees the Saudis in the wrong here, and is seeking to maximize the discomfort he can cause them, whilst enjoying the appearance of being seen as the just upholder of international law.
Yet the Turkish case is flawed by its opaque and selective omissions. We do not know for sure if the audio recording of the killing actually exists, as we have not heard it. And we do not know how it was obtained.
We know the select things that the Turkish officials want us to know. So how can we expect to learn what they do not want us to know? Erdogan has a plan, and it is going quite well here, due process be damned.
The question we may be left asking at the end of the grisly episode is which of the three acted with the most grotesque hypocrisy?
The killers themselves? The investigators who used the murder to their own ends? Or the alleged murderer’s allies, who didn’t want to talk about facts, lest they upset an alliance that’s clearly weaker than they would like to admit?