US leaks, the media, and a Saudi coup that wasn’t

The cover of the New York Post newspaper is seen with other papers at a newsstand in New York US, November 9, 2016. (Reuters)

Over the course of the Cold War, a set of generally agreed upon guidelines, dubbed “The Moscow Rules,” are said to have developed amongst American intelligence agents operating within the borders of the Soviet Union.

One rule that stood out and has since been popularized by Hollywood movies is the old adage, “Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

This week,  The New York Times,  The Wall Street Journal, and  Reuters, all printed articles citing anonymous US officials alleging that Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince, Mohamad Bin Salman, carried out a coup against his cousin, Mohamad Bin  Nayef, to become Saudi Arabia’s heir apparent.

Given the near-simultaneous publication of these three articles and the anonymous sources cited by all three papers, Saudi watchers and foreign officials are interpreting this disclosure as a hit job orchestrated by one or two individuals in the US government.

However, the issue does not lie with these one or two individuals who, for personal or political reasons and without the prior knowledge of their superiors decided to speak, but with three of our most venerated press institutions which failed to properly corroborate the information provided.

This 19 September photo shows the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. (AFP)

This 19 September photo shows the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. (AFP)

The succession

With regard to the Saudi succession, the leaker’s evidence that a coup had taken place revolved around powerful imagery: Mohammed Bin Nayef’s phone being taken away, his allegedly being ushered into a palace room in Mecca where “a guard stood with his hand on a holstered gun, in what people familiar with the royal court’s traditions say is a violation of the protocol around the crown prince.”

The New York Times  added that “General  Abdulaziz al-Huwairini, a colleague of Mohammed bin  Nayef  who was crucial to the security relationship with the United States,” was also placed under house arrest.

This information was not corroborated. If it had, it would have been reported that, prior to meetings of the Royal Court, it is standard procedure to remove all phones to safeguard against electronic eavesdropping. Anyone who visits  a  US embassy knows that  comparable  precautions are employed for similar reasons.

The video footage

And it would have been noted that Saudi security personnel are required to carry holstered guns  whenever they are guarding the King, the Crown Prince, or any other senior state official, including Mohammed Bin Nayef. Video footage also shows  General al-Huwairini  standing beside the Crown Prince as the latter received foreign dignitaries this week.

Soon after that event, the General was  promoted  to head Saudi Arabia’s State Security Directorate. Subsequently, The New York Times  was forced to clarify  that the General was indeed promoted, and not dismissed as it had previously reported. These counterpoints and The  New York Times’s  correction cast doubts on the validity of the three press reports.

We live in a world where journalists are asked to cover more  issues with fewer resources in shorter time frames. Despite these pressures, fact-checking is vital to maintaining the credibility of one of the most important pillars of American democracy; this is especially true in our hyper-polarized political environment where independent media is under near-constant attack.

In recalling the “Moscow Rules,” it would have been less conspicuous if the one or two anonymous US officials referenced in all three stories chose to space out their disclosures to each publication. But they did not and, in the race to publish, it seems that eagerness may have gotten in the way of tradecraft.

This article was first published in Arabia Foundation.
Firas  Maksad is a director with The Arabia Foundation. He is also an Adjunct Professor at George Washington University.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:49 - GMT 06:49