Former top CIA official says MBS was "reckless" and "stupid" in Khashoggi killing

By Fin Gomez

/ CBS News

Journalists named Time's Person of the Year

Former CIA Acting Director and CBS News national security contributor Michael Morell described the killing of Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post, as a "reckless" and "stupid" move by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heir apparent to the Saudi crown, who is also known as MBS.

"This was particularly reckless. This was particularly brazen, and it was particularly stupid," Morell told chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett on this week's episode of "The Takeout" podcast, which focused on Khashoggi's brutal murder in October at the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Earlier this month, Khashoggi, along with other persecuted journalists were named Time Magazine's Person of the Year.

"How could anyone sit there and think that you could get away with something like this? A U.S. resident, a journalist, a Washington Post employee. You know, to sit there in Riyadh and think that you could get away with something like this is the ultimate of stupidity," Morell added.

"There is this other side of him. An arrogance, a lack of experience, a paranoia, overly concerned about dissidents, overly concerned in, my view, of the Muslim Brotherhood." Morell said about the Saudi crown prince. "And it contains a series of bad judgments."

Morell cited Saudi Arabia's feud with Qatar and its war in Yemen, among other areas, where he believes MBS has made severe missteps since he was elevated by his father within the Saudi monarchy— and now wears many official hats including deputy prime minister and defense minister.

"There is this tension between the guy you need to bring reform to the Kingdom and the guy who could actually put that reform at risk because he is reckless." Morell told Garrett. "That is the striking thing."

The Saudi government had adamantly denied that MBS was involved in Khashoggi's murder and that rogue actors were responsible. The Saudi public prosecutor's office has said that Saudi agents killed and dismembered Khashoggi at the Istanbul Saudi Consulate. While the U.S. intelligence community has not indicated that there is direct evidence linking bin Salman to the killing, the CIA has intelligence that substantiates an assessment that MBS ordered the killing of Khashoggi.

The Wall Street Journal reported in early December that CIA had "medium to high" confidence that the Saudi agents carried out the murder at the orders of MBS, that he "personally targeted" Khashoggi and "probably ordered his death."

"Medium to high confidence is a big deal," Morrell explained to Garrett. "Not very many carry medium to high confidence. It is a big deal."

"Everything that has happened in last few months with his murder—still– two months later is a complete shock," Washington Post Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah, who over saw Khashoggi's columns for the newspaper, told Garrett on "The Takeout" podcast.

Attiah said that the motive behind Khashoggi's writing in the Washington Post was to help push for societal change in his home country.

"He was critical of Mohammed bin Salman, the prince. But he was supportive of reforms. He was supportive of a positive direction for Saudi Arabia, " Attiah said. "And he saw himself as trying to be an adviser, even remotely, but trying to advise MBS in the right direction."

While Khashoggi was concerned about potential hazards about writing critical columns about the Saudi government, his purpose was greater than his fears, according to his former editor.

"I can't be silent about what's happening," Khashoggi told Attiah, she recalled.

Nearly three months later, Khashoggi's death is still having repercussions in Saudi Arabia. On Thursday, the Saudi monarch and head of state, King Salman announced a shakeup in his government in the fallout over the journalist's murder, which included naming a new foreign minister.

For more of Major's conversation with Michael Morell, download "The Takeout" podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or Spotify. New episodes are available every Friday morning. Also, you can watch "The Takeout" on CBSN Friday at 5pm, 9pm, and 12am ET and Saturday at 1pm, 9pm, and 12am ET. For a full archive of "The Takeout" episodes, visit www.takeoutpodcast.com. And you can listen to "The Takeout" on select CBS News Radio affiliates (check your local listings).

Producers: Arden Farhi, Katiana Krawchenko, Jamie Benson and Sara Cook

First published on December 28, 2018

© 2018 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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