Knight Institute Sues to Learn Whether U.S. Intelligence Agencies Complied With “Duty to Warn” Reporter Jamal Khashoggi of Threats to His Life

November 20, 2018

Committee to Protect Journalists Joins Institute’s Call for Release of Records

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University today filed a lawsuit seeking immediate release of records concerning U.S. intelligence agencies’ compliance or non-compliance with their “duty to warn” reporter Jamal Khashoggi of threats to his life or liberty.

U.S. intelligence agencies are obligated to inform a potential victim of a kidnapping or murder if the agencies become aware of such a threat in the course of collecting or acquiring intelligence. Prior to Khashoggi’s murder, U.S. intelligence reportedly intercepted communications in which Saudi agents discussed plans to kidnap him and forcibly return him to Saudi Arabia. On October 2, 2018, a team dispatched by the Saudi government killed Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The CIA has reportedly concluded that the killers acted at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“Our request for information about agencies’ compliance with the ‘duty to warn’ was urgent when we filed it, but it has become even more so in light of the White House’s shameful efforts to minimize the gravity and significance of this reporter’s murder, and to shield from responsibility the people who authorized it,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “The government must explain what it knew of the threat to Khashoggi before his killing, and what, if anything, it did to warn him of that threat.”

Under Intelligence Community Directive 191, when an intelligence agency acquires information indicating an impending threat of intentional killing, serious bodily injury, or kidnapping directed at a person, it must “warn the intended victim or those responsible for protecting the intended victim, as appropriate.” Furthermore, it must document and maintain records of any actions taken pursuant to that duty.

Last month, the Knight Institute filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records related to the murder of Khashoggi with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Department of State. While the Department of State indicated it would process the request on an expedited basis, none of the agencies has disclosed any documents. The Knight Institute filed today’s lawsuit in order to compel compliance with its request. Also today, the Committee to Protect Journalists filed its own FOIA request calling for the release of the same records sought by the Knight Institute. 

“It’s absolutely essential that the U.S. government makes public what it knew about threats to Jamal Khashoggi before his murder,” Joel Simon, the executive director of CPJ said. “We fully support the Knight Institute’s lawsuit to pry that information loose—and we’ve filed our own parallel records requests to support that effort.”

The Knight Institute’s lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

“It is hard to imagine a more brazen assault on press freedom than the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, or an instance in which the duty to warn would have been more urgent,” said Ramya Krishnan, a staff attorney for the Knight First Amendment Institute. “For the sake of journalists carrying out their work at great personal risk, we are asking the U.S. government to make clear that it stood with Khashoggi, and that it stands today with journalists around the world.”

Download the complaint.

Download the Freedom of Information Act request.

About the Knight Institute

The Knight First Amendment Institute is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization established by Columbia University and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to defend the freedoms of speech and press in the digital age through strategic litigation, research, and public education. Its aim is to promote a system of free expression that is open and inclusive, that broadens and elevates public discourse, and that fosters creativity, accountability, and effective self-government.