Subscribe to the Intercepted podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Radio Public, and other platforms. New to podcasting? Click here.
A far-right government led by the authoritarian Congressman Jair Bolsanaro is highly likely to win the presidency in Brazil when the October 28 run-off is held. This week on Intercepted: Glenn Greenwald is host and he breaks down the rise of the most extreme right-wing candidate in the democratic world and explains why Brazil’s young and fragile democracy leaves it far more susceptible to a return of military rule than the older and more established democracies of Europe and North America. Glenn is joined by the vice presidential candidate on the Worker’s Party ticket running against Bolsonaro, Manuela d’Ávila, for a wide-ranging interview about Bolsonaro, the campaign she and the Worker’s Party are running, and the severe dangers posed to Brazilian democracy. He asks d’Ávila whether the democratic institutions in place will be enough to guard against a president who advocates returning to military dictatorship, and they discuss the neoliberal economic crisis that is likely to come. Journalist Sarah Aziza gives an in-depth analysis of the alleged brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi that has rocked the journalistic world and started a debate over the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. She breaks down the Saudi government’s explanations of events in Khashoggi’s disappearance, and gives the context of other disappeared and jailed Saudi critics at the hands of the government before, and after, Mohammad bin Salman seized and consolidated power in the Kingdom.
Tom Llamas: She’s one of the most recognizable faces in the world.
Melania Trump: No, I don’t feel he insulted the Mexicans. He said, “illegal immigrants.”
TL: A stylish First Lady. A devoted mother.
MT: Do you want to see President Obama’s birth certificate, or not?
Joy Behar: I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it —
MT: It’s not a birth certificate.
TL: But beyond that, Melania Trump remains, for many Americans, an enigma.
TL: Finish this sentence for me. Melania Trump is —
MT: I’m not happy in the White House. I don’t even live there. I’m miserable in my marriage. I’m out of touch. There’s so many things, I don’t even know where to start.
TL: What would your message be to those families that are still separated. There are hundreds of kids that are still not with their parents. What would you tell them?
MT: It is not concern or focus of mine. I have much more important things to think about and to do.
TL: Let’s talk about the jacket.
MT: The jacket.
TL: Why did you wear it?
MT: It was kind of a message, yes. I would prefer that they would focus [on] what I wear than on what I do and on my initiatives.
TL: You are not the first First Lady to have to deal with her husband’s alleged infidelities. Has this put a strain on your marriage?
MT: Yes, we are fine. Yes.
TL: Do you love your husband?
MT: Our marriage will not last forever. And time will come. Everything needs to go to the court system. I feel like a prisoner.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Glenn Greenwald: I’m Glenn Greenwald sitting in this week for Jeremy Scahill. This is episode 70 of Intercepted.
Anca Ulea: I’m in downtown Rio as thousands of people flooded the streets to protest Jair Bolsonaro — the far-right candidate for president. Bolsonaro’s made comments belittling rape and calling the gender pay gap “justified.”
Lucia Newman: Others are more concerned about his overtly pro-military stance and his praise for Brazil’s former military dictatorship. Bolsonaro has vowed to fight crime and violence with more violence which horrifies —
GG: I’m speaking to you from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil where political events have left much of the world shocked, baffled, and even somewhat horrified by recent political events here in the country. And here in Brazil, a large segment of the population is all of those things in addition to being somewhat terrorized. And the reason for that is the remarkable political ascension of someone who has been on the fringes of Brazilian politics for three decades but now is about to take over the country with virtually unlimited power and his name is Jair Bolsonaro — who has been a far-right extremist serving in the Brazilian Congress, essentially without very many allies and without very many partners. In the 30 years of his being in Congress, he was able to pass virtually no bills. He was able to form almost no political alliances. He was essentially a cult-like figure who had a fanatical following in Rio de Janeiro that constantly sent him back every four years to Congress, but never had any impact on the national scene.
To the extent he was known during this time, it was for making highly inflammatory attention-grabbing comments — some of which have become now famous around the world. He once told a female colleague, for example, in Congress — a leftist member of the Congress — who accused him of supporting and defending the rapists of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil. He said to her, “Don’t worry. You’re too ugly to deserve my rape.” He said in a recent interview when asked how he would react if he learned that his son was gay in light of his numerous homophobic and virulently anti-gay comments over the year, he said, “I would rather learn that my son died in a car accident than learned that he was gay.” He’s made all kinds of extraordinarily racist and misogynistic statements that have been substantive in nature, but so far outside of the mainstream of Brazilian politics that they never really had any kind of an impact.
And what he was probably most known for — the views of his that have been most consistent — are his continuous comments praising, and heralding, and heaping all kinds of compliments on the military generals who in 1964 overthrew the democratically elected left-wing government of Brazil. And then proceeded to rule the country for twenty-one years, from 1964 until 1985, under a brutal, highly repressive military dictatorship that did things like round up dissidents and critics, torture its opponents, and even engage in summary execution of people who opposed them.
