Return to Transcripts main page


Saudis Confirm Death of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi; The Impact of Khashoggi's Reporting; Trump Defends Politician's Assault on Journalist; Scenes of Desperation, Chaos at Guatemalan Border Gate; U.S. Charges Russian for Meddling; War Room Monitors, Investigates Possible Threats. Aired 1-1:30a ET

Aired October 20, 2018 - 01:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Almost three weeks after his disappearance. Saudi Arabia confirms the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Now 18 Saudi nationals are in custody.

Thousands of migrants are blocked at the Guatemala-Mexico border, trying to make their way to the United States. U.S. president Donald Trump calls them "criminal elements."

And despite threats from the Taliban, polls open most Afghanistan for a long delayed parliamentary election.

Thank you for joining us. I'm Cyril Vanier live from the CNN NEWSROOM in Atlanta.


VANIER: It's hardly surprising but it is now official. Jamal Khashoggi is dead. After weeks of denials, Saudi Arabia has now admitted what had long been suspected, that "The Washington Post" columnist died in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2nd after what the Saudis describe as a fist fight.

According to Saudi state media, five high-ranking Saudi officials have now been removed from their posts. That includes the number two man of Saudi intelligence. Ahmed al-Asiri; 18 Saudis are also being detained in the case. Here is how the news was broken to the Saudi people on state television.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The investigation showed that primary discussions was inside the consulate of the Saudi Arabia; was not carried out in the proper way which led to arguments and hand to hand fight with the officials and Jamal Khashoggi which exacerbated the situation that led to his death.


VANIER: CNN's Clarissa Ward is in the Turkish capital now with more details.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: At around 1:00 am local time, Saudi state news announced that 18 Saudi nationals have been detained in conjunction with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

They also revealed some information about how it was that he died, saying that essentially he was being interrogated, that there was some physical altercation, some kind of a quarrel and in the process he died. They did not offer any information, however, as to where the body is.

Now 18 Saudi nationals have been detained but even more interestingly, two very prominent high-ranking Saudi officials have been dismissed of their official duties. One of them is General Ahmed al-Asiri. He is the former spokesperson for the coalition that is overseeing the war in Yemen. He is the number two in intelligence services, close to the inner circle of the crown prince.

He has been relieved of his duties. The second man, a very, very senior official who has been relieved of his duties is Saud al- Qahtani. He is thought to be one of the three closest advisors to the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Now it was also announced that there will be a review that will take about a month to conclude, a report that will look into how intelligence services failed so miserably here. And what is particularly interesting though is who will be heading it, none other than the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman himself.

This a very strong indication that there is no way Saudi Arabia and particularly the king of Saudi Arabia is planning on doing anything to punish Mohammed bin Salman for this nor is there any indication that they are even willing at this stage to admit that he had anything to do with it.

Remains to be seen across the international community whether or not that will be enough, whether people will believe the Saudi narrative or conclude that it's simply a coverup -- Clarissa Ward, Ankara.


VANIER: The White House was quick to embrace the Saudi narrative. Donald Trump was asked if he found his explanation credible. Here is his answer.


TRUMP: I do. I mean, it is again early. We haven't finished our review or investigation. But I think it is a very important first step and it happened sooner than people thought it would happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP) VANIER: There is a lot more skepticism, however, in Congress. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted, "To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement."

Joining me now, CNN national security analyst Samantha Vinograd as well as CNN global affairs analyst David Rohde.

Samantha, to you first. According to the Saudis, so this whole thing was a conversation --


VANIER: -- that turned into a fight, escalated into a death and then a cover-up.

Should we believe this?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I don't even think the Saudis are banking on Donald Trump being gullible enough to buy any piece of this story or the statement that came out via Saudi state media earlier today, every piece of this is unbelievable. It is unbelievable that a 15-man interrogation squad went to Istanbul without at least authorization or MBS, Mohammed bin Salman, condoning this.

It is unbelievable that in 2.5 weeks since the operation the Saudis still do not know what happened and it is equally as implausible that the Saudis would think that anybody in the international community would take this as a credible investigation.

