Jamal Khashoggi murder: US intel report indicts Saudi Crown Prince, but Biden takes cautious stand

The New York Times
·10-min read

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia approved the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, according to an intelligence report that the Biden administration released Friday that offered the world a reminder of the brutal killing.

An elite team of operatives helped carry out the killing, the report said. The team reported directly to Crown Prince Mohammed, who cultivated a climate of fear that made it unlikely for aides to act without his consent, according to the report. It omitted the brutal details of Khashoggi's death, including the dismemberment of his body with a bone saw after Saudi officials lured him to their consulate in Istanbul.

But the Biden administration took no direct action against Crown Prince Mohammed, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, instead announcing travel and financial sanctions on other Saudis involved in the killing and on members of the elite unit of the Royal Guard, who protect the crown prince. The administration concluded it could not risk a full rupture of its relationship with the kingdom, relied on by the United States to help contain Iran, to counter terrorist groups and to broker peaceful relations with Israel. Cutting off Saudi Arabia could also push its leaders toward China.

Lawmakers of both parties praised the release of the report, but some Democrats, including Rep. Adam Schiff of California, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, spoke out in dismay that the administration stopped short of more severely punishing Crown Prince Mohammed for the killing of Khashoggi, a legal permanent resident of Virginia who was critical of the Saudi government in columns he wrote for The Post.

"There are ways to bring about more personal repercussions without completely rupturing the relationship," Schiff said in an interview.

Still, he added: "This is an official U.S. government statement that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia has blood on his hands, and that blood belongs to an American resident and journalist. And I think that's very powerful."

The 2018 assassination of Khashoggi and the brutality of his death, detailed in news reports at the time, shocked the world. And it disgusted U.S. officials, including the CIA director at the time, Gina Haspel, according to current and former intelligence officials. Haspel and the other U.S. officials listened to a recording obtained by Turkish intelligence that not only captured Khashoggi's struggle against Saudi agents and his killing but also caught the sounds of the saw being used on his body.

The Saudi government issued a blistering response to the report's release and the penalties, rejecting the document as a "negative, false and unacceptable assessment" about its leaders.

"It is truly unfortunate that this report, with its unjustified and inaccurate conclusions, is issued while the kingdom had clearly denounced this heinous crime," the statement said. It noted that the kingdom had "taken steps" to prevent a repeat of the killing; it prosecuted eight people in connection with it.

Much of the evidence the CIA used to conclude that Crown Prince Mohammed was culpable in Khashoggi's killing remains classified. But the report's disclosure was the first time that the U.S. intelligence community had made its conclusions public, and the declassified document was a powerful rebuke of Crown Prince Mohammed, a close ally of the Trump administration, whose continued support of him prompted international outrage.

The release of the report signaled that President Joe Biden, unlike his predecessor, would not set aside the killing of Khashoggi and that his administration intended to try to isolate the crown prince.

"We assess that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi," said the report, issued by Biden's director of national intelligence, Avril Haines.

The decision to rebuke the Saudis without punishing Crown Prince Mohammed directly was the result of a weeks-long debate among aides to Biden, who during the 2020 campaign called Saudi Arabia a "pariah" state with "no redeeming social value." Two years earlier, Biden called out the Trump administration for its inaction after Khashoggi's death, calling it "embarrassing" and "dangerous."

Biden's newly formed national security team advised him that he could not bar the heir to the Saudi crown from entering the United States, nor weigh criminal charges against him, without breaching the relationship with a key Arab ally, according to officials.

They said that a consensus emerged inside the White House that the cost of such a breach, in terms of Saudi cooperation on counterterrorism and in confronting Iran, was simply too high.

For Biden, the decision was a telling indication that his more cautious instincts had kicked in.

In an interview with Univision on Friday, the president said that he "spoke yesterday with the king, not the prince." Biden added that he had "made it clear to him that the rules are changing, and we're going to be announcing significant changes today and on Monday" to hold the Saudis accountable. "It is outrageous what happened."

Ultimately, the Biden administration announced penalties against Saudi officials, including a travel ban and freezing of assets of the kingdom's former intelligence chief and sanctions against members of a paramilitary unit that took part in the assassination.

The State Department also announced visa restrictions against 76 Saudis accused of suppressing or harming journalists, activists and dissidents, and more will eventually be applied to others around the world as the administration expands enforcement of a new "Khashoggi ban," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

"The relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual," Blinken said at a news conference at the department. "What we've done by the actions that we've taken is really not to rupture the relationship, but to recalibrate it to be more in line with our interests and our values."