And in 1985, when Brazil finally exited the military dictatorship — a military dictatorship incidentally which was supported centrally by the U.S. and the U.K. as part of the Cold War — it became virtually taboo in Brazil to speak well of the military dictatorship. Brazil sort of reached the consensus at the end of the 80s that democracy was the only viable course of politics. And in fact it became a crime to engage in apology or praise of the military dictatorship but that never stopped Jair Bolsonaro. For 30 years, he has continued to praise the dictatorship. He refuses to even recognize it as a coup. He instead has repeatedly described the 1964 coup as a noble attempt to save Brazil from communist dictatorship. He describes it, not as a coup, but as a defense of democracy. And has repeatedly said that Brazil was better off under military rule than it has been under the last 33 years of its democracy.
And what’s most remarkable is that the same Jair Bolsonaro is on the verge of taking over the entire political structure of Brazil. And that’s important for a lot of different reasons beginning with the fact that Brazil is a huge country. It’s the fifth most populous country on the planet with 210 million people, right behind the United States. It’s the largest and most populous country in South America. It’s the seventh biggest economy in the world and it has one of the hugest oil reserves of any nation on the planet. So the prospect of a country of this size, and this level of influence, and this importance on the global and economic scale being taken over by a figure this extreme is something that has captured the attention obviously not only of everybody who lives in Brazil but the international media, as well.
Just to give a sense for how much power Bolsonaro has already acquired before even being elected president: The first round of Brazil’s elections were held on October 7th — so, about 12 days ago or 14 days ago — and Brazil has a similar system to France where all of the candidates running for president have a first vote and if nobody gets more than 50%, the top two candidates go on to a runoff. Which is how Emmanuel Macron, for example, became president of France defeating Marine Le Pen in the runoff. In the first round, Jair Bolsonaro almost won the presidency without the need for a runoff. He ended up with just over 46.2%. His next nearest competitor was the former Mayor of San Paolo Fernando Haddad, who is a member of the Workers’ Party — the same party that has won the last four presidential elections going back to 2002 when it elected and then re-elected Lula [da Silva] and then elected and re-elected Dilma Rousseff who ruled the country until 2014 when she was impeached. And Haddad finished with 29% so 17 points behind Bolsonaro. And polls since then have shown that if anything the margin between the two has increased. The last credible poll taken on Monday shows Bolsonaro with 59% of the likely vote and Haddad with 41%. So an 18% margin. It’s almost certain that Bolsonaro will win the presidency when the election is held on October 28th, something unimaginable a mere 1 year ago.
But not only that, in the first round of the voting, his party — which previously was so tiny that he was literally the only member of it in Congress — won 52 seats becoming the second largest party in the Federal Congress. The center of the Federal Congress basically got decimated and all of its support went to the far-right. So parties that are either members of either Bolsonaro’s party or aligned with it or sympathetic to his ideology dominate the Federal Congress, which means that when he does win the presidency he’s likely to have very little resistance within both the lower house of the Congress and the Senate.
Just to give you a sense of how overwhelming this wave was, his son, Bolsonaro’s son — Eduardo Bolsonaro who’s been a longtime member of Congress from São Paulo — received well over a million votes and set a record for the most votes ever received by a candidate for Congress in Brazil. His other son Flávio, who was a state representative in Rio de Janeiro, was elected to the Federal Senate by an overwhelming margin. So he has a son in the lower house, a son in the Senate, and also a son who serves in Rio de Janeiro City Council, and an an ally of Bolsonaro’s who nobody had ever heard of — who’s even a little bit crazier and more extreme than he — out of nowhere is now the frontrunner to be the governor of Rio de Janeiro and this movement has taken over all levels of government from the north of Brazil to the south and everything in between.
And the reason this is so alarming is because of who Bolsonaro is. He’s often in the Western media described as Brazil’s Trump, but this highly understates and even misleads for two really important reasons. He’s really not comparable to Donald Trump. He’s much more similar to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte or even the Egyptian dictator General Sisi. For one unlike Trump, who occasionally says comments that are intended to troll and shock and that are racist misogynistic, but never really is able to translate them into action and doesn’t really have a consistent ideology over the decades, Bolsonaro has spent 30 years developing a highly definable ideology that is far more extreme than anything Donald Trump has ever advocated, including a literal return of the military dictatorship. The only time he criticized the military dictatorship was to say that the mistake they made was to only torture people and not torture and then kill them all. He says they should have killed at least 30,000 more people including the right-wing president who was elected, Fernando Cardoso. So he’s far more extreme than Trump in his ideology and much more important is the difference between the U.S. or countries in Europe that have far-right leaders on the one-hand and Brazil on the other.
Unlike the U.S., Brazil is not a democracy that’s 230 years old. It’s only 33 years old and therefore it’s institutions are highly weak and highly fragile to the extent that there is even a deep state — of the kind that we see in the U.S. posing limits on Donald Trump, and the CIA, and the military then in courts and the like — to the extent there’s a deep state in Brazil, it’s the Brazilian military from which Bolsonaro himself comes. He was an army captain during the military dictatorship — served in it. And the entire top level of the Brazilian military is supportive of Bolsonaro and won’t provide any resistance. If anything they will help him in his most extreme vision.
