In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell interviews director Bryan Fogel, who won an Academy Award for his last film "Icarus," and now previews his latest film, "The Dissident: The untold story of the murder that shocked the world." Set to be released on January 8, the movie documents the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Fogel describes how he obtained unprecedented access to Turkish intelligence transcripts on the murder, his inspiration for the movie, and what change he hopes will come as a result of the film's release.
- On getting unprecedented access to Turkish intelligence transcripts on killing of Khashoggi: "Turkey has been and still is on the right side of history, on the right side of this matter. To me, I guess I made a bargain with the Turks in saying that, listen, I am a truth teller. I'm a documentary filmmaker. I'm here to shed light on this story. I'm not here to disparage Turkey. That's not the film I'm making. And if you guys trust me and allow me to have this access, I'm going to do my best to bring this murder and atrocity into a cinematic art form and hopefully to shed light on the story behind the story. They agreed. I spent I mean, for every day that I would get to shoot in Istanbul, there was another ten days of meetings in that sort of trust building."
- His certainty that Jamal Khashoggi was murdered: "The murder of Jamal was 100 percent, a planned murder. You don't send 15 men, including the head of a forensics guy who performs autopsies with a kit and a bone saw to Istanbul if you're not planning to murder him. They injected him with sedatives and apparently, they were literally embalming him while he was alive so that the blood would coagulate and circulate through his body in his dying moments with a coagulant and what you use when you embalm somebody. You don't you don't send a team like that to carry out a rendition. I mean, clearly, there was a plan to murder him. They had scoped out multiple places as to where they were going to bring the body. There's parts of the transcript that talk about where they can go. They had looked at the Belgrad Forest. They had looked at a farm. This was part of the Turkish investigation and apparently, they ultimately decided on the consul general's house because there was a tandoor oven there that they had serviced just in like the couple of days leading up to his murder."
- Authoritarian leaders not being held accountable: "What these authoritarian leaders are learning and even look at the poisoning of Kim Jong il's brother is that while this behavior might garner newspaper headlines and might get world leaders to condemn these actions, there's actually no true punishment for these crimes. Even in the aftermath of the Navalny death and Putin was interviewed by this, did you poison him? And he goes absolutely not, but he is a traitor, and treason is the highest crime and treason is a crime that should be punishable by death. So I mean, he admitted it you know, in his roundabout way, he flat out admitted it."
"Intelligence Matters": Bryan Fogel transcript
Producer: Ariana Freeman
MICHAEL MORELL: Brian, welcome to Intelligence Matters. You're the first filmmaker that we've ever had on the show and given the subject matter, it is great to have you with us to welcome.
BRYAN FOGEL: Well, thank you, Michael. I've listened to you many times and honored to be with you and discussing the story that has so much importance in our world.
MICHAEL MORELL: Let me let me start, Brian, by asking you to just tell our listeners what the Dissident is about.
BRYAN FOGEL: Well, the Dissident was really as I look at it, the untold story, you know, really the thriller behind the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, The Washington Post Saudi journalist that walked into his country's consulate in Istanbul on October 2nd to be brutally murdered and dismembered while his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, waited for him for marriage documents.
MICHAEL MORELL: And she waited for him for quite some time outside and never he never came out.
BRYAN FOGEL: Exactly — and it's a story that I think I'm sure many of your listeners will recall, that just captivated the world in its brutality and it's kind of ripped from the pages, you know, rendition gone horribly wrong and all of these spy and intelligence thriller aspects to it.
Of course, in the tremendous loss, I mean, the unfathomable loss to Hatice Cengiz, who literally believed that he was walking into a consulate to get paperwork to marry her, to then find out in the days that followed what had happened to the man that she loved. And of course, there were many other threads to this story that the film the Dissident gets into and uncovers and unravels. That the core of the story is the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the why, the how and really shedding light onto what is happening in Saudi Arabia.
MICHAEL MORELL: Brian, when and where can folks see the film?
BRYAN FOGEL: Well, the film is coming out in limited theaters with covid in cities where theaters are available December 25th. But it will be available across all video on demand platforms January 8th. So whether that's Comcast or DirecTV or on iTunes or Apple or for rental on Amazon, Roku or Xbox. Basically anywhere that you can go to rent a movie, The Dissident will be available beginning on January 8th.