There's no secret sauce to investigating a murder. Every country has processes that they go through, sure. But taking witnesses and suspects and persons of interest away, putting them in a confined place so that only Saudi investigators can talk to them, really tells the world that the Saudis don't have any intention in a credible investigation.

They are just trying to launch a cover-up.

VANIER: Especially as all this happened in one building, which is Saudi sovereign territory, the Saudi consulate, and happened more than two and half weeks ago. It cant been that hard to find out who did what when.

David, one thing, the explanation perhaps conveniently leaves out as Samantha pointed out is how much the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman knew about this beforehand.

I don't want to belabor the point but is it possible that all or any of this happened without him knowing?

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: No, I do not think so. The Saudi intelligence services, one of the keys to holding power in Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed bin Salman ruthlessly consolidated power underneath him the last year. So there is no way this many agents are sent to Turkey, as Samantha

said, and there is absolutely no way they kill him and bin Salman doesn't know what has happened two weeks later.

And the really outrageous thing is that this --- the announcement called for a reform of Saudi intelligence.

Who's going to oversee that?

Mohammed bin Salman, the main suspect in this murder. And that is what makes all this have really no credibility whatsoever.

VANIER: And about him leading that reform of the intelligence services, you have to believe he can only lead to reform that will help him consolidate power. You cannot believe he's going to lead a reform of the intelligence service that will make it less responsive to him or less accountable to him in any way.

So both of you are telling me this story is implausible, very hard to believe. Congress -- Congress men and women from both sides of the aisle agree with you, judging by the reactions.

But Donald Trump, the U.S. president, says he finds this explanation credible.

So, Samantha, what does that tell us?

VINOGRAD: I think the president has been looking for an offramp for this crisis for days. Earlier this week, he said that rogue killers may have perpetrated potential assassination after an interrogation.

And to me that was the president probably starting to mimic or echo a narrative coming out of Saudi Arabia as a convenient way to say something bad happened; we're going to pretend it didn't happen but it was not the crown prince. It did not reach the highest echelons of Saudis deciding.

I don't blame the president in the sense that he wants to stay close to the alliance; 70 years of working together, we have a lot of shared interest. But I do blame the president for looking for an excuse not to hold the perpetrators accountable and to just grab at anything, the first thing that comes his way, to find, OK, this is going to be investigated thoroughly when everybody on his national security team, in the law enforcement community and the intelligence community and frankly any logical person is telling him this is a charade.

VANIER: Trump's under pressure to punish Saudi Arabia, has been under intense pressure for at least 10 days.

But, David, just as a matter of logic -- and maybe this is exactly what they're looking for -- you cannot believe this version of -- the Saudi version of events, that some intelligence officials just went rogue and then still impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia.

As a matter of logic, if you are Donald Trump and you said, I think this version is credible, then it stands to reason you are not going to punish the country for this.

ROHDE: That's true and I do not understand -- it would be much easier for the president politically to talk tough over the last two weeks, to call for justice here and then he could impose some very light sanctions on Saudi Arabia. It is very simple. This is what presidents have done for decades.

They can say one thing publicly and another thing privately. So I do not understand the strategy here.

And I would slightly disagree. I am not sure that this alliance was Saudi Arabia's going to produce the things the administration hopes. I mean, for years the Saudis were going to take care of Al Qaeda and stabilize Afghanistan. They were going to arm the Syrian opposition.

I am now doubtful of Saudi Arabia's ability to be this critical ally in the Middle East. Whether that is true or not there is a simpler way and a far more honest way to handle this crisis and that is to publicly challenge Saudi Arabia --


ROHDE: -- and demand a more credible explanation.

VANIER: Samantha, ultimately, do you think if you look at the Saudi side of things, this story can prevent the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman from ultimately becoming king?

Can it actually challenge his power?

VINOGRAD: I do not think so in any way, shape or form. I think that there is -- there are a few things going for Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom. There's no free press and there's no free speech and there's no separation of powers.