So what has happened in Brazil? A country which over, in the last four elections, voted for a center-left party — the Workers’ — and now suddenly is about to engage, in not a mild shift ideologically, but a radical shift: From the Workers’ Party to one of the most extremist far-right candidates known in the democratic world if not the most extreme. Why has that happened?
Part of the reason is that there are multiple crises. There’s an economic crisis that has left millions of people unemployed. There’s a crisis of public security where crime is rampant — 60,000 murders a year — the chances of a Rio de Janeiro City police officer dying is higher than the chances that a U.S. soldier would have been killed at the height of the Iraq war. And there’s a political crisis as evidenced by the fight over impeachment and the corruption scandal that has engulfed the country and so the country has simply ceased to operate. And when that happens, when there is a failure on the part of the establishment this profound, people turn to whoever they perceive as being an enemy of that system, as someone who they perceive will burn it down regardless of what that person’s ideology is and regardless of whether this outsider status is really accurate and in Bolsonaro’s case, of course, it’s not. He’s been in Congress 30 years, but he’s positioned himself and is perceived as an enemy of the system that people have come to hate and in this regard, there are a lot of lessons for what’s happening in Brazil for the rest of the world.
We saw the same thing with Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S., with the success of Brexit in the U.K., with the rise of right-wing parties in Eastern Europe, and now even in Western European countries where far-right movements were previously unthinkable — places like France and Germany and Sweden. And the lesson is: That when the establishment fails to serve the needs of a huge portion of the population eventually they will come to realize that — will direct all of their hatred toward that establishment, will decide they have nothing to lose, and will run into the arms of whoever is the most extreme demagogue, even if it’s somebody with ideas as hateful, and ideologies as obviously dangerous and tyrannical as Jair Bolsonaro. And that’s why I’ve been saying for a long time that until the Western establishment starts to reckon with their own failures, instead of blaming foreign villains, or blaming other people inside their own country, or calling people names, we’re going to have a lot more Brexits, a lot more Donald Trumps, a lot more Marine Le Pens, and a lot more Jair Bolsonaros — and probably worse ones to come.
GG: My first guest to explore all of this — the real nature of Jair Bolsonaro, what’s happening in Brazil and why — is Manuela d’Ávila, who is the vice presidential candidate running on the ticket with the Workers’ Party Fernando Haddad against Bolsonaro. She’s an extraordinarily interesting politician. She’s only 37 years old, an outspoken feminist, a member of Brazil’s Communist Party which has actually worked within the governing coalition of Brazil over the last 14 years that has not been communist, but center-left. She’s had a remarkable trajectory: She was the youngest woman, or the youngest person, actually, ever elected to the City Council of Porto Alegre, a large city in southern Brazil. After that, she became a Federal Congresswoman and now serves in the State House of her state and she is definitely somebody that is widely regarded as a political star and someone who is highly informed obviously about events that are unfolding, so Congresswoman Manuela d’Ávila, welcome to Intercepted.
Manuela D’Ávila: [Translated from Portuguese.] It’s a pleasure to speak to you, Glenn.
GG: Many people around the world are asking what the true nature of the threat posed by Bolsonaro is. If he is like Donald Trump, somebody who says scary and outrageous things but is confined by democratic institutions from actually doing them, or if he is more like the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, or even the Egyptian dictator general Sisi. If he were to win, do you believe Bolsonaro is capable of implementing the worse threats to democracy that he advocates?
Md’Á: I believe it is a mixture of many bad things that have already happened in Brazil and all around the world, but it is also a sui generis thing. We have a research done during the election period about what he and his supporters are capable of when it comes to politics and in society in general. It is important to notice that we have in the second round of the elections candidates who use the verb ‘slaughter’ when talking about organizations of the left or even about people who should be arrested by our legislation, but in our country, there is no death penalty. Therefore, slaughter, which is a verb that we in Brazil use for animal sacrifice, is not a verb that could be used by of a judge.
This same magistrate has participated in an act of desecration of a plaque in honor of councilwoman Marielle Franco, who was brutally executed seven months ago. We had a set of scattered acts but all with the same ideological matrix, say, of persecution of women, especially very young women. One of them with a swastika drawn in the abdomen, and also with the persecution of some organizations, of young homosexuals.
So for me, I’ve known Jair Bolsonaro for eight years. I know that he is not someone who formulates his opinions intellectually, someone who means more than he is capable of expressing. And I think that it is absolutely feasible for us to imagine that his government would take many anti-democratic measures, and even more than that, that this government would be conniving with this kind of violence motivated mainly by hatred.
GG: So this is exactly what I wanted to ask you about. I think there are a lot of people, especially outside of Brazil who aren’t thinking enough about the fact that Brazilian democracy is only 33 years old. So I’d like to ask you whether you believe that its institutions are sufficiently strong to protect against a possible tyrant who explicitly advocates a return of military rule?
