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Transcript: Norman Roule talks with Sandy Winnefeld on "Intelligence Matters" podcast







              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Norm, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. And thank you for presumably overcoming some jet lag to be with us today.

              NORMAN ROULE:

My pleasure, Sandy. It's good to-- be here, and it's good to see you again.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Well-- you've been watching the Saudis for a long time. And we'll want to hear all about what you learned on your visit and get into the turbulence injected by the Khashoggi case in a bit. But I'd like to start by asking you a few big picture questions. And first I think very relevant to this conversation is why is the relationship we have with Saudi Arabia so important to the United States?

              NORMAN ROULE:

The Saudi relationship with the United States is important not just because of oil, not just because of counter-terrorism. The relationship is important because of Saudi Arabia's location on the map. On one side of the country, they've got the Red Sea and the Bab-al-Mandeb through which pass more than 15% of the globe's trade and 4.6 million barrels of oil a day.

Saudi Arabia's economic success is vital to the success of east Africa as well as to Jordan and Egypt. Saudi Arabia's role in Islam is critical. If we wish to insure that Islam has a normative style and avoids extremism, it is critical we have Saudi Arabia as a partner.

Saudi Arabia's also important on counter-terrorism, counter-terrorism financing, and of course there's Iran, Iraq, Syria. They are a valuable partner. One-- I'll close with one note. I have been present in multiple meetings in my career where the Saudi's have supported U.S. and Western policy in the region often for no-- with little credit for themselves.

And as part of this, I can say, realizing the role of Saudi's nationals in 9/11 that the Saudis have been responsible for saving the lives of hundreds if not a few thousand Americans, to include war fighters.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Okay. Well, you've met with the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as we like to call him, several times. Can you tell us a little bit about what he's like and why you think he's made so many bold moves to change Saudi society and economy and how you see that all playing out? Is this a classic case of a reforming authoritarian? Or is there something else going on here?

              NORMAN ROULE:

So in fairness-- accuracy is always important in the realm of intelligence, even for retired intelligence officers. I did not meet with him on this particular trip. The Saudi crown prince in my view is engaged in three simultaneous programs. First he's attempting to modernize and transform the society of Saudi Arabia.

And there I think he's had considerable success. Second, I believe he's attempting to narrow the power of the royal family to rid the kingdom of fiefdoms of power and end corruption. Here I believe he's also had success. Although he's paid the price of being perceived as an authoritarian. And many of those from whom I would say they've been relieved of some of their riches have grumbled and complained in the West. And finally he's reasserting the role of Saudi as a leader in the region. And this is resulting in pressure against Qatar and pressure and their campaign in Yemen.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Speaking of Yemen, how do you see the war in Yemen vis a vis the kingdom? Clearly, the kingdom felt threatened by Iranian influence in that country. Neither side has gained the high ground in this conflict with the Iranian backed Houthis indiscriminately firing large numbers of ballistic missiles into the kingdom, but also the Saudi led coalition doing a very poor job of avoiding civilian casualties. The Kingdom seems to be on the losing side in the messaging war there. What do you see going on? And how does this end?

              NORMAN ROULE:

So most importantly I think it's fair to say that they've lost the messaging war. And they realize this. At the same time, and again as you know, Sandy, I'm a fact guy. I don't do opinions on other side. I don't speculate and I don't do opinions. As I say I do judgments in my own non-analytic way.

The Saudis have had some considerable success in the conflict. And it's also for them an existential conflict. The Houthi tribesmen have attacked Saudi Arabia itself prior to the crown prince coming to office, indeed by a year or two. It inflicted losses on their southern border. They entered Yemen as part of a UN mandated coalition. So they entered thinking, "We're part of-- we're doing what the UN would like us to do."

This is extraordinarily difficult and rough terrain. The Houthis are closer to an ideological mix of Lebanese Hezbollah and ISIS. They are not diplomats. They will not show up to negotiate. And finally the Saudis and the Emiratis and the Kuwaitis have provided Yemen with almost $15 billion of humanitarian aid. It's the largest aid campaign ever undertaken in the Middle East I believe.

Strangely, although through 12 million Yemenis who are in danger of famine in many parts of Yemen the situation is actually significantly improved. Where you have famine is primarily in areas under Houthi control. And the reasons for the famine, it's less the absence of food, and it's more that the Houthis charge so much for food as a result of their taxes and check points that no one in those areas can afford it.

