WASHINGTON – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammad Bin Salman, approved the operation “to capture or kill” Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, according to a newly declassified U.S. intelligence report released Friday.
U.S. intelligence officials came to that conclusion based on the crown prince’s “absolute control,” the direct involvement of one of his key advisers in Khashoggi’s murder, and “the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad,” the report states.
“Since 2017, the crown prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the crown prince’s authorization,” the report says.
Lawmakers said the long-anticipated report demands a U.S. response – including possible penalties for the crown prince, who is known by his initials as MBS.
“The highest levels of the Saudi government, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are culpable in the murder of journalist and American resident Jamal Khashoggi,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligece Committee.
“There is no escaping that stark truth laid bare in the Intelligence Community’s long overdue public assessment,” Schiff said. “The Biden Administration will need to follow this attribution of responsibility with serious repercussions against all of the responsible parties it has identified, and also reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki noted that Biden has promised to “re-calibrate” the U.S.-Saudi alliance and hinted that additional actions would follow the release of Friday’s report.
“Stay tuned,” she told reporters aboard Air Force One.
The report was released one day after a courtesy call from Biden to Saudi King Salman, though a White House summary of the conversation made no mention of the killing and said instead that the men had discussed the countries’ longstanding partnership. The kingdom’s state-run Saudi Press Agency similarly did not mention Khashoggi’s killing in its report about the call, rather focusing on regional issues such as Iran and the ongoing war in Yemen.
The Trump administration had refused to release the unclassified report on Khashoggi’s murder, even though it was mandated by Congress. Former President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, cultivated close ties with the royal family, and with Bin Salman in particular.
“It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said nearly two months after the killing. “The world is a very dangerous place!”
But during closed-door briefings, Trump’s own CIA Director Gina Haspel told members of Congress that the crown prince directed Khashoggi’s killing.
“I think he’s complicit to the highest level possible,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in December 2018, after a briefing with Haspel.
The Biden administration has vowed to take a tougher line with the Saudi government. During her confirmation hearing, Avril Haines, Biden’s national intelligence director, promised lawmakers she would release the report as required by law.
It marks the first public acknowledgement from U.S. intelligence officials of the Saudi leader’s role in the gruesome killing of Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who had been living in the U.S. in self-exile.
Friday’s release is likely to fuel the debate over America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia – and over MBS’s future as Saudi Arabia’s king-in-waiting. While Biden has promised to recalibrate the relationship, he has only taken small steps so far, such as pausing certain weapons sales to the kingdom.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat who crafted the legislation mandating the DNI report, said he wanted “a clear statement by the U.S. government that (MBS) was responsible” as a form of accountability. The provision required the DNI to provide Congress with a list of all Saudi officials responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
In an interview last year, Malinowski said he hoped the report would spur a debate about MBS’s leadership.
“This is about holding individuals accountable and sending a signal to the Saudi leadership that perhaps giving this one reckless individual absolutely power for the next 50 years might not be the best idea,” he said.
The crown prince has denied he ordered Khashoggi’s killing. Saudi officials have acknowledged that operatives from the kingdom carried out the killing, but they’ve portrayed it as a rogue operation gone awry.
In 2019, a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced five people to death for Khashoggi’s slaying, but it placed no blame on the royal family. Critics have called the Saudi proceedings a “mockery” and a whitewash.
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who had been critical of the Saudi ruling family, was killed inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018.
A top United Nations expert on extrajudicial executions also found “credible evidence” that high-level officials in Saudi Arabia – including MBS – were involved in Khashoggi’s death.
The U.N. investigation, led by special rapporteur Agnes Callamard, provided new details, including snippets of conversation between Khashoggi and his Saudi killers. Callamard urged the U.S. government to open an FBI investigation into Khashoggi’s slaying and pursue criminal prosecutions in the U.S. for those responsible, among other steps.
In the wake of his killing, lawmakers in both parties have pushed for a reassessment of the U.S.-Saudi alliance, voting, for example, to ban some weapons sales to the kingdom. Trump nixed those efforts, but Biden has signaled a willingness to be more confrontational with the Saudis.
He paused some U.S. weapons sales to the kingdom and halted U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations in Yemen.
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