Md’Á: I do not know if there is an accurate answer to that, Glenn. How could institutions be so strong to stand a president, in the event of his election by the popular vote, and who defines an undemocratic regime? It is a difficult thing to imagine. What I do know is that he flirts with all the worst practices of what has already happened in Brazil. He is a man who systematically challenges democracy, who exalts the military dictatorship that we had, who exalts the practice of torture and recently said in an interview that his bedside book are the memories of Brazil’s greatest torturer. Therefore, it is hard to understand or even imagine that someone with these opinions could be democratically placed in the government of Brazil, but we are facing this scenario.
How would it be? I don’t know.
Our institutions have been solid since 89. Brazil is a country that has built an electoral justice that until the 2014 election had never been challenged. This is part of the possibility that we had of a democratic pact, this is even a singularity of Brazil when compared to other newly democratic nations in Latin America as a whole. But in 2014 we had the questioning of the result of the elections by the defeated candidate, Aécio Neves, and that set off a series of crisis.
Well, our side even in the face of different interpretations of reality, even believing that the impeachment was a coup because there was no crime of responsibility, even if the imprisonment of President Lula was legally wrong, our effort was to value a democratic way out for the political and economic crisis that Brazil is experiencing. And it is not for nothing that even in the face of an impeachment with no crime of responsibility and an unjust imprisonment against the one who was the first in the polls, we are disputing the elections.
Our effort, our belief, is in democracy and in these institutions that we have consecrated ourselves in the last 33 years, since 1980.
GG: One really interesting aspect of this election is that Jair Bolsonaro, even after 30 years in Congress, admits that he knows very little about economic policy. And because of this tends to rely almost entirely on his economic guru, Paulo Guedes, who was trained in things like privatizations and neoliberalism at the notorious University of Chicago. What is your view of the significance of Bolsonaro’s intention to use Guedes as this super powerful economic minister?
Md’Á: I believe your question is revealing as we in this election in Brazil, we are not debating what really matters, because in choosing Paulo Guedes as his intellectual and economic guru, Bolsonaro reveals his project for the country. And it’s a project that is uncompromising with national sovereignty and the riches of Brazil, something absolutely antagonistic to this idea that he sells of a nationalist and a patriot, because the life and school commitment of Paulo Guedes is just the opposite. It’s the privatization of a set of elements that are strategic for the development of Brazil. It is the idea that it is possible to develop Brazil without valuing work.
GG: I just wanted to ask about where we are with the election currently. As you obviously know, your ticket with Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party lost in the first round to Bolsonaro by 17 points –– he finished with 46%, you finished with 29%. And current polls show that your ticket with Haddad is behind by a similar margin. The election is two weeks from today, so what does your ticket, Haddad and Manuela D’Ávila, what does it need to do to close this difference and defeat Bolsonaro?
Md’Á: Firstly, we understand that in deciding to extend the election, that is, having a two-round system, the Brazilian people asked for more debate. We want Bolsonaro to participate in the debates and to present his projects to the Brazilian people in the second round. Because this is the election of lies. There is no discussion of projects. He did not participate in the debates. He is absent. He sends out a set of alarmist and fake news on social networks.
We have a very low response rate, not just in the High Court that removes profiles. For you to have an idea Glenn, in these last two days I was able to remove 73 false news about me that totaled almost 13 million views. And these 13 million people who visualized this will not have access to the truth because the existing legislation it does not include that the 292,000 people who shared these fake news have to share the repair of the lie and expose the truth to the public. So how can we overcome this?
The Brazilian people will not opt for someone who is against the rights of workers, for someone who defends the sale of Brazil and the sale of our assets that can guarantee a future of development for our country, or for someone who does not defend democracy and freedom.
GG: So in the last four national elections Brazilians voted for a party of the center left which was PT. Lula was one of the most popular leaders in the world, he left office in 2010 with an 86% approval rating among Brazilians which is unheard of. But now, there is a large part of the population that is changing radically and moving to support not just the right-wing, but the extreme-right. How do you explain that? Is it just the fake news and the lies that are being spread by Bolsonaro or are there other causes?
Md’Á: First, if Lula was a candidate and he was for a while, he might have won the election in the first round. This is what all the opinion polls show. He could be elected with ease because he represents a time in Brazil.
Second, I believe that lies are structured from a broad economic powerhouse. And my concern is not so much with the lies but with the ability they have to amplify them with technological tools that cost money, which cost a lot of money and then probably are not even declared money in the Brazilian electoral process, which represents something quite serious.
These lies that I’m referring to are not just rumors or gossip but a structured, organized and amplified network with an unimaginable speed that makes people decide based on these news. There is a lot of information, Glenn, some stories have already circulated in the Brazilian press and in The Intercept too, reporting how this scheme functions –– the information technologies used by the candidacy of our opponent are a so-called hybrid war, that is, technologies that use war techniques even with the coordination of people who work in specific areas.