So all that he has to do domestically right now is continue to do what he's doing, which is consolidate power. He's pushed everyone who could be opposition to him out and, again, run through this theatrical charade of an investigation, name a few people as having been involved in it.

Frankly, give Donald Trump a few names to sanction, to David's point. He can submit names to Congress and say these are the people that were directly responsible for this operation, this rogue operation. And Donald Trump can say that he did something; MBS still continues on his trajectory to the throne.

And despite this horrific assassination, MBS continues on his planned trajectory.

VANIER: All right, Samantha Vinograd, David Rohde, thank you both for your insights. Thanks.


ROHDE: Thank you. VANIER: As a journalist, Jamal Khashoggi was not afraid to ask hard questions, even when doing so put his life at risk and sent him into exile. His reporting exposed corruption and secrets in the Saudi kingdom. CNN's Nic Robertson explores Khashoggi's life work.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice-over): Jamal Khashoggi, a leading Saudi journalist and former government adviser, came from humble roots, getting his first boost studying journalism at Indiana State University, benefiting like many of his generation from a Saudi government grant for U.S. education.

Returning home, he reported for Saudi and regional newspapers. His first major break came in the late 1980s, an overseas assignment to a war zone, Afghanistan. At the time Saudi intelligence services were working with the CIA to oust the Soviets.

A source close to Khashoggi says he got to know many of the young Saudi jihadists flocking to the fight, including Osama bin Laden. He had connections and caught the attention of the then Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al Faisal.

The pair became close, despite Khashoggi's sometimes critical reporting. Following Al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks, Khashoggi dared to ask the question few other Saudis would.

Why did 15 of our young men attack America in so brutal a way?

In 2002, the Saudi authorities battled Al Qaeda on their own streets. His knowledge of the terror group led to a job advising Prince Turki, which made him useful as the country struggled to contain the chaos of an insurgent movement at home.

In 2003, when Turki became ambassador to the U.K., then D.C. two years later, Khashoggi followed him. Eventually he returned to reporting. His criticism of the kingdom's conservative clerics would cost him his job. Khashoggi supported reform and modernization in the kingdom but opposed the methods used by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in stifling criticism.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI, JOURNALIST: I received a phone call ordering me to go silent. With no court decree, with just someone from the royal court, an official from the royal court, who was close to the leadership and ordered me to be silent. That offended me.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): He left Saudi and his family to begin a new life in America writing for "The Washington Post." (INAUDIBLE) about what he saw going on at home.

KHASHOGGI: Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, enjoys a great support from the Saudi republic and he is seen as the savior by young Saudis and by me and other Saudis. So he doesn't need this environment of intimidation, of cracking down on dissent.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Days before he disappeared, he told an interviewer that he didn't think he'd ever be allowed to return to Saudi Arabia. Friends say he knew the risks of angering the Saudi establishment.

Khashoggi went to the consulate in Istanbul to get papers so he could marry his Turkish fiancee. He had been apprehensive about the visit.

What happened here, Tuesday, October 2nd, remains a mystery though it is now clear it was Khashoggi's last day alive. One of the few critics of the Saudi inner circle with a public profile in the West is gone.

And the consequences of his death for the crown prince, for reform in the kingdom and for the region at large are only just beginning to be felt.


VANIER: Meanwhile, here in the U.S., politics aren't getting any more civil. President Trump raised a U.S. congressman who body slammed a reporter.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Any guy who can do a body slam, he's my kind of -- he's my guy.



VANIER: So on Friday Mr. Trump was asked about those remarks praising Montana Republican Greg Gianforte.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you regret (INAUDIBLE) last night in your rally, the assault on a reporter by a congress man?

TRUMP: TRUMP: No, no, no. Not at all. That was a different world. That was a different league, a different world. No, he's just a great guy.


VANIER: The president went on to explain there is nothing to be embarrassed about. You may not remember how old the story -- it was last year. I want to play you audio of the assault during Gianforte's election. This was May 2017.