MICHAEL MORELL: Brian, I was lucky enough to see the film. I watched it a week ago. I have to tell you and my listeners that it is one of the most powerful documentaries that I have ever seen. It is riveting, chilling, tragic, infuriating. I can actually go on and on and on. It unleashes a host of emotions. So from a investigative journalism and storytelling perspective, I wanted to just say a huge congratulations to you and your team. That kind of leads me to ask, what led you to do this film? Why did you choose this topic at this time?
BRYAN FOGEL: You know, my prior film, Icarus, as you may recall, unraveled the decades long Russian doping scandal that basically cheated international competition in the Olympics for decades. In that story, I ended up protecting the life of Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, which I think of literally bringing him to the United States, working with him as we brought the story to The New York Times and then following that story as it unfolded and his evidence was corroborated over the year that followed. That film, which launched on Netflix in August of 2017, five months later led to the banning of Russia from the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games.
In March of 2018 , I was humbled by being awarded the Academy Award for the film. Coming out of that experience and every minute, every time that I'm able to connect with Grigory Rodchenkov through his legal counsel or through his security, the conversation always talks with, Hey Grigory, how are you? And he goes, I'm alive, Bryan. I said, that's great, and he goes, you know, you saved my life. Shouldering that responsibility and burden and in the case of Grigory, he remains a whistleblower in hiding with a target on his back for the rest of his life as Putin will continue to haunt him. Gave me a feeling of a burden and a sense of responsibility to keep telling stories that I felt mattered.
BRYAN FOGEL: In the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, what I saw was complicity, essentially with every government in the world continuing to do business with Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom despite these horrific human rights abuses. What I came to learn in the seeking distribution for the film, where, of course, I would have wanted the film to be on a global streamer after an incredible response at the Sundance Film Festival that included Hillary Clinton there and multiple standing ovations and wonderful critical reception, was that every one of these huge global media companies, streaming companies, were more concerned about their business interests with the Kingdom and being able to take investment from the Kingdom than they were in the horrific record of human rights abuses that has happened in Saudi Arabia.
Under the watch of Mohammed bin Salman and has continued to unfold during his time as the Crown Prince. So, these kind of factors that happen, I guess, compel me to want to tell stories like this. I decided essentially in mid-October, as Saudi Arabia had, in fact, admitted that Jamal had, in fact, died inside that consulate, I thought to myself, this might be my next film. That hinged on what I consider these three variables, which was having the exclusive access with Hatice Cengiz, being able to have exclusive access and participation with Omar Abdulaziz, the young Saudi dissident who had been working with Jamal at the time of his death, and perhaps most importantly, the Turkish government. They would trust me and work with me to provide the behind the scenes evidence and information and details and interviews and surveillance footage and transcript of this crime so that I could craft this film.
MICHAEL MORELL: Brian, let me ask you about the the reaction of the large global platforms that you talked about. Do you think that they were actually under pressure from Saudi Arabia not to distribute your film, or was that a calculation on their own part of not wanting to upset the Kingdom?
BRYAN FOGEL: You know, it's hard to assess what was going on behind the scenes. However, as we know, I think it was about a year ago Netflix decided to pull Hasan Minhaj's Patriot Act episode out of Saudi Arabia. The episode Hasan Minhaj basically dissected the Khashoggi murder and poked fun of MBS.
Netflix was asked by the Kingdom to take that episode off the air, and they did. And when asked about it, the CEO of Netflix came forward very publicly and said, we're not a truth to power company. We're an entertainment company. Then there's been further stories written that there were other compromises and kind of negotiating terms made between the streamer and the Kingdom to keep other content on the air there. So, I do believe that between the hundreds, perhaps billions of dollars a year that Saudi Arabia spends on lobbying efforts in the United States, many of these stories have emerged in the fallout of the Khashoggi murder. Be it McKinsey, the consulting firm, or the story just yesterday emerging in The Guardian and CNBC of how Saudi Arabia is actively retaining all sorts of lobbyists right now, knowing that the Biden administration will not be as friendly to the Kingdom as Trump. That you have to believe that there was either direct pressure or a soft pressure campaign being launched, by the Kingdom or its lobbyists to see to it that this film did not find a big home among one of the major global streamers.