And there is a third issue, which is certainly the background or the fertile ground for this terror, that is the serious economic crisis in Brazil and the deepening of this crisis by the Temer government. The parties related to Temer and those who are behind President Dilma’s impeachment were swept away in the electoral process. They had a very irrelevant performance nationally. So what do the people want? The people seek alternatives to the 14 million unemployed, the 1 million and 200 thousand Brazilians who cook without cooking gas because they have no money to pay for it, and to the impoverishment population. In the state of Sao Paulo alone, we have 800,000 people living with 133 reais per month, that’s almost a million people living with only this amount a month. So people see all this. They’re bombarded with this hybrid war of false news and they make the decision of breaking away from all that. So they go for someone who will break with the system, when in reality he is the purest expression of it, that he will break with the old policy when in reality he is supported precisely by those who represent what’s most backwards in Brazil.
So those are words of quick assimilation by a population that is truly in a state of rapid impoverishment in the last two years and that is bombarded by these false news. I expect that in the next few days, talking to people, showing them the cowardice and the incapacity of this man who is so brave when he has a gun in his hand but can’t participate in the debates.
In addition to the differences we have when it comes to the economy, the role of the state, in national sovereignty, we also have a difference in what we dream of for Brazil. My Brazil is that of democracy and freedom, his Brazil is that of dictatorship and torture.
GG: If you were to win, your ticket with Haddad, do you believe the Brazilian military will accept the results as valid or will they denounce it as fraud as Bolsonaro was encouraging them to do? On the other side, do you believe if Bolsonaro wins the Brazilian military will impose limits on him if he tries to attack the basic foundations of Brazilian democracy or will they be a voluntary and eager participant in that attack?
Md’Á: Before formally becoming a candidate, when I was still in the status as precandidate for president and Haddad was also a pre-candidate, early in the year, we were both in separate meeting in which General Villas Bôas, the commander of the Armed Forces in Brazil talked to the presidential candidates, and I left with the conviction that the Armed Forces are committed to the democratic state of law and they know that they are subordinate to the president. So this is the interpretation I have of the conversation I had with General Villas Bôas, this is my impression.
Even because all of us in Brazil know that Bolsonaro was expelled from the Armed Forces and therefore he does not represent them, although he wants to and he flirts with remnants of a period of military dictatorship. I am very much expecting that we will win the elections and that we will continue with this cycle that started in 1989. We will be following the federal constitution of 88 where the Armed Forces have an important role, I would say a strategic role for the sovereign and development of Brazil.
They work and they have the responsibility to protect our territory, to guarantee peace in Brazil and in our continent and I know that they can work with us on important projects related to the defense industry that is strategic so that Brazil can continue to grow. I know that in Brazil there is no tradition of intrigue and anti-nationalism in the Armed Forces, that’s Bolsonaro’s tradition. Bolsonaro does not stand for Brazil, so he contradicts the values of those he claims to represent because we –– I repeat, I do not know a military man who does not honor, who does not say, does not claim to honor the Brazilian flag and fight for the country’s sovereignty.
Whoever wants to hand over Brazil and give away our riches, he has no commitment with that flag.
GG: Congresswoman d’Avila, I know that you’re very immersed in this election, battling quite intensely and are very busy so I really appreciate once again you’re taking the time out to speak with me today.
Md’Á: Thank you, it was a pleasure to talk to you.
GG: Manuela d’Avila is the candidate for vice president on the Workers’ Party ticket. The voiceover in English was done by my colleague Bruna de Lara of The Intercept Brazil.
GG: A major global controversy over the last 10 days has engulfed the Western media as well as the media in the Middle East relating to Saudi Arabia arising out of the October 2nd disappearance of Washington Post columnist and Saudi citizen Jamal Khashoggi, who entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on that date in order to obtain documents he needed to marry his fiancée and never emerged again. Speculation immediately arose and has been sustained that his disappearance was either an attempted abduction or a murder by agents dispatched by the Saudi government. That was what the Turkish government has been saying since the event took place — insisting that they have audio and videotape proving that this occurred — though it has not yet been publicly released or heard.
On Tuesday afternoon, President Trump tweeted, “Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate. He was with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo…during the call, and told me that he has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter. Answers will be forthcoming shortly.”
On Monday, it was reported by several media outlets that the Saudis, after first spending ten days denying any involvement in the disappearance of Khashoggi, are now prepared to say that in fact there were agents acting either at the behest of the central government or potentially rogue elements, who went there with the intention of interrogating him and somehow the interrogation went wrong and Khashoggi ended up being killed.
To discuss all of this with me including the potential repercussions, I am joined by Sarah Aziza. Sarah is a freelance journalist who covers foreign affairs, human rights, and gender. She wrote a recent feature for The Intercept titled “Kingdom Crackdown: Saudi Women who Fought for the Right to Drive are Disappearing and Going into Exile.” Sarah Aziza welcome to Intercepted.
Sarah Aziza: Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here.
GG: So how would you assess — and obviously it’s speculative since we don’t know any details or even exactly what the Saudis intend to say — but how would you assess the likelihood that rogue agents acting independent of either Mohammed Bin Salman or the Saudi Security Services would carry out an operation of this magnitude against somebody so prominent.
