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Washington Post and Mike Pompeo spar over legacy of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Mike Pompeo, the former Central Intelligence Agency director and Secretary of State, escalated his feud with the Washington Post on Tuesday over the legacy of the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the newspaper has accused him of tarnishing.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks against a background of American flags.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a "Politics and Eggs" forum at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., on Sept. 20, 2022. (Brian Snyder/Reuters) (Brian Snyder / reuters)

WASHINGTON — Mike Pompeo, the former Central Intelligence Agency director and secretary of state, escalated his feud with the Washington Post on Tuesday over the legacy of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the newspaper has accused him of tarnishing.

In his new book, “Never Give an Inch,” Pompeo, a Republican who is likely to run for president in 2024, describes the Post columnist, who was murdered by agents of the Saudi ruling family in 2018, as an “activist,” seeming to suggest that Khashoggi did not deserve to be called a journalist.

“He didn’t deserve to die, but we need to be clear about who he was — and too many in the media were not,” Pompeo writes of the slain 59-year-old.

On Tuesday, Fred Ryan, publisher of the Washington Post, issued a sharply worded reply. “It is shameful that Pompeo would spread vile falsehoods to dishonor a courageous man’s life and service — and his commitment to principles Americans hold dear — as a ploy to sell books.”

Jamal Khashoggi at the microphone at an event that, the sign behind him says: Memo, Middle East Monitor, Creating New Perspectives, middleeastmonitor.
Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi addresses an event hosted in London on Sept. 29, 2018. Middle East (Monitor/Handout via Reuters) (Handout . / Reuters)

Seemingly intent on proving his book’s title true, Pompeo defended his criticisms of Khashoggi. “Americans are safer because we didn’t label Saudi Arabia a pariah state,” he wrote on Twitter in response to Ryan. “I never let the media bully me. Just b/c someone is a part-time stringer for WaPo doesn’t make their life more important than our military serving in dangerous places protecting us all. I never forgot that.”

In journalistic parlance, “stringers” are field reporters tasked with gathering information on the ground. They are often less experienced and their dispatches are sometimes heavily rewritten by more senior colleagues, not columnists of Khashoggi’s stature, with his decades of journalistic experience.

NBC News was first to report on the contents of Pompeo’s book, which went on sale on Tuesday and is the kind of volume that would-be presidential candidates tend to write before launching a national campaign. Reviewing “Never Give an Inch” in the Washington Post on Tuesday, the investigative journalist Tim Weiner called the book “a master class in the performative anger poisoning American politics.”

Weiner went on to write, “Hatred animates this book. It’s got more venom than a quiver of cobras.”

Jeff Bezos, leans over to whisper something to his neighbor, Hatice Cengiz, whose head is covered by a scarf, and who is also seated next to Fred Ryan.
Jeff Bezos of Amazon, owner of the Washington Post; Hatice Cengiz, once the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi; and Post publisher Fred Ryan at a ceremony marking the first anniversary of Khashoggi's killing, on Oct. 2, 2019. (Umit Bektas/Reuters) (Umit Bektas / reuters)

Khashoggi was born into a wealthy, influential Saudi family. His uncle Adnan was a prominent arms dealer; his cousin was the film producer Dodi al-Fayed, who was romantically involved with Princess Diana, and who died with her in a 1997 car crash in Paris. In the 1980s, Jamal Khashoggi was on friendly terms with Osama bin Laden, who was then waging war against the Soviet Union with American help.

But Khashoggi later became an ardent supporter of democracy in the Middle East and an unstinting critic of the Saudi royal family, whose reforms he distrusted as superficial concessions to internal and Western critics. He also opposed the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, which has contributed to a humanitarian crisis in the country.

In his final column, Khashoggi lamented the shattered hopes of the Arab Spring of 2011. Citizens of despotic regimes “expected to be emancipated from the hegemony of their governments and the consistent interventions and censorship of information,” he wrote. “These expectations were quickly shattered; these societies either fell back to the old status quo or faced even harsher conditions than before.”

By the time that column was published in the Post on Oct. 17, 2018, Khashoggi was already dead. He had gone to Istanbul in late September to obtain a divorce, part of an intricate love life that included two romantic partners at the time of his death.

On Oct. 2, he was lured into the Saudi consulate, never to be seen again. Subsequent reports indicated that he had been murdered and dismembered by operatives acting on the orders of Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, the Saudi crown prince.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Saudi dress with white robe trimmed in gold and red-and-white checkered dishdasha. attends the
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok, Thailand, on Nov. 18, 2022. (Athit Perawongmetha/pool/AFP via Getty Images) (ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA via Getty Images)

At the time of the murder, Pompeo was serving as secretary of state in the administration of President Donald Trump. He downplayed the involvement of the Saudi ruling family in the Khashoggi killing. “The direct evidence isn't yet available. It may show up tomorrow, it may have shown up overnight, but I haven't seen it," he said.

Pompeo’s tenure at the State Department was beset with allegations of corruption, including the disappearance of a $5,800 bottle of Japanese whiskey.

After leaving the administration, he became a staple on the conservative media circuit. Even as Trump moved towards another White House bid, Pompeo seemed to suggest that he was also interested in seeking the presidency.

President Biden’s own dealings with Saudi Arabia have been fraught, in part because of the Khashoggi murder. In the first weeks of his administration, Biden released an intelligence report that declared it “highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince's authorization.”

But the following summer, with the war in Ukraine pushing gas prices in the United States sky-high, Biden met with Prince Mohammed in the Saudi city Jeddah to ask the oil-rich kingdom to release more oil. Biden said he confronted Prince Mohammed over Khashoggi’s murder, although he managed to extract nothing approaching a concession of guilt.

Ryan, the Post publisher, said the meeting provided Prince Mohammed “unwarranted redemption.”

The controversy over Khashoggi is in keeping with the distrust of the mainstream media shared by Pompeo and many other conservatives. In early 2020, Pompeo angrily confronted the NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly after she questioned him on the Trump administration’s Ukraine policy in an interview. According to Kelly, Pompeo shouted and cursed at her, and demanded to see if she could identify Ukraine on a map.

Kelly said she was presented with a globe with no country names, on which she identified the Eastern European nation. After the row was made public, Pompeo’s office persisted in attacking the reporter, alleging that she had confused Ukraine with Bangladesh, which is thousands of miles away, on the Indian subcontinent.