MICHAEL MORELL: In your mind, this is your discussion about your previous film and this one and the link between the two in your mind. They come together, in my mind in a slightly different way. I'm not sure if people realize how unique it is for a country to do what the Saudis did here. Which is essentially to assassinate, in a brazen way, a journalist, a citizen, but somebody who's a resident of another country the way they did. There's really not too many leaders in the world who operate that way and Vladimir Putin is actually one of them. So in my mind, these two stories come together in a different way than they've come together for you. I just wondered how that strikes you?
BRYAN FOGEL: You're spot on in this assessment. I don't believe that Jamal Khashoggi would have been murdered, especially in the in the way that he was, had other authoritarian regimes, meaning if you look at the Putin playbook, right.
Just in this latest poisoning of Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader in Germany, you know, many things you can glean from this. First of all, is, while there might be a global, universal, I guess what you would call a smack on the wrist for crimes such as these. It's not like any member of the G20 is actually enacting sanctions, actually taking action outside of the Magnitsky Act, which Bill Browder, I'm sure who you're aware of, has made it his personal work and his life work to basically go get these Magnitsky sanctions. But it's not like anyone's ever doing anything about it.
Even Angela Merkel in the fallout of the Navalny murder. While she made statements that this was terrible and while intelligence confirmed that this was, in fact, Novichok the poison, and that they believed with high confidence that Putin and Russian intelligence was behind this. It's not like there's a true punishment from this. You saw this, in the murder of or poisoning of Skripal. And the genesis of this is 2006 with Alexander Litvinenko, where here a former KGB, FSB spy defects to London and is poisoned by polonium. Basically, nuclear radiation that could have only come from essentially, Russian intelligence and and Putin and nobody took action. So what these authoritarian leaders are learning and even look at the poisoning of Kim Jong il's brother is that while this behavior might garner newspaper headlines and might get world leaders to condemn these actions, there's actually no true punishment for these crimes.
Even in the aftermath of the Navalny death and Putin was interviewed by this, did you poison him? And he goes absolutely not, but he is a traitor, and treason is the highest crime and treason is a crime that should be punishable by death. So I mean, he admitted it you know, in his roundabout way, he flat out admitted it.
BRYAN FOGEL: Do we believe that Saudi Arabia and MBS thought that there was going to be a bug inside that consulate that was going to know all the details of this on top of his fiancee waiting outside for him? On top of him leaving his computer and devices with her, on top of all the surveillance footage that Turkey was able to gather to find the body double and the investigation to uncover that they had ordered 70 pounds of meat, literally in the minutes that followed his murder to go burn his body at the consul general's home in a tandoor oven. Of course, Saudi Arabia was not anticipating that, but I do believe that they felt that they could get away with it.
And, if you look at their relationship with the Trump administration, I mean, Trump has publicly come out and said I'm not jeopardizing our relationship or the weapons sales or the billions of dollars in business to take action against this crime. In Bob Woodward's book, Caught on Audiotape, Trump bragged that he saved MBS's ass. Clearly there was a high level decision made, regardless of them getting caught, that they believed that they could get away with it and they have.
MICHAEL MORELL: Bryan, I want to ask you about the access that the Turks gave you. I'm wondering two things. One is how difficult was it to get that? And why do you think they did that at the end of the day?
BRYAN FOGEL: They're gaining that trust of the Turkish government, where ultimately the only way to have gotten those interviews clearly was the President giving his blessing to his chief prosecutor and to his Bill Barr at the Department of Justice and his forensic examiners and his spokesperson, his official spokesperson, who's considered the second most powerful man in Turkey, Fahrettin Altun, to discuss this matter.
And you can look far and wide, none of these guys have ever sat for an interview in regards to this case before. Not only that, the vast majority of what's in that film from all that, all those photos that they took inside the consulate, the consul generals and the police footage is still unreleased as well as the transcript. They ultimately provided me with the 37-page transcript and that's not in the hands of CNN or the BBC or any news source other than intelligence operations that they provided that to. So you know, this was a very, very long process of building trust and you can ask yourself, ok, well, what's Turkey's political intentions? What were they gaining by this?