SA: Yeah, I find it incredibly hard to believe that rogue elements are to blame here. How unlikely it would be for them to get inside the Saudi consulate, to be aware of Jamal Khashoggi whereabouts, to have such a strong desire to see this man killed that they would attempt to do him harm on the Saudi consulate grounds. All of it seems very far-fetched. All of it seems even more unlikely considering such an excuse come so late in the game and was basically handed to the Saudis by Donald Trump.
Donald J. Trump: The king firmly denied any knowledge of it. He didn’t really know, maybe, I don’t want to get into his mind but it sounded to me like maybe this could have been rogue killers. Who knows?
SA: He is popularizing this phrase rogue actors so not only does it come a very late period in the investigation but it also seems like quite a stretch considering that Jamal Khashoggi also traveled and spoke widely in public in Turkey, in the U.S. that there would have been ample opportunity for someone who wished him ill to attack him outside of the confines of the Saudi consulate. The ignorance that the Saudi government has been pleading up until now doesn’t really corroborate what they’re saying.
GG: Well, I’m going to explore with you a little bit potential motives of the Saudi government. You have somebody who is an extremely prominent and longtime journalists with ties to all kinds of prominent Western media and political figures. He was a columnist at the Washington Post. Whoever decided they were going to kill him had to anticipate what the repercussions would be. Why was he such a threat to factions inside of Saudi Arabia that it would be worth incurring this kind of a reaction?
SA: Yeah, it seems extreme any way that you look at it honestly. If it turns out to be the case that the Saudi government intended to kill him this would be sort of one of the most bald-faced escapades undertaken as far as the Saudi government’s reach beyond its borders. We’ve seen other activists and dissidents, or wayward princes, basically kidnapped while abroad, brought back to the kingdom, some of them not to be heard of from again. But nothing of this sort of grisly potentially violent, mysterious magnitude. So if the Saudi government did order his murder directly, I think what we’d have to look at is not only all of Jamal Khashoggi recent writings which have been openly critical of the of the Crown Prince but also the understanding that the Khashoggi had a lot of knowledge of the inner workings of the Saudi state and perhaps unflattering or incriminating information on powerful people and although he kept in his column strictly to arguing, sort of, on the more political line he didn’t dip into blackmail or anything in any sort of public way. He might have made powerful people more nervous by virtue of the fact that he was a loyalist and insider in the kingdom for years and years. But at the same time, we have to consider that we’re dealing with a Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman or MbS who might be the most rogue as far as any of the characters we’re discussing today.
He’s been incredibly unpredictable volatile and at the same time consolidated power inside the kingdom to an unprecedented degree. So he’s disrupted the former balance of power, which was more diffuse never diplomatic, but still diffuse and decided to take charge of the narrative surrounding his reign surrounding the new Saudi Arabia that he wants to present to the world.
Jamal Khashoggi was certainly one of the greatest threats to that narrative especially as someone from within the folds of the Saudi elite and that sort of criticism might simply have just been more than MbS felt able to bear. He’s shown himself to be incredibly thin-skinned when it comes to criticism certainly when it comes from fellow Saudis. So perhaps we’re seeing something totally new because we’re dealing with a leader that is unlike any of his predecessors.
GG: I guess part of what’s leaving me a little bit baffled about all this is that even if you look at it from MbS’ perspective and as you said he dislikes criticism particularly when coming from fellow Saudis, nonetheless you could write a thousand Washington Post columns critical of the Crown Prince by Khashoggi and it wouldn’t be in the same universe in terms of the harm that it has caused to MbS’ reputation that the belief that the Saudis are responsible for his grisly murder has generated. So the narrative in the West is a very simplistic one in terms of Khashoggi’s relationship to the Saudis which is: He’s a dissident; He’s a critic of the crown. But you alluded to the fact that actually you know he’s had insider status as well for a long time. Can you just describe a little bit what his trajectory has been in terms of his relationship to the ruling royal family?
SA: He started off as an ambitious young journalist and really made a name for himself covering the war in Afghanistan. He was actually an acquaintance of Osama Bin Laden for a time. Interviewed him in Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets. Upon his return really established himself as a journalist in the kingdom and to do so required a sort of acquiescence, a sort of complicitness [sic] in the way things are done, which is that the media respected the boundaries and the reputations of the royal elite and the manner of doing things, which included balance of power between the business community, the religious community, and the royal family so —
GG: So he operated as a Saudi journalist inside of Saudi Arabia, in a sense, with the approval of or at least without provoking the anger of Saudi rulers. He refrained from crossing lines if they had imposed in terms of the criticisms that you could voice he was somebody who was accepted and kind of interwoven into the Saudi political class. Is that pretty fair to say?
