Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He was a consultant to Priorities USA Action, which was a pro-Obama super PAC before it was a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“Let them eat cake.” – Marie Antoinette
“Heck of a job, Brownie.” – George W. Bush
“My belief is, we will in fact be greeted as liberators.” – Dick Cheney
Migrant detention centers for children are “more like a summer camp.” – Matthew Albence, acting No. 2 official at Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Add to the list of tragically callous and shockingly cruel statements from government officials this from National Security Adviser John Bolton, when asked Tuesday if he has listened to the audiotape of the murder of US permanent resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi: “Unless you speak Arabic, what are you going to get from it?”
A lot. You will, presumably, hear struggle. You will hear beating, according to a Turkish newspaper, citing Turkish security sources. You will hear torture. You will hear an innocent man’s final, desperate words: “Release my arm! What do you think you are doing?” You will hear one of the alleged conspirators, who allegedly put on Khashoggi’s clothes to act as a body double, comment that “it is spooky to wear the clothes of a man whom we killed 20 minutes ago.”
Sure, those comments are in Arabic. But torture is a universal language. Senior policymakers need to know who they are dealing with, what our allies in Saudi Arabia are capable of.
Bolton, of course, is merely following the lead of his boss, Donald Trump. President Trump told Fox News he will not listen to the Khashoggi tape because it is “a suffering tape.” “I don’t want to hear the tape. No reason for me to hear the tape,” he said. “I know everything that went on in the tape without having to hear it. … It was very violent, very vicious and terrible.”
Where the Saudis are concerned, the Trump administration has its head in the sand. Not only have the President and the national security adviser refused to listen to the Khashoggi tape, they reportedly prevented CIA Director Gina Haspel – who has heard the tape – from briefing senators. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis did brief the Senate, but their departments neither gathered nor analyzed the intel. That’s the CIA’s job.
The administration says the CIA director would not attend the meeting because it was more focused on policy toward Yemen – where the Saudis’ role, incidentally, has been deeply controversial.
Debating policy options usually draws in matters of opinion. But before we can form good policy, we have to know the facts. And in national security, the facts usually come from intelligence. Excluding the CIA director from briefing the Senate limits senators’ ability to see the constellation of issues presented by the US-Saudi relationship.
Of course, President Trump has been briefed on the Khashoggi murder. The CIA – his CIA, our CIA – has concluded with high confidence that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Khashoggi. Shamefully – but not surprisingly – Trump seems to be siding with the Saudi prince against America’s intelligence professionals.
There is a word for those who, when entrusted with leading our nation, purposefully turn away from their duties because they are difficult or unpleasant: cowards. The fact that the tape is unpleasant is precisely why Mr. Bolton – and for that matter, our President – should listen to it.
I was aware that Mr. Bolton doesn’t speak Arabic. I’m quite sure President Trump does not either. What this sad story teaches us is they also don’t speak the language of American values: of the central statement at the core of our founding, that “All men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”