I don't have the answer to that, and of course, Turkey has her own human rights issues. Journalists jailed just last week, there's a story that they've imprisoned, I think 186 people for life in the in the coup attempt in 2016. But in this case, in this matter, Turkey has been and still is on the right side of history, on the right side of this matter. To me, I made a very you know, I guess I made a bargain with the Turks in saying that, listen, I am a truth teller. I'm a documentary filmmaker. I'm here to shed light on this story. I'm not here to disparage Turkey. That's not the film I'm making. And if you guys trust me and allow me to have this access, I'm going to do my best to bring this murder and atrocity into a cinematic art form and hopefully to shed light on the story behind the story. They agreed. I spent I mean, for every day that I would get to shoot in Istanbul, there was another ten days of meetings in that sort of trust building. And that is kind of how the access was gained and the trust that ensued that Turkey was trusting me. I was trusting them. And this story was important to both of us.
MICHAEL MORELL: Brian, you mentioned earlier that your previous film, Icarus, actually generated a reaction, led the International Olympic Committee to ban Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics. Are you hoping that this film generates some sort of reaction that gets the United States to finally bring some justice to to what happened here?
BRYAN FOGEL: The timing, the release of this film in some ways, is really great. Because had it released essentially during the Trump administration while it would have shown the Trump administration's desire not to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, despite both the Senate and House of Representatives passing legislation to block weapons sales to the Kingdom, putting forward bills to enact sanctions against Saudi Arabia for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
All of these measures essentially were vetoed by the Trump administration. And in the film, I intentionally didn't want to create a bipartisan film. I wasn't trying to create a film where 47 percent of voters in the United States were going to go, oh, this is propaganda. So to that extent, the facts are the facts. And the handful of voices that do comment on the Trump administration's decisions are his advocates. It's Rand Paul, it's Lindsey Graham I didn't use Democratic voices.
Biden has come forward very publicly, even made a statement on October 2, the second anniversary of Jamal's assassination, that if elected president, he he would work to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, that he would re-examine the US Saudi relationship. And so in many ways, I think the release of the film, January 8 across VOD is perfect timing as Biden comes into office to remind people of this murder, of this relationship and perhaps have a different outcome.
I don't think it's about, quote unquote, justice for Jamal. We know that MBS is not leaving power. But, there's a lot of positives that can come from this. And I believe that if there's enough pressure put on the Saudi administration, women's rights activist such as Loujain Al-Hathloul, who is facing a 20 year sentence right now simply for speaking up for women's rights in her country. Literally why she's on trial, has been tortured in prison, and they're asking for 20 years. Her crime is basically saying that women should have a right whether or not they want to wear a full burka and cover themselves in public and women should have a right to leave their home without the consent of a male 18 years of older in their house, the Guardian system. For that, she's looking to spend 20 years in prison.
So there are things that can be done with enough pressure that people like Loujain Al-Hathloul or Essam al-Zamil, the economist or Raif Badawi, if he is still indeed alive, which we don't know. These sort of activists and political prisoners could be set free on top of Omar's brothers that sit in jail for two years without charges having been tortured. His friends who sit in prisons without charges and you know, the over 800 beheadings that took place in the Kingdom last year. And according to many human rights organizations, the majority of these beheadings were activists under the age of 25 who dared to send a tweet, who then dared to attend a protest or to say anything that was not in love and support of Mohammed bin Salman.
MICHAEL MORELL: I want to ask you a couple of specific questions about the film. The first is, I think the film actually makes news in a number of ways. One of the ways is to explain why this happened and why it happened when it did, which I think a lot of people were scratching their heads about. Right. How did how did Jamal Khashoggi go from journalist and critic and reformer to dangerous dissident? Can you talk about that a little bit? Because I think that is newsworthy.
BRYAN FOGEL: What you see is Jamal Khashoggi, when he was murdered, he was 60-years-old. This was a man who was educated in the United States, who was fluent in English and had spent the majority of his life essentially working as a quote unquote, journalist for the Saudi royal family. He owned a place in Washington, Virginia, long, long before he went into self exile and left the kingdom in the year before his death. So this was truly a guy who grew up or who was educated in the West, who had seen how democracies work, who saw how there could be a parliamentary system and who loved his country. Even though he had spent most of his life essentially working as a liaison, journalists, I guess, almost lobbyist for the Kingdom. He was not against the royal family.