BEN JACOBS, THE GUARDIAN: There's not going to be time. I'm just curious --


GIANFORTE: I'm tired of you guys, the last time you came here, you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here.

JACOBS: Jesus.

GIANFORTE: Get the hell out of here. The last guy did the same thing. Are you with "The Guardian"?

JACOBS: Yes and you just broke my glasses.

GIANFORTE: The last guy did the same damn thing.

JACOBS: You just body slammed me and broke my glasses.

GIANFORTE: Get the hell out of here.


VANIER: Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in June last year after he was convicted of body slamming Ben Jacobs, whose voice you just heard, a reporter for "The Guardian."

This did not stop Gianforte from winning the election.

It is another long night in Guatemala for thousands of migrants trapped on a bridge, waiting for a chance to cross into Mexico and ultimately into the United States. We will take you right to that bridge when we come back.

Plus we will see why some Afghans will have to wait even longer to vote in the country's parliamentary election. Don't go anywhere.




VANIER: Right now, thousands of migrants are stuck in Guatemala, waiting to cross the border into Mexico. Let me show you the scene earlier Friday. A river of men, women, children packed together on a bridge at the border. Many of them are fleeing political corruption and violence. They are hoping to reach the U.S.

But President Trump warns that he will send the military to the border if the caravan gets through. He says the migrants are hardened criminals.



TRUMP: Please, please. Don't be a baby, OK. Take a look. OK, just take a look. (END VIDEO CLIP)

VANIER: Well, it hasn't been an easy journey for these migrants, many of them who left for Honduras. And as Bill Weir reports, there was chaos on that bridge to the Mexico border on Friday.


BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At high noon, the bridge over the border is empty. But then a crowd of thousands overwhelms a small contingent of Guatemalan police and sprints north.

No, it is closed. It's closed.

The first try to form an orderly line, but it lasts only seconds as thousands more pour across, all with a mixture of exuberance, frustration and determination.

The surge of the crowd has managed to shove those padlocked gates open. But waiting on the other side of hundreds of Mexican federales in riot gear. They manage to hold back the human tide with the help a single teargas canister.

WEIR: After a half hour of chaos, the crowd calms itself, even turning on the few troublemakers in the crowd, convincing them to climb back down off the fence. But some can't take the heat and the crowd, so they jump into the river.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our message is we're not criminals. We are coming, we're here because we want to work. We need a job. We need a better life. That's why we're here.

WEIR: You understand --


WEIR: -- President Trump is going to use pictures of thousands of people surging to the gates against you. He is going to point that to people and say it is scary.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is just politics. We respect he is the president, the president of the United States. And with all due respect, we are not criminals.

WEIR: Donald Trump is the anti-Christ, this man says. If he doesn't repent, he is going to hell. We're not criminals, we are workers and fighters.

Eventually Mexico opens to the caravan, but only a trickle are let through, women and children first, including Marta Torres who tells me her husband was murdered by Honduran drug gangs. After walking for a week, her three other kids are still across the river.

Do you want to go to the United States? Have you heard that President Trump doesn't want more people coming and he's even separated families that try to come? What should we do now then, she says, breaking down. There's no way you can go back home. I don't want my kids in the middle of crime. I don't want to have the lives of my children further destroyed.

Mexico has taken the rare step on calling on the United Nations to help sort this crisis. But this standoff makes clear that for most folks, there is no turning back -- Bill Weir, CNN, Mexico.


VANIER: The polls have finally opened in Afghanistan for the country's parliamentary election. President Ashraf Ghani has already cast his ballot and he wrote this on Twitter.

"Today, we proved together that we uphold democracy, casting our ballots without fear. We honor the sacrifices of those who have fallen."

The election being delayed for three years because of security concerns. Voters in Kandahar province will have to wait an extra week because a powerful police chief was shot and killed in that province on Thursday.

He had just met with a top U.S. general, when a gunman opened fire. The Taliban claimed responsibility for that killing.

A Russian woman is accused of trying to sway the U.S. midterm elections as Facebook prepares to do battle against propaganda. Inside the tech giant's war room when we come back.




