Federal Court Presses Trump Administration to Release Khashoggi Documents
By Josh Rogin
The Washington Post
More than six months after Saudi government agents brutally murdered Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump administration has yet to publicly reveal what it knows about the crime and how it has handled the investigation. But a federal judge is pressing the U.S. government to release more information, and faster — or the court could force it to do so.
On April 19, the federal court for the Southern District of New York held its first hearing in the Open Society Justice Initiative’s case against seven government agencies under the Freedom of Information Act. The nongovernmental organization, funded by George Soros, is trying to compel the U.S. government — including the CIA, the Justice Department and the State Department — to produce all records related to the killing and the killers, including the CIA’s reported assessment that the murder was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“This case is about the public’s right to know about what happened to Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and what the United States government is doing in order to hold the appropriate individuals accountable,” Amrit Singh, who directs the initiative’s project on national security and counterterrorism, said at the hearing, according to the transcript.
U.S. District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer called out the government’s delays in producing documents during the hearing and said the government is “not behaving.” The initial FOIA requests were in December, he noted, adding he regretted that court action was needed to get the government to fulfill its responsibilities.
“So I have to wake up the back table [of government agency lawyers] here by putting some deadline that’s going to scare the bejesus out of the seven agencies,” Engelmayer said.
The judge gave all the agencies until May 29 to complete their searches for documents and ordered both sides to negotiate in good faith to figure out which documents were relevant to produce and on what schedule. But he promised to impose even more oversight and accountability if the U.S. government agencies didn’t prioritize production of documents related to the Khashoggi murder and treat the FOIA case with extreme urgency.
“I’m sure everyone wants their responses handled quickly, but this is a breaking news story,” he said. “This is a current, front-page controversy where timeliness is everything.”
A State Department spokesperson said the department cannot comment on ongoing legal cases.
In a May 13 letter brief, the State Department proposed producing 300 pages per month, far short of the plaintiff’s request for State to produce 7,500 pages per month. The State Department blamed “current limited resources and competing obligations, the volume of potentially responsive records, and the fact that potentially responsive records in this case likely contain classified information.”
At the rate the State Department is proposing, the tens of thousands of relevant documents might not see public disclosure for decades. Singh told me the State Department’s proposal was insufficient.
“The court has recognized how important it is for the public to know how the United States government is responding the Jamal Khashoggi murder, that it’s a matter of intense public debate, and having a timely response is critical for upholding the public’s right to know,” she said. “This lawsuit is necessary because [the] Trump administration has withheld from the public the full truth about who is ultimately responsible for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
There are 11 bills in Congress meant to address the Khashoggi murder. The Trump administration missed a Feb. 8 deadline to report to Congress on whether the U.S. government believes Mohammed bin Salman is culpable in the murder. These documents could greatly inform the ongoing congressional debate.
In November, the Trump administration sanctioned 17 Saudi officials under the Global Magnitsky Act — but not Mohammed bin Salman. President Trump essentially declared that he didn’t care whether the Saudi leader was involved, stating, “it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
In Riyadh in January, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated his mantra that “every single person responsible” for Khashoggi’s brutal murder in October in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul should be held accountable. His own department’s actions undermine the credibility of that claim.
The next court conference is scheduled for June 4. In an environment in which the Trump administration seems to be intent on withholding the truth from the public about who is ultimately responsibly for the Khashoggi’s murder, this lawsuit represents a ray of hope.
More broadly, if the Saudi government is allowed to kill a critical journalist in cold blood and escape justice, that spells danger for every Saudi dissident who looks to the United States for protection and moral leadership. The truth about Khashoggi’s murder must come out.
The Post’s View: Congress can seek justice for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. It’s clear Trump won’t.
Fred Ryan: It’s been six months since Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, and Trump has done nothing
Jamal Khashoggi: What the Arab world needs most is free expression
David Ignatius: How the mysteries of Khashoggi’s murder have rocked the U.S.-Saudi partnership
Josh Rogin: Demands grow to release CIA assessment of Khashoggi murder