The Biden administration released a declassified report by U.S. intelligence Friday that concludes Saudi Arabia‘s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman ‘approved’ the operation that killed Jamal Khashoggi.
Despite the unequivocal conclusions of the assessment, the administration stopped short of imposing any diplomatic or economic sanctions directly on the crown prince himself.
But in a policy announcement that followed the release of the intelligence assessment, the Treasury Department said it would sanction Saudi individuals and the crown prince’s Rapid Intervention Force, but not the crown prince.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement stating the world was ‘horrified’ by Khashoggi’s killing, and announcing a new ‘Khashoggi ban’ visa restriction on people linked to ‘counter-dissident activities.’
He said the government has taken action against 76 individuals, but did not identify Khashoggi.
The assessment, which is dated Feb. 11th and says it was declassified Thursday, cites the ‘control’ MBS holds over the security apparatus in the kingdom, where he is considered the most powerful figure.
A declassified intelligence report from the Biden administration names Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the man who approved the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi
According to the report by the Director of National Intelligence: ‘We assess that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.’
‘We base this assessment on the Crown Prince’s control of decision making in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Slaman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi,’ it reads.
The report points to the crown prince’s ‘absolute control of the Kindom’s security and intelligence organizations,’ in a kingdom where his authority is already well established.
The failure to penalize the crown prince drew criticism from some senior Democrats.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who authored the law requiring the report be released, said: ‘There should be personal consequences for MBS — he should suffer sanctions, including financial, travel and legal — and the Saudi government should suffer grave consequences as long as he remains in the government,’ Politico reported. ‘There is considerably more to declassify here.’
Biden’s security team spent weeks hashing out the issue and settling on a response.
Advisors told the New York Times a ‘consensus’ emerged that the risk of a rupture in the relationship, which is required on counterterrorism and other matters, was too high.
The U.S. has worked with the Saudis and other Sunni majority nations in an effort to contain Iran – whose proxy forces were the target of the U.S. military strike launched in Syria Thursday. Fifteen of the Sept. 11th hijackers including Osama bin Laden were from Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. counts on the Saudis to keep pressure on anti-American forces in their own homeland. The Kingdom is second to the U.S. in oil production.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the administration actions ‘only a first step,’ and mentioned additional actions on arms sales to the Saudis and Magnitsky Act sanctions.
The release of the report does not provide any information on looming political decisions – including whether to impose U.S. sanctions on a critical powerbroker of a strategic ally.
Although the four-page assessment provide no new facts to the crime, elements of which were captured on video and recordings that brought public attention to the sensational killing, it contains several statements about where power lies and the direct connections to the crown prince.
Khashoggi was a dissident and Washington Post columnist who was murdered in 2018
This video grab made on October 10, 2018 from CCTV footage obtained from Turkish news agency DHA shows Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (R) arriving at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 – Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, vanished on October 2 after entering the consulate to obtain official documents ahead of his marriage to his Turkish fiancee
President Donald Trump, flanked by White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, meets with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman maintains ‘absolute control of the Kindom’s security and intelligence organizations,’ according to the assessment
It says the crown prince has ‘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.
It cites ‘the crown prince’s control of decision-making in the kingdom.’
It says the 15-member hit squad that traveled to Istanbul ‘included officials who worked for, or were associated with, the Saudi Center for Studies and Media Affairs (CSMARC) at the Royal Court. It says the group is led by Saud al-Qahtani, a ‘close advisor’ to MBS, who claimed publicly in mid 2018 that he did not make decisions without his approval.
It also included members of his elite personal detail – the Rapid Intervention Force. It exists ‘to defend the Crown Prince, answers only to him, and had directly participated in earlier dissident suppression operations in the Kingdom and abroad and the Crown Prince’s direction.
The assessment lists 21 people who it said U.S. intelligence had ‘high confidence’ participated in, ‘ordered,’ or were ‘otherwise complicit in or responsible’ for Khashoggi’s death.
It states that ‘we do not know’ whether they knew in advance it would result in his death.
The office of the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified report on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi that identified the crown prince approved the killing
Its release ads another chapter to the horrific killing of Khashoggi in 2018, and poses a challenge to U.S. relations with a strategic ally, major arms purchaser, and oil power.
It was declassified by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.
The Treasury Department announced it was slapping sanctions on Ahmad Hassan Mohammed al Asiri, the former Deputy Head of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Presidency.
A Treasury release, which does not mention MBS, said Asiri ‘was assigned to murder journalist Khashogg’ and that ‘Asiri himself was the ringleader of the operation and coordinated with Saud al-Qahtani to organize and dispatch the 15-man team to murder and dismember Khashoggi on