VANIER: U.S. prosecutors have charged a Russian woman with defrauding the United States through online propaganda efforts targeting both the upcoming midterm elections in two weeks' time and the presidential vote back in 2016.

Officials say Elena Khusyaynova helped finance fake items to inflame passions and sow discord on everything from gun control and immigration to the anthem protests. CNN Business senior technology correspondent Laurie Segall looks at how Facebook is fighting similar threats.


LAURIE SEGALL, CNN SENIOR TECHNOLOGY CORRESPONDENT: The room isn't that big, just enough space for around 20 people and their computers. But the undertaking is enormous.

SAMIDH CHAKRABARTI, PRODUCT MANAGER, CIVIC ENGAGEMENT, FACEBOOK: It's really the culmination of two years of massive investments we've made.

SEGALL: Just weeks ahead of the midterm election, Facebook has created what it's calling the war room.

CHAKRABARTI: We have a bunch of dashboards that you see around the perimeter of the room, which actually are backed up by artificial intelligence and machine learning to be able to flag any sort of anomalies or problems that we see.

Once that happens, our data scientists are able to review it, understand what's happening and passed it along to our engineers and operations specialists to take action against harmful content that we see on our platform.

SEGALL: It's been nearly two years since Facebook was caught flat- footed. There was the Russian interference aimed at manipulating the 2016 presidential election, a privacy scandal that left users wondering if they could trust the platform. Now, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has vowed to get ahead of these issues. And Facebook's new war room is part of those efforts.

CHAKRABARTI: They are actually monitoring our systems --


CHAKRABARTI: -- in real time for any sort of new threats that we may see. Investigate them and then make decisions about how to take action against violating content that we see on our platform to prevent it from going viral.

SEGALL: Leading up to the midterm elections, this room will be operating 24/7. The people in this room are supported by the 20,000 Facebook employees across the globe hired to work on safety and security.

CHAKRABARTI: We've actually been running this for the first round of the Brazilian election, which was just last week. And during that time, we saw in potential voter-suppression-related content.

SEGALL: Two years after the 2016 election, the attacks have changed. Nathaniel Gleicher, who served on President Barack Obama's National Security Council, now leads Facebook's efforts to eliminate trolls and state-run disinformation campaigns.

NATHANIEL GLAZIER, HEAD, CYBERSECURITY POLICY, FACEBOOK: One of the challenges we always face is that if you have sophisticated threat actors, they keep evolving their tactics. They don't do the same thing again and again.

And so part of what we've done is, as we head into these elections, we sort of think about our threat model. What are the new challenges that are coming, what are the things that we haven't seen before that we could see and what are the new twist that might get thrown at us? And then we test that and run that.

SEGALL: Another challenge? Communication. Silicon Valley and the government have historically had trouble communicating as platforms like Twitter and Facebook have become weaponized. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey acknowledged the problem in a congressional hearing in September.

JACK DORSEY, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER, TWITTER: We would like a more regular cadence of meetings with our law enforcement partnerships. We would appreciate, as much as we can, consolidating to a single point of contact so that we are not bouncing between multiple agencies to do our work.

SEGALL: Do you guys have a more streamlined approach now with the government when it comes to reporting? Do you have a direct line to the FBI, to DHS, to some of this major campaigns when you do find something?

GLEICHER: So we work closely with the Foreign Influence Task Force of the FBI, with the Department of Homeland Security. Another really important partner for us, actually, is state elections officials. Because they are the ones who are on the ground, they're going to see threats emerge first.

SEGALL: And what do you say to folks who say, can we trust Facebook to keep us safe?

GLEICHER: Our biggest priority is to make sure that users can have authentic conversations on the platform and that election can be free and fair and open.

SEGALL: Do you believe it will be?

GLEICHER: I believe that we've done everything we can to make sure that that will be the case.


VANIER: Laurie Segall reporting there.

All right, thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. We have got a reminder of the headlines in just a moment. Do not go anywhere.