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Mike Pompeo’s despicable dismissal of Jamal Khashoggi

In his new book, the former secretary of state denigrates the murdered Saudi dissident.

"If you don't have anything nice to say," goes the proverb, "don't say anything at all." Apparently, Mike Pompeo never heard that advice. In his new book, written to hype up a potential campaign for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, the former secretary of state denigrates deceased Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi to excuse his own failures as a member of then-President Donald Trump's Cabinet.

Pompeo rightly describes the 2018 murder of the Washington Post columnist — which American intelligence believes was authorized by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — as "grotesque butchery … outrageous, unacceptable, horrific and despicable, evil, brutish and, of course, unlawful." He could have — and should have — stopped there. (Disclosure: I worked for the Post's opinions section while Khashoggi was a columnist.)

Clearly, the widespread criticism of the Trump administration's sluggish response to Khashoggi's killing has annoyed Pompeo ever since.

But clearly, the widespread criticism of the Trump administration's sluggish response to Khashoggi's killing has annoyed Pompeo ever since. (Not that it's bothered his former boss, who bragged about "saving" Prince Mohammed from a harsher American response.) Instead, Pompeo wrote that "we need to be clear about who he [Khashoggi] was — and too many in the media were not.”

First, he throws in some casual stereotyping: "I’d seen enough of the Middle East to know that this kind of ruthlessness was all too routine in that part of the world." Murders of journalists are, in fact, a depressingly widespread phenomenon, not "routine" to any specific "part of the world."

Pompeo also opts for guilt-by-association, pointing to New York Times reporting to claim that Khashoggi was "cozy with the terrorist-supporting Muslim Brotherhood." But as Khashoggi's widow, Hanan Elatr Khashoggi, told NBC News, Khashoggi was neither a member of the group nor a supporter of terrorism. As the same Times reporting that Pompeo cited makes clear, Khashoggi left the Brotherhood in the 1980s, and he denounced terrorist attacks like Sept. 11.

Pompeo's most detailed excuse relies on recasting Khashoggi's entire career. "Khashoggi was a journalist to the extent that I and many other public figures are journalists," Pompeo argues. "We sometimes get our writing published, but we also do other things. The media made Khashoggi out to be a Saudi Arabian Bob Woodward who was martyred for bravely criticizing the Saudi royal family through his opinion articles in the Washington Post."

No one lasts as long in Trump's orbit as Pompeo did without debasing themselves to new lows.

“In truth," he concluded, "Khashoggi was an activist who had supported the losing team in a recent fight for the throne … unhappy with being exiled.”

Pompeo's mini-biography is factually incorrect. At the time of his death, Khashoggi had worked as an editor and a reporter at various Arab and English-language publications for three decades. He became an adviser to members of the royal family through his media work, not the other way around.

As for the palace struggle and Khashoggi's motivations, it's true that the Saudi royals that Khashoggi advised, such as the billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, lost out as Prince Mohammed rose to power. And it's true that had Mohammed not become crown prince and extended his crackdown on dissent, Khashoggi most likely would have stayed in Saudi Arabia and in the royal orbit. So yes, Pompeo is correct: If things were different, then they wouldn't be the same.

But since Pompeo invoked Woodward, let's recall Mark Felt, former associate director of the FBI. In 1972, Felt was passed over for the bureau's top position after J. Edgar Hoover’s death; soon after, he began leaking information to Woodward about a break-in at the Watergate Hotel. Later revealed to be "Deep Throat," Felt anonymously helped bring down the man who chose not to promote him: President Richard Nixon. Yet Felt's career fortunes did not change the truth of what he shared with the Post and, by extension, the reading public. The same is true of Khashoggi.

That Pompeo, as Post publisher Fred Ryan put it, "would spread vile falsehoods to dishonor a courageous man’s life and service ... as a ploy to sell books” is hardly surprising. No one lasts as long in Trump's orbit as Pompeo did without debasing themselves to new lows. Fortunately, his words only carry as much weight as his odds of winning the 2024 Republican presidential nomination: zero.

There's a broader lesson, though, to remember about dissidents, leakers and whistleblowers: Ideals are far less complicated than people. Whether it's Mark Felt or Linda Tripp or Edward Snowden, it can be easy to dismiss scandals we don't like based on the source's (or reporter's) background or motivations. But we must be careful not to let personal complications blind us to the truths those sources have revealed. Otherwise, we risk sounding as ignorant and as heartless as Mike Pompeo.