As MBS took power, what Jamal saw was that the forward facing appearance of MBS was as this great reformer, as this great young leader, as this great crown prince. That was going to lead his country into the future and his vision, 2030 and open up Saudi Arabia to tourism and help bring movies to Saudi Arabia and music and open up some freedoms that the people didn't have before. But at this time behind this, what Jamal saw, especially as an insider, was this crackdown that he had never experienced in his life, be it the crackdown at the Ritz Carlton, where I believe this was I can't remember it was in 2017. Where MBS basically rounds up, all of his friends and family and the wealth in the country and shakes them down and tortures them for money. Basically it's a mafia operation of people who were at that Ritz there. Some of them are still there, basically going, you know, I'm the boss. You can give me half or what Jamal was experiencing in that Kingdom, whether it was through Saud al-Qahtani, his enforcer or others basically going, don't speak, don't write, don't tweet, shut up.
BRYAN FOGEL: So as he's watching, these big lobbyist bring MBS onto the world stage and here's MBS in America, appearing in a suit and meeting with Bill Gates and President Obama or Obama and an Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and others. What he's seeing in his country is a fear that he had never experienced before, that basically people were truly silenced. And rather than be silenced, Jamal decided to choose self exile. He comes to Washington, gets a job with The Washington Post, and he's finally first time in his life free to write his opinions. And what he is writing is essentially, I love my country. I like Mohammed bin Salman. I like the royal family, but I believe that if you're going to be a great reformer, you can't just reform in one place. You have to also be open to freedom of thought, freedom of opinion, and allow others to have a voice and leadership. And for this, he was murdered.
MICHAEL MORELL: Let me also ask the film suggests that the murder might have been viewed from Riyadh on a video teleconference and perhaps even directed from Riyadh. I'm wondering, is that a circumstantial case based on the room that was chosen for the murder or is there stronger evidence for that in the Turkish transcripts or from other sources?
BRYAN FOGEL: Well, amazingly enough, there is a lot of things that, you know, in the sensationalism of the story that Turkey did not disclose. And part of the transcript that I have actually contains a lot of pieces, essentially in the days leading up to the murder.
One of the things that the Saudis do is two days before they murder Jamal, they literally send a technology expert entourage to sweep the consulate for bugs and somehow they do not find the single bug in the consulate. That bug was in the media room and you see photos of this in the film. And the reason why that room was chosen was it was the only room within the consulate that had a secure video connection and secure way to communicate back to Riyadh. I guess the choice was made that, hey, if there was a bunch of bugs or whatever that was, they'd probably be found. But if there was just one and then there were sensitive communications, this was the room it should be in. That, of course, turned out to be the room that Jamal was murdered in, in the transcript that I obtained after he is murdered right before they go to dismember his body the transcript basically goes dark for about an hour and a half. And well, I don't know this to be the case or true, what I was essentially told or was implied was as they dismembered Jamal, they made a call back to Riyadh to show Riyadh whether that was Saud al-Qahtani or MBS that Jamal was, in fact, murdered and dismembered. Then there is a part in that transcript, which I think makes anybody's heart drop is as they're removing the the bags, the body bags from the room. I think it was Mutreb, said there was one of the bags contained apparently his hands in it and said, no, no, no, leave that bag for me. Fingerprints. What I was told and what was that implied was that they brought his hands and perhaps his head back to Saudi.
MICHAEL MORELL: You mentioned earlier rendition and there's some some folks who say this was a rendition gone wrong. That the idea was to take him back to Saudi Arabia and something went terribly wrong. Is that your assessment or is your assessment that it was a plan to murder all along?