SA: Exactly, yeah, he was very solidly in the mainstream for the most part. He made a few waves after 9/11 by calling out people who were circulating conspiracy theories who tried to shift the blame for 9/11 away from Islam and away from Saudi Arabia. He was a devout man who wanted to take responsibility for Islamic extremism which really concerned him. But he really started to receive some scrutiny from the Saudi government when he began publishing moderate columns and pieces in favor of the Arab Spring, when that was occurring in the region. He had a lot of hope and he started to promote this idea that Saudi Arabia was due for reform as well and always again within the language of reform. He was never a radical and never wanted to be called a dissident he saw himself as a journalist first and foremost. And he was comfortable making a certain number of compromises that were necessary to operate in the kingdom up until the emergence of MbS, during which time he told me in interviews the atmosphere really shifted. There was an increasing sense of censorship, a need for absolute loyalty and he eventually felt he could not practice journalism with integrity and really reluctantly and with a lot of regret decided it was no longer safe for him to be in the kingdom and he actually got out shortly before many of his colleagues were locked up by the Crown Prince.
GG: So I want to ask you about a little bit of a theorizing that has been spread — some of which has been done so quite recklessly and with obviously ugly motives but others of which have been done a bit more responsibly and I think grounded in at least some reasonable knowledge of his history — which is that his view of democratization, or his tepid support as you alluded to of the Arab Spring, was a vision in which Muslim political factions, who would be tolerant and democratic — whether it be the Muslim Brotherhood or other factions like — would become empowered through the democratic process. And that this as opposed to the columns he was writing for The Washington Post, namely his potential to be a kind of leader for a democratic uprising against the Saudi crown or otherwise reignite the some of the sentiments that animated the Arab Spring that obviously terrorized Gulf State dictators and the like, was really what the threat was that he posed to the Saudi ruling class. What is your view on all of those competing theories?
SA: There have been some fairly credible reports that Khashoggi was planning on starting a few initiatives to promote democracy in the Middle East including an organization called Democracy in the Arab World Now. And those are the sort of perhaps more concrete initiatives or goals that would have certainly upset and angered the increasingly autocratic leadership in the entire region. We can’t forget Saudi Arabia is not alone here in its move towards more dictatorial leadership styles or seeing similar things in the UAE and elsewhere. So I think that that’s a plausible theory that it was these organizing efforts that really would have spurred the Saudi government to want to silence him. I know months and months ago speaking to dissidents and activists both in Saudi Arabia and abroad telling me that if there was ever going to be any kind of substantial move for change it was going to need to begin outside the borders of Saudi Arabia MbS had just so effectively shut out and frozen all the channels and even the will to resist by making it so dangerous by locking up so many people so widely and indiscriminately. So for someone to take a direct action, or a leadership, especially someone with the kind of influence — you know, Jamal Khashoggi was very well-connected beyond the kingdom’s borders as well. So perhaps being able to garner political will from abroad and to zero in on some of Saudi Arabia’s more egregious violations and practices would have really made him a target.
GG: There has been a lot of people pointing out what seems to be the hypocrisy embedded in the anger of Western elites at Saudi Arabia as though they just suddenly discovered that the Saudis were repressive and autocratic and violent. And a lot of people are pointing out that in fact over the last several years the Saudis have been indiscriminately killing many civilians causing one of the world’s worst, if not the worst, humanitarian catastrophes and for some reason that didn’t trigger the anger of Western elites towards the Saudis or cause them to cancel events. At the same time, as obviously everybody knows, there’s a huge amount of domestic repression inside of Saudi Arabia where Shiite religious leaders, or even people peacefully protesting, are imprisoned or killed and anyone critical of the Crown Prince is imprisoned as well. But what about targeting or even taking retaliatory steps against critics or dissidents outside of Saudi borders? Is this the first time that they’ve done something like this or are there other cases where they’ve shown that they will go after dissidents even if they’re found in other countries?
SA: Yeah, absolutely. Actually, I recently published a piece with The Intercept on this very topic. But there is, in short, a long legacy of Saudi Arabia reaching out beyond its borders and silencing, repatriating, arresting or kidnapping. You can choose your verb. The Saudis who displease, in some way, their government going back as far as the 70s when one activist — an early labor organizer who had been highly critical of the king — was disappeared from Lebanon. We’ve seen recently as the spring Loujain al-Hathloul — the prominent female rights activist who campaigned for the right to drive among other things — was kidnapped essentially. She was arrested and then forcibly brought back to Saudi Arabia from the UAE where she was studying and then placed under our travel ban, essentially house arrest only to be jailed a few months later and remains incognito today. So there’s this decades-long span of Saudi Arabia not only forcing its nationals to return to the kingdom — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken to Saudis in Europe or the U.S. who tell me that at least they’ve gotten a call from the nearby consulate or embassy, at least they’ve had messages relayed to them via their families that the government was unhappy with something they’d posted or tweeted or were doing. And there’s the sense that the eyes and the arms of their government were very very long and very far-reaching and it’s very unnerving for them and has done a lot to silence and discourage activism.
