Saudi Arabia’s crown prince approved an operation in 2018 to “capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” according to a report from the U.S. intelligence community released Friday.
When asked about whether the report will damage the already complicated relations between the traditional allies, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told NPR that “it’s too soon to tell.”
“It’s not a surprise to see a shift in the relations with a new administration,” she said in an exclusive interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly minutes after the report was released. “I think there will be ways to weather the storms ahead of us.”
The report states that it based its assessment “on the Crown Prince’s control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom since 2017, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”
The basic facts of the killing have long been clear. Khashoggi, 59, was a Saudi citizen living in Northern Virginia and writing columns for The Washington Post that were often critical of the Saudi monarchy. He was killed during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. His body was dismembered and his remains have never been found.
Saudi Arabia initially denied knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi. But in the face of intense international pressure, the kingdom blamed his death on “rogue” security officials. The Saudis continue to insist the crown prince was not involved.
But the report deems that very improbable. “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 crown prince’s involvement in the killing has long been suspected, even before the report’s release.
“The fact that the crown prince approved of that operation is likely not to be a surprise…likely not to be unexpected,” Haines told NPR.
Two months after Khashoggi’s death, in December 2018, then-CIA Director Gina Haspel returned from a trip to Turkey and briefed Senate leaders on her findings. The senators emerged from that meeting convinced that the crown prince was behind the killing.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “is a wrecking ball. I think he is complicit in the murder of Khashoggi in the highest possible level,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.
Speaking to NPR in an interview broadcast Thursday, before the report’s release, Gregory Gause, a Saudi watcher who heads the international affairs department at Texas A&M University, said he “would assume that any release would confirm what almost everyone assumes. Operations like this don’t happen without approval from the top.”
In a 2019 report, U.N. human rights investigator Agnes Callamard said Khashoggi “has been the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law.”
The U.N. report said a 15-member team of Saudi agents flew to Istanbul specifically to meet Khashoggi, including a forensic doctor and people who worked in the crown prince’s office.
The report released Friday says seven of the team members were part of the crown prince’s “elite personal protective detail.” It says that group, called the Rapid Intervention Force, “exists to defend the Crown Prince” and “answers only to him.”
“We judge that members of the RIF would not have participated in the operation against Khashoggi without Muhammad bin Salman’s approval.”
Saudi courts have sentenced five men to death for Khashoggi’s murder, but the sentences were later reduced to 20 years. Three other men received lesser sentences.
Biden to “recalibrate” relations
President Biden has already made clear that he plans to take a more critical position toward Saudi Arabia, which has had close ties with many U.S. presidents, including former President Donald Trump.
Trump’s first foreign trip as president was to Saudi Arabia in 2017, where he described the kingdom as a regional leader and praised it for the billions of dollars the Saudis spend on U.S. weapons.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and was critical of its human rights record and its intervention in Yemen’s civil war, which has contributed to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
“The president’s intention, as is the intention of this government, is to recalibrate our engagement with Saudi Arabia,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday. Psaki said earlier this month that Biden would conduct relations with Saudi Arabia “counterpart to counterpart.”
“The president’s counterpart is King Salman,” Psaki said.
Biden said he has read the intelligence report produced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all 18 of the U.S. intelligence agencies.
According to the White House, Biden spoke by phone Thursday with King Salman. They discussed a range of issues, and Biden “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law.”
The White House statement made no mention of the Khashoggi case.
Shortly after the report was released, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is imposing “visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”
The U.S. Treasury also announced sanctions against the RIF and Ahmad Hassan Mohammed al Asiri, the former deputy head of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Presidency, who it says was “assigned to murder” the journalist. The designation blocks all property and interests in property they own in the U.S. It also freezes their relevant property “in the possession or control of U.S. persons.”
Analysts who follow Saudi Arabia say the king, 85, has been in poor health for years, and that the crown prince, 35, is the driving force in the kingdom. Today’s announcement of sanctions conspicuously did not include the crown prince.
The U.S.-Saudi partnership has often been described as transactional. The U.S. has long imported Saudi oil and relied on the kingdom’s output to help stabilize world oil prices. The Saudis, in turn, buy U.S. weapons in bulk and view the U.S. as its main protector. The two countries have also cooperated in counterterrorism efforts against radical Islamist groups such as al-Qaida.
But critics say the U.S. and the Saudis share little in terms of values. Many U.S. administrations have been all but silent on Saudi Arabia’s lack of democracy, the restrictions it places on women and its human rights violations.
The Obama and Trump administrations assisted the Saudi military campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, a group backed by Iran. But with no military solution on the horizon, and the impoverished country shattered by years of war, the Biden administration says it will press the Saudis to find a diplomatic solution in Yemen.
Deborah Amos contributed to this report.
This story was originally published on Feb. 25.
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