Dennis Ross, a former Middle East negotiator and foreign policy aide in administrations of both parties, applauded Biden for "trying to thread the needle," calling the matter "a classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests."

"We are now doing things that show a clear difference from Trump on democracy and human rights," Ross added in an interview.

The four-page intelligence report contained few previously undisclosed major facts and reiterated the CIA's conclusion from 2018 that Crown Prince Mohammed ordered the killing of Khashoggi. It made its case based on smaller pieces of evidence and the CIA's understanding of the prince's control of the kingdom, which intelligence officials have long said led them to a high confidence conclusion of his culpability.

Crown Prince Mohammed viewed Khashoggi as a threat and "broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him," the intelligence report concluded. U.S. intelligence agencies learned that Saudi officials had planned an unspecified operation against Khashoggi, but the report said the United States had not learned when Saudi officials decided to harm him.

Members of the hit team flew to Turkey on 2 October, 2018, after Saudi officials lured Khashoggi, who was seeking paperwork to marry his Turkish fiancée, into the consulate in Istanbul.

While the team arrived in Istanbul prepared to kill Khashoggi, U.S. intelligence agencies were not confident that was their only authorized option.

The spy agencies could not rule out that Crown Prince Mohammed might have preferred to capture Khashoggi, a U.S. intelligence official said, adding that the CIA and other agencies have high confidence in their judgment that Crown Prince Mohammed was responsible for an order to either capture or kill Khashoggi. His body was never found.

According to the report, Crown Prince Mohammed "fostered an environment" in which his aides feared that any failure to follow his orders could result in their arrest. "This suggests that the aides were unlikely to question Mohammed bin Salman's orders or undertake sensitive actions without his consent," the report said.

The report listed 21 others involved in the killing of Khashoggi, including members of the hit team.

The operatives worked for the Saudi Center for Studies and Media Affairs, at the time led by Saud al-Qahtani, a close adviser of the prince. Al-Qahtani's official job was the media czar for the Royal Court, and he was once in charge of a campaign to use social media to attack Saudi dissidents online. The report noted that al-Qahtani had said publicly that he did not make decisions without Crown Prince Mohammed's approval.

The report said that seven members of Crown Prince Mohammed's elite protective detail, called the Rapid Intervention Force, or RIF, were part of the 15-man team that killed Khashoggi. The unit has carried out a campaign of kidnapping, surveillance, detention and torture to crush opposition to the crown prince.

"Members of the RIF would not have participated in the operation against Khashoggi without Muhammad bin Salman's approval," the declassified report said.

From the moment Khashoggi's death was discovered, Saudi officials sought to deflect blame from the crown prince. The Saudi government imprisoned eight people in connection with Khashoggi's death, trying them largely secretively. Although five were originally sentenced to death, after one of Khashoggi's sons said he and his siblings had forgiven the men who killed their father, a Saudi court reduced the sentences to prison terms.

Schiff said he met with White House officials Friday to press for "more personal repercussions" on the crown prince.

"I don't think the president should be meeting with him. I don't think the president should be talking with him," Schiff said. "I think the administration should explore ways to go after assets that he controls."

Before the report's release, Biden spoke to King Salman of Saudi Arabia. And officials have said Biden will speak only to the king, his counterpart as head of state, although others in the administration might speak directly to the crown prince.

Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who was the assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Obama administration, said that a "visa ban for MBS should be mandatory" under existing law "if the secretary of state has credible information that he committed a gross human rights abuse, which the secretary just told us he has."

Blinken, Malinowski said, had the power to waive the visa ban but only with a report to Congress laying out a justification.

In the waning days of Trump's presidency, the outgoing administration approved two major sales of precision-guided bombs to the Saudis totaling more than $750 million. Soon after Biden took office, his administration suspended those sales but did not cancel them, State Department officials said. The sales could still go through, and other military deals, including for maintenance of the Saudis fleet of F-15 attack jets and other support for the kingdom's military, were unaffected by the suspension.

The intelligence report was written a year ago after Congress, which had been briefed on the underlying findings, passed a law mandating intelligence agencies' conclusions be declassified and released.

Haines, in an interview with NPR, acknowledged that the conclusions would not be surprising but insisted the intelligence agencies had a responsibility "to provide what we see and make sure that it is as clear as possible."

Julian E Barnes and David E Sanger c.2021 The New York Times Company

Also See: Jamal Khashoggi killing: Joe Biden raises concern over human rights in call with Saudi Arabia's king

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