Years of reporting and source work break news of Saudis facing surveillance, arrest for actions in U.S. and U.K.

An investigation by Washington-based national security reporter Ellen Knickmeyer revealed the extent of Saudi Arabia’s much-expanded surveillance, harassment and punishment of its own citizens on U.S. soil. She provided compelling details, including the previously unreported story of a Saudi sentenced to 30 years imprisonment because of calls he had made to his family from Boston, and of FBI agents warning exiles not to return home or enter the embassy in Washington.

The story was the result of more than two years of reporting. Knickmeyer, a foreign correspondent in Saudi Arabia from 2011-2014, worked carefully to maintain and cultivate Saudi sources in the U.S. That wasn’t easy — many were reluctant to speak, given the very Saudi government surveillance that became the focus of Knickmeyer’s investigation.

But a Saudi exile Knickmeyer knew from her years in the kingdom passed along a warning they had gotten from an FBI agent after the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Almost over a shoulder, the FBI advised the person: Don’t go into the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

Knickmeyer kept reaching out to Saudi exiles she knew and built a broad network, gathering examples of phones bugged, online abuse that appeared orchestrated and disturbing contacts from Saudi officials encouraging people to come to the embassy or return to the kingdom. A significant number reported more warnings from the FBI.

Rights groups and exiles faulted the Biden administration for allowing what they see as a breach of national sovereignty: illegal repression of free speech and illicit pursuit and spying inside the U.S. Exiles and rights groups said Biden’s attempt to soothe relations with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in hopes of persuading him to pump more oil only emboldened the crown prince, known as MBS, to strike harder at Saudis in the U.S.

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U.S. President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, arrive for a group photo during the "GCC+3" (Gulf Cooperation Council) meeting at a hotel in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2022. Saudi exiles and rights groups say Biden’s attempts to soothe relations with the crown prince in hopes of persuading him to pump more oil only emboldened MBS to strike harder at Saudis in the U.S.

Mandel Ngan / Pool via AP

The peg for Knickmeyer’s story finally came when she obtained Saudi court documentation of a Saudi prince sentenced to 30 years in prison for phone calls he’d made to his family and a family lawyer while a student in Boston. And her knowledge of U.S. international relations also allowed Knickmeyer to put context around the alarming prison term given another man, a Saudi American citizen.

The piece had impact. It was a was a focus of conversation among some Arab online groups, think tanks, rights groups and the Saudi diaspora. The Boston Globe followed up with its own story about the detained prince, and NPR interviewed Knickmeyer about the story for its “Weekend Edition” program. John Scott-Railton, a leading researcher in government-sponsored high-tech surveillance, called it “great work … absolutely chilling.” And Saudi exiles, who risk their safety and that of their families back home every time they discuss their circumstances publicly, thanked AP for telling the world of the threats to them.

For long-term reporting that peeled back the layers of what one exile called the Saudi “repression machine” in the U.S., Knickmeyer earns AP’s Best of the Week — Second Winner.

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