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Mike Pompeo criticizes journalist Jamal Khashoggi as an 'activist' who received too much media sympathy

The former secretary of state writes in his book that people "need to be clear" Khashoggi wasn't "a Saudi Arabian Bob Woodward" — but adds that he "didn't deserve to die."
Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks in Las Vegas on Nov. 18, 2022. Kyle Mazza / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sharply criticizes murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in his new book, questioning his journalism credentials and lambasting what he calls the media’s sympathetic coverage of his brutal killing at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

“He didn’t deserve to die, but we need to be clear about who he was -- and too many in the media were not,” Pompeo wrote in “Never Give an Inch: Fighting for the America I Love.” NBC News obtained a copy of the book in advance of its Jan. 24 release.  

Pompeo, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, mocked the media’s portrayal of Khashoggi as “a Saudi Arabian Bob Woodward who was martyred for bravely criticizing the Saudi royal family through his opinion articles in the Washington Post.” 

Pompeo, who also served as CIA director in the Trump administration, described Khashoggi as an “activist,” claiming that he was a journalist only “to the extent that I, and many other public figures are journalists. We sometimes get our writing published, but we also do other things.”

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi in Bahrain in 2014.Mohammed Al-Shaikh / AFP - Getty Images file

Khashoggi, an open critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, disappeared Oct. 2, 2018, after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. His disappearance drew international intrigue, and then outrage, when a Turkish prosecutor announced Khashoggi had been strangled or suffocated, and dismembered and mutilated.

Washington Post Publisher and CEO Fred Ryan called Pompeo's characterizations of Khashoggi "shocking and disappointing."

"His only offense was exposing corruption and oppression among those in power -- work that good journalists around the world do every day," Ryan said in a statement Tuesday, adding, "It is shameful that Pompeo would spread vile falsehoods to dishonor a courageous man's life and service — and his commitment to principles Americans hold dear — as a ploy to sell books."

Pompeo also tried to question Khashoggi’s allegiances in his book. 

“And as even the New York Times reported, Khashoggi was cozy with the terrorist-supporting Muslim Brotherhood,” Pompeo wrote. Pompeo referred to Khashoggi’s public mourning of Osama bin Laden upon the U.S.'s killing of the Al Qaeda founder.

“Jamal Kashoggi is not part of the Muslim Brotherhood. I confirm it to you,” Khashoggi’s widow, Hanan Elatr Khashoggi, told NBC News on Monday. 

She said that her husband had a nuanced view of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he had closer ties to in his youth. She said he would condemn their actions in some countries and appreciate it in others. He believed that, as a journalist, he needed to be close to an ideology to speak about it.

She also said that her husband “always condemned” the attack on Sept. 11 and believed Saudis were “the biggest loser of Sept. 11” because it made them seem like they do not “have a tolerant nation.” 

Whatever he [Pompeo] mentions about my husband, he doesn’t know my husband. He should be silent and shut up the lies about my husband.

Hanan Elatr Khashoggi, widow of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Pompeo also wrote that while Khashoggi’s brutal murder was “ugly,” it wasn’t “surprising” to him because it was the type of behavior he expected from the Middle East.

“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,” he wrote.

In 2018, Pompeo, as secretary of state, said Khashoggi’s killing “violates the norms of international law,” while still stressing a “strategic” relationship with Saudi Arabia.

In 2020, Khashoggi’s family sued Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, accusing him of personally ordering Khashoggi’s brutal execution. Last year, President Joe Biden’s administration said that it believed the crown prince should be shielded from lawsuits in U.S. courts because of his high office. The State Department noted that it was purely a “legal determination” and “takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

Pompeo’s new book comes as he considers a run for the White House. Pompeo has said that a run by former President Donald Trump in 2024 would not dissuade his own candidacy.

Hanan Elatr Khashoggi said she is desperate “to silence all of these people who publish books, disparage my husband and collect money from it.” 

“Whatever he [Pompeo] mentions about my husband, he doesn’t know my husband. He should be silent and shut up the lies about my husband,” she said. “It is such bad information and the wrong information. … This is not acceptable.”

CORRECTION (Jan. 24, 2023, 2:31 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated in one instance where Khashoggi was killed. It was at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, not in Saudi Arabia. (A previous correction mistakenly said embassy instead of consulate.)