GG: You mentioned the case that you wrote about of a woman who was an activist for women’s rights being essentially abducted or lured away from the United Arab Emirates and hasn’t been heard from since. As you know the Saudis have long invested millions and millions of dollars on their image in western capitals certainly in Washington. MbS has been particularly fixated on that and the kind of crown jewel of his image as a reformer has been this theme that he has liberated women from the ban on driving.
CNBC: So it’s a historic time in Saudi Arabia. Women here are finally hitting the road from Riyadh and across the country. Over 120,000 women have already applied to get their licenses.
CNN: Women in Saudi Arabia are finally getting behind the wheel. The journey has been long and fraught with challenges.
CBS: A group of brave Saudi women protested for 28 years demanding the right to drive and risking arrest but they didn’t get anywhere until Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman began shaking up this Islamic Kingdom with a series of reforms allowing cinemas ––
GG: How real is that given that activists who are working for that are simultaneously being imprisoned? How much of that is PR? How much of that is a real reform in the broader context of the trends within Saudi Arabia?
SA: I was there in Saudi Arabia in June when women were given the right to drive. And I cannot tell you the weight that so many women sort of bore as they were forced to swallow that bitter irony of having finally had this breakthrough but having most of their champions at that point in jail. There was an incredible pomp and circumstance throughout the kingdom. Journalists were flown in, toured around, brought to curated events where they were ensured to see women celebrating, women excited, smiling women, women getting behind the wheels of cars. It was incredibly well photo opt.
And I was really, along with so many of the women I interviewed, disheartened and sort of found it hard to believe that there was so much willful ignorance or so much ability to hold such cognitive dissonance. But the Western press went along with it largely. Most stories that ran the day that women first took to the road were glowing just bubbly accounts of how excited, unanimously how excited all of the Saudi women were to be driving with perhaps a note, a footnote or a sentence that added that there are a few women in jail right now and people are calling for their release.
And even the women who were willing to speak to me about their activism were incredibly nervous about going on the record and most of them, if you look at what they were posting on social media at the time, were praising Mohammed Bin Salman with every other breath just as a form of protection in private. They may have other feelings, but there’s this sense that you need to be ostentatiously a fan of the Crown Prince it’s not enough to be neutral but it’s necessary now to perform your loyalty to the royal family and to MbS in particular in order to stay safe. Even many of those women have since gone offline. Their twitter accounts have gone dark. There’s just this incredible chill through, not just the activist community, but the Saudi community in general.
GG: There’s obviously a lot of pressure and PR costs to being associated with the Saudis right now which is why you see all kinds of people, obviously reluctantly, doing things like pulling out of the day of the Davos in the Desert event as it was called and otherwise expressing a kind of denunciation of the Saudi Crown Prince that previously was unthinkable. At the same time the U.S.-Saudi partnership goes back decades. It extends to every industry. When MbS came to the U.S. he met with, you know, had the red carpet rolled out for him by Silicon Valley executives, Hollywood celebrities, Wall Street. There’s a lot of money at stake in terms of the Saudi-U.S. partnership, obviously, the defense industry is at the center of it. So how real do you think the possibility is that this could be some kind of a tipping point that makes it untenable for U.S. elites to continue to do business with Saudi Arabia or do you think it’s more likely that everybody is just going to wait for the anger to kind of simmer down a little bit and then go back to business as normal?
SA: Personally, I would anticipate something more of the latter. As you mentioned it’s an incredibly entrenched relationship that we have an incredibly lucrative one. I don’t anticipate a sea change, although one would be welcome from many quarters including by many Saudis. However, my cynical perspective is, it is likely that once this simmers down, as you say, people will prove largely willing to let this go as well. And I do think part of the reason that perhaps MbS would have undertaken something as audacious as kidnapping or torturing or killing Jamal Khashoggi is because he understands that there’s a precedent of Saudi Arabia largely getting away with egregious human rights violations and I do fear that this may end up being another case of that. However it has captured the attention of so many of the media elite as well as the business community and even some celebrities. So that’s not something that we’re used to seeing too often and we’re also in an era of social media that we’ve seen really leveraged against the perpetrators of Jamal Khashoggi disappearance. So there’s been a very viable hashtag that’s lasted close to two weeks and you know the awareness of this case has spread farther than most and it’s so striking in its individuality. So let’s hope that the story spurs some kind of real action, some sense of accountability or that at least the Saudi government feels chastened after this and maybe refrains from violating the norms of human rights and international law perhaps for some time to come.
GG: Yeah or at least if there’s a cost imposed on profiteering by doing business with a regime this tyrannical and this brutal. Sarah this has been incredibly illuminating and informative and I really appreciate your being on Intercepted. Thank you so much.
SA: Thank you so much for having me.
GG: Sarah Aziza is a freelance journalist. Her last article for The Intercept was “Jamal Khashoggi wasn’t the first — Saudi Arabia has been going after dissidents abroad for decades.” You can follow her on twitter, her handle is @SarahAziza1.
GG: And that does it for this week’s show. If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, log onto TheIntercept.com/join. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Special thanks this week to my Intercept Brazil colleagues, Victor Pougy, Bruna de Lara, and André Souza.
I’m Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill will be back next week.