So the Saudis are stuck unless they can force the Houthis to come to the table-- which the Houthis are unwilling to do. They will continue to lose the messaging war. And this conflict will continue. And the most important part of the conflict is the Yemeni people will continue to suffer.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Do any of your interactions in Saudi Arabia intersect the issue of civilian casualties and how the Saudi's are approaching that problem?

              NORMAN ROULE:

Routinely. And in fact I had significant discussions with some military personnel on how they handle that and challenged them on this issue. They were very transparent in their targeting procedures. They have-- and their successes. And they have-- and open about when mistakes are made, how they've attempted to learn from them and punish the people who were involved.

For example, there have been 14,000 coordinated travel events in Yemen involving aid convoys or the United Nations. There's never been a single mistake. When civ-- children are killed, the Hou-- Saudis are confronted with-- first an issue of the Houthis are one of the largest employers of children-- as war fighters in the region.

Everyone in Yemen seems to carry an AK-47. It makes intelligence collection difficult. And the Houthis have a well-oiled propaganda machine which they roll out. A couple of examples, the-- Saudis have told me that they have at least two court martial cases underway to punish people who didn't follow the protocols.

They also showed me a 40-step protocol to undertake any operation which ends with a local commander of the operation has the ability to turn off any firing if he believes there is information which would indicate a likelihood of civilian casualties.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Okay. And, you know, as we mentioned the messaging war is not going that well. And now we have this incident that occurred in Istanbul, the Khashoggi case. Regarding the event itself, the Saudis this weekend outlined their story of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, essentially that he was killed after a fist fight broke out in the consulate.

You know, it took them a long time to get this information out. Even after a number of vehement denials and reversals, is their version of events credible? Was this in your view an assassination or an interrogation or a rendition? What do you -- you know, at the tactical level what do you really see that was going on there?

              NORMAN ROULE:

So let me begin by saying that this is a tragedy for the Khashoggi family and for his fiancée. And it's important that we not lose sight of the human aspect of this. Something terrible happened to a journalist and his family is suffering as well.

The second aspect of this is that this is an ongoing situation. The Turks have leaked information in the most lurid and graphic nature probably in an effort to extract some sort of financial concessions from the Saudis.

In the intelligence community, in my DNA, even as a retired intelligence officer, we don't speculate. We base things off of facts. So the facts I would throw forward would be as follows: the Saudis have no recent history of engaging in assassination activity abroad. And even the alleged activities of the past are many, many years ago and may not have occurred.

They do have a history of renditions. And this would support the statement that they were-- this was maybe a botched arrest or rendition attempt or even interrogation. There were no senior Saudi officials who have been relieved as a result of this in the intelligence services.

This was an amateurish operation based off of the press reporting that I have seen and that has come out. And I believe the Saudis absolutely understand the message delivered by the U.S. government which I understand was delivered in the strongest terms by Secretary of State Pompeo that the investigation must be transparent-- must be thorough, must be prompt. And the punishment-- provided to those who are deemed to have been involved must be severe and significant. The Saudis understand this is something that cannot be repeated, and that procedures must be put in place to assure it can never be done again.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

So it almost seems like sort of a two-by-two matrix where, you know, was this a blatant assassination attempt or a rendition. And you've already weighed in on that. And then the other is what did the Saudi leadership know about this. And if you look at the various squares in that matrix, there's obviously one very bad square which would be this was an assassination and the senior levels knew about it. But there are other squares as well. And I know you don't want to speculate. But what do you think the likelihood is that the senior Saudi leadership was aware of an operation like this going on?

              NORMAN ROULE:

Right. Well it's not unreasonable to think that Saudi leadership up to the crown prince were probably aware of a rendition or at least an interrogation. But the idea that it that a murder was approved by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is something that-- I've seen no evidence for this.

It's not in the DNA of their past operational activity. And I'll throw out one more comment. Almost to a man and woman-- I spoke with Saudi women on this trip. They wanted to-- they are hurting because of this event.

And a common response I heard was that just as they -- that Abu Ghraib was not reflective of American values-- or something that President Bush or Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld would have approved. This is not something that reflects Saudi values.