BRYAN FOGEL: The murder of Jamal was 100 percent, a planned murder. You don't send 15 men, including the head of a forensics guy who performs autopsies with a kit and a bone saw to Istanbul if you're not planning to murder him. They injected him with sedatives and apparently they were literally embalming him while he was alive so that the blood would coagulate and circulate through his body in his dying moments with a coagulant and what you use when you embalm somebody. You don't you don't send a team like that to carry out a rendition. I mean, clearly, there was a plan to murder him. They had scoped out multiple places as to where they were going to bring the body. There's parts of the transcript that talk about where they can go. They had looked at at the Belgrad Forest. They had looked at a farm. This was part of the Turkish investigation and apparently, they ultimately decided on the consul general's house because there was a tandoor oven there that they had serviced just in like the couple of days leading up to his murder. To make sure that it would burn it, whatever the degree was, and they then ordered 70 pounds of meat to apparently burn his body with the meat so it wouldn't leave traces of evidence.
So the idea that this was a rendition, I don't believe, not even for five seconds, that there was going to be a rendition. I mean, they even brought a guy among their kill team to be a body double. And we see him put on a fake beard and literally walk out the consulate and dump Jamal's clothes that he had been wearing in a public place near the Blue Mosque and then continues on his business as usual in the surveillance footage. Under what auspices was there a rendition ever planned when these people are in place and they even have disguises to make them look like Jamal?
MICHAEL MORELL: Bryan, you have been fantastic with your time. I just have one more question for you. I'm wondering if you find it all ironic that the main source of information that you use to nail MBS and the Saudi perpetrators here was collected by a Turkish intelligence operation? That the world, knowing the truth here in your film, outlining it in great detail was the result of the Turks spying on the Saudis in a very significant way. I'm just wondering how you think about that?
BRYAN FOGEL: I think what we know about intelligence operations around the world is that they are intelligence operations. We don't know until we know. Right? And usually whether it is Snowden letting us know what the NSA was doing or whether its disclosures that come years down the line when intelligence data can be released.
What we do know is that nations and countries wish to spy on each other and most of the time do so without disclosure. Clearly, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have had tense, tense relations. I think Turkey's holding Saudi Arabia accountable in this and basically disclosing what happened. The details of this murder, you know, was truly because Turkey understood that Saudi Arabia was trying to frame them for this murder. Erdogan and his administration to understand that you would come onto Turkish soil, murdered someone in such a capacity on Turkish soil in their own consulate, thwarted the investigation. Then we're going to frame the murder on Turkey? As I saw it, and meeting with countless Turkish officials, there was no money, no ransom, nothing that was going to be paid, to make this go away.
In Saudi Arabia, one of the stories that I heard was in the days after the murder, Turkey was basically going to Saudi intelligence and to the king and going, hey, guys, we have proof that Jamal was murdered. We know you murdered him. We have the audio. We have the surveillance footage. We know what happened. You guys need to confess. If you don't confess, we're going to confess for you, and Saudi Arabia apparently went, ha ha ha ha ha, whatever, you don't have anything. And they then said, we do and you should come to Istanbul. So apparently, Saudi Arabia sent an entourage to Istanbul. They played the Saudis the audio and said to them, look you're going to confess. I don't know the timeline they gave them in the next day, the next 48 hours, whatever it is, or we're going to confess for you.
So Turkey sharing this information with the world is the only reason why we truly know what happened. I think it was a brave choice by Turkey to do this, because clearly, had they kept this silenced, I can only imagine there could have been a lot of bribes paid, a lot of various economic aid for Turkey. A lot of political ties re-established, and the decision by Turkey and Erdogan was, no, it's more important for us to bring this story forward
MICHAEL MORELL: The film is The Dissident, the filmmaker is Bryan Fogel. Bryan, thank you for sharing your time with us.
BRYAN FOGEL: Look, it's an honor to be speaking with you. I hope audiences will go and see it. I did a lot of work to craft the film into a thriller, into a theatrical cinematic thriller. So despite the brutality of this murder, I really wanted to craft a film that kept viewers on the edge of your seat and hope of not only learning, but wanting to take action and bring about change for so many that have been suffering in Saudi Arabia. Also, Hatice Cengiz who loved Jamal, his family, and Omar Abdulaziz, who to this day, his brothers and friends sit in prison simply for knowing him.
MICHAEL MORELL: Bryan, thank you so much.
BRYAN FOGEL: Thank you. Nice talking to you, Michael.