These comments came in a most impassioned way from those who have spent many years in the United States. I spoke with a few dozen people who have-- who spent 15 to 20 years in the United States. And their comment uniformly was, "This is not who we are. This is not who I am." And there is a bit of pain that the entire country of Saudi Arabia is being painted with this action. And they all realize that if the investigation leads to any evidence that something took place, which appears to be very likely that steps must be taken to punish those involved and to insure that this doesn't happen again.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

So Norm, why don't we-- as far as the likely impact of this question, let's work our way from the inside out, inside Saudi Arabia to the region and then to the United States. We see that a number of key officials who were thought to be close to MBS were fired. They have detained another 18 nationals. And probably importantly to restructure the way they approach problems like this. Are the remedies they're suggesting enough? Do you see anything coming out of this that are either negative or positive in terms of going forward in how the Saudis act on the world stage?

              NORMAN ROULE:

Yes-- yes, I do. I think it's important that again we keep the focus on this is a tragedy and a crime. And it must be thoroughly and appropriately investigated and punishment dealt out to those involved. But secondly we need to make sure that the Saudis understand and have processes in place that this never happens again.

And I think that's going to happen based off of the discussions I've that I've had. And finally I think it's imperative that we look at Saudi Arabia as an engine of modernization and economic stability in the region. The questions I ask people when they request my views on the kingdom are, "Imagine Saudi Arabia's modernization program succeeds. What does that mean for the kingdom, the region and for normative Islam, the world and the war on extremism?"

Now imagine it fails. What does it mean for the kingdom, the region and Islam and the counter-terrorism campaign, et cetera, et cetera? Where should the United States fall? So in my view, once we move past this, we need to immediately engage in supporting the process of modernization.

I think it's telling that I just happened to be out there at the time that we had the U.S. special representatives on Syria-- I think on DAESH who came to country. I believe the Russian national security advisor was there. And of course the Yemeni war is underway with many children and civilians suffering. The problems of the region are ongoing while all this is taking place. And we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that these problems must be addressed or solve or literally millions of lives are at risk.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

And Norm, you mentioned earlier that-- in fact that the crown prince did consolidate power when he was named the crown prince. And in some ways maybe he did it in a little bit of a heavy-handed way. Some would speculate that people may see this event as a way of undermining his power, perhaps even displacing him. In your recent travels did you get a sense for whether the knives are out for MBS or whether the country still supports him?

              NORMAN ROULE:

So I was in one city speaking to some dozens of people of various social and economic and political import or stature. And I saw no dissent against the crown prince. I saw worry and concern on this issue. I saw uniformly a sense that the Yemen war is something that is existential. The Saudis believe that they've had 200 missile-- not believe, they know. They've had 200 missiles fired against their capital.

I've met Saudi Yemenis who are from the same tribes of-- that go across the border into Yemen. And they view the Yemen conflict as something that must be pursued. But the Saudis are worried and concerned as to what the Khashoggi death will mean for their stature and future. And well they should be in the world. But I see no evidence that there was a, "We must remove the crown prince--" or the king-- who remains obviously in charge in the country.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Now before we move on to the rest of the region can you give me a sense for why the Saudis would be so concerned about a dissident, whether it was a rendition or whatever-- gone wrong. Why would they be so concerned about Jamal Khashoggi?

              NORMAN ROULE:

Well, that's a complicated, complicated issue. And again nothing excuses the action which took place against Jamal Khashoggi or actions that might be anywhere in the neighborhood of that crime. The Saudis-- I've seen this as well. The Saudis are very concerned that the rapid change of social transformation for the kingdom risks destabilization.

And a region which endured the catastrophic violence, the maelstrom of the Arab Spring-- feels the threat of destabilization far more acutely than we do in the West. The sense of the danger of the Muslim Brotherhood or religious Islam in general is also something that we don't perceive here.

I use a crude analogy that if you're in Saudi Arabia and you are connected to, say, the Muslim Brotherhood that is akin to being in the United States in the early 1950s and being perceived as a supporter of the Communist Party. It is something that will undercut and overcome the future of the country.

The same with Qatar. That Qatar support for political Islam is something that is something they view as a direct threat to the future of the regime and to their ability to undertake reform. You know, for Saudi Arabia they're in a terrifically demanding environment. I mean, just imagine this.

You're reforming the country. You're transforming the role of women in country. You are attempting to remove the oil economy as the basis for their future. You're fighting a war in Yemen. You have a catastrophe in Syria on your borders. Egypt's economy looks weak. These are mult-- any one of these would challenge significantly-- a leadership. They're all happening at once in the kingdom.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

That's tough. Speaking about the region, let's turn to that for just a moment. It would seem like almost everybody in the region is a winner-- while Saudi Arabia's reputation is suffering from this incident. You know, the Iranians certainly are not unhappy to see this happening on the world stage.

The Qataris who are in their own conflict with the Saudis are probably not unhappy. But in particular the Turks, what's going on with Turkey? Do you think that this is a shakedown on the part of President Erdogan to try to get some financial gains from the Saudis? Or is this really a power play where he's trying to displace the Saudis as the leader of the Muslim world? You know, we've heard speculation on both sides of that issue. And I know you're not in the mood to speculate. But what do you think's going on with the Turks here?

              NORMAN ROULE:

The Turkish dynamic in the region is fascinating. You have a growing concern that-- sort of a neo-Ottoman geographic influence campaign is underway. And it's made its initial great concern for the Saudis, the Emirates, the Bahrainis and others to see-- Turkish troops in Qatar, to see a Turkish-- a naval base being constructed in the Sudan, to hear of Turkish ideological intrusions into Jerusalem, to know that there are Muslim Brotherhood television stations that are being permitted in Istanbul and Muslim Brotherhood conferences allowed in Istanbul.

There is a sense that Turkey is moving south and bringing with it the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood which-- again as I mentioned before is deemed as something that will undermine the stability and indeed the existence of the governments of the region.

So first, that's the perspective of this issue. And you've got the Qatari, Turkish, even Iranian kind of loose engagement that upsets people. I think the Turks may be attempting to find some solutions to their economic problems. I wouldn't speculate as to whether or not they're asking for aid from the Saudis. But I would be holding back if I said I wouldn't be surprised this is underway. The amount of information that has been dripped and drabbed out indicate that they are attempting to raise the ante as to what would require them to be more cooperative on the issue. Likewise to undermine the Saudi reputation in the region.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

So Norm, this is clearly a tough issue for individuals like yourself who have friends in-- and relationships in Saudi Arabia, for industries that have long operated in Saudi Arabia such as the defense industry and for governments as well that have long created this-- and a relationship with Saudi Arabia which we depend a good bit for the things we talked about earlier, counter-terrorism and the like.

But we also believe strongly in rule of law. How do you see in that light the apparent gap between the White House and Congress-- as this is playing out? You know, there are members of Congress who've been very, very vocal about this incident, where the White House seems to be patiently trying-- maybe even playing it down a little bit. Have you had a chance to think much about that?

              NORMAN ROULE:

I have. And I'm probably the wrong guy to ask about that. Because Congressional viewpoints on this have many bases. And it's not really my lane. What I would say is that I believe that arms sales in Saudi Arabia are sometimes misunderstood or at least as I understand a fair amount of them, particularly regarding Yemen.

The one thing I think we would want for Saudi Arabia's military in Yemen is that they are accurate, avoid civilian causalities and bring the war to a conclusion which allows a political solution for Yemen. Everyone would agree on that. They need the most precise weapons. They need good intelligence. And they need training to do that.

I believe we should be part of that only because it reduces the likelihood that children will be killed. And it reduces the likelihood that this war will extend. That doesn't mean children won't be killed through mistakes. It doesn't mean that this war won't last for a very long time.

But I do believe if we pull out our support from the kingdom, we just raised the likelihood of civilian casualties. I confess I don't know why that is lost on some of the players who are involved. But I-- again, I support our continued military assistance to the kingdom for that reason.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

So if this plays out as it may well based on what the Turks have been saying about this-- do you see that there is the potential for some kind of sanction? And we've talked a little bit about what those targets might be, whether they would be weapon sales or individuals perhaps an economic type of thing.

Do you see a response from the United States as being important here? How would that play out in the international system if we don't in terms of rule of law? Do you have any thoughts on what happens when the dust settles here and it finally becomes clear what actually happened in Istanbul and who knew about it?

              NORMAN ROULE:

Right. So I think it's important that even before the dust settles, we maintain our campaign to require a thorough, transparent and prompt investigation with the most severe punishment possible for those who are deemed to have been involved in the murder, and punishment for those involved in this operation.

And I think that's important not just so that these Saudis and others in the region understand you can't-- shouldn't do this. But I think we need to send a message to the world that you need to protect journalists. You need to make sure that journalists are not targets. And when someone targets a journalist there is a severe price to pay for that.

I think there's actually too little of that done. And I fear that if we don't follow this approach, it might actually encourage other countries to continue the assault on journalists. And too many journalists are dying in conflicts. Now, this said-- as moving forward, I would not be surprised if the Magnitsky Act were pursued. And those individuals who were involved have sanctions.

I don't know how high up that will go. I base my views on evidence. I don't speculate on what may happen in a conversation between two people to in the end to say, "Who ordered what? Did the crown prince order a specific act?" In my old world, we would wanna know what is the evidence for that.

And to make a decision, you really have to make that on more than, "I think." And with respect to to the Fourth Estate, the media in general-- I think there's been a lot of condemnation in the press that is not based on facts but may now be based on an echo chamber of the real pain-- the real concern that this action has generated.

So I would say during the investigation, maintain the pressure. After the investigation, punish those involved with sanctions to again carry that message. But let's be careful that speculation and gut feelings don't drive policy. That's a bad trend to set.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Norm-- realizing that the investigation needs to play out-- the Turks are conducting an investigation. There's been some cooperation with the Saudis. The Saudis are doing their own investigation, hopefully a transparent one as we've discussed. But do you think that we actually might-- our intelligence community have been given access to the tape that the Turks claim to have? And if what we hear on that tape actually-- and this is a big if-- conflicts with the Saudi account, do you think there's an obligation to make those facts public?

              NORMAN ROULE:

Well, first I don't comment on intelligence issues. But-- were we to gain access to a tape which may or may not exist, I don't know that it exists. And I understand Secretary Pompeo's staff at the very least and the president have stated that he has not seen it. But were we to obtain evidence either in the tape or in any other format that causes us to believe that there is a problem with the investigation of the kingdom, we should absolutely approach the kingdom at a high level and discuss the issue with them.

But at the end of the day, what we're looking for is an investigation that holds those individuals who are involved with this culpable and sends a message to the world that you cannot harm journalists or non-journalists in this fashion. So I think it's less if we hear a tape and we hear something on it that doesn't come out in the investigation, and more if we acquire any evidence that tell us that the culpable are being let off the hook or the system has not been put in place to fix this from happening again, then we must approach the Saudis and deal with this.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Well, it's certainly gonna be an interesting couple of weeks as this plays out-- as it will. I would ask though as sort of a final question, in light of everything we've discussed today, Norm, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the trajectory of the kingdom and its relationship with the rest of the world?

              NORMAN ROULE:

So this will sound strange. And I'm only an observer of the kingdom, although I've been doing it for-- gracious, about 35 years. But I am optimistic to talk to the youth of Saudi Arabia and 70%-- 70% of the kingdom is under the age of 35. To watch girls sit in front of an IHOP with no abaya or headdress and sing Happy Birthday.

To watch young boys and girls speak to each other in public. To-- that the 200,000 Saudis are now drivers for Uber. That you have Saudis running food trucks. The society is transforming in the direction we wish. I do believe the Yemen war is something that needs to be-- to end soon.

I'm not very optimistic about that. And the Saudis will often say "We would like it to end as well. But the Houthis will not negotiate unless we put military pressure on them." And therefore I think that military pressure will extend the conflict.

But in general, I'm optimistic on the kingdom. If only because the people who are running it at the ministerial level are some of the best trained and ethical people I know. Now, I'm not a paid spokesman for the Saudi government. But I know a handful and a half of Saudi ministers who have their degrees from Harvard and Stanford and small schools in the Midwest that have spent 15 years in the United States. Their English is superb. And they understand us and our sports teams very well. I have confidence in their leadership. And they're fine people. And therefore I think this will work out in the end. But it's a bumpy, slow road.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Well, Norm, thank you so much for coming in and being with us today on the wake of what must have been a very tiring, jet lagged trip coming home from Saudi Arabia. We look forward to having the opportunity to talk to you again in future. And once again thanks for being with us.

              NORMAN ROULE:

My pleasure. This is a great show. Thank you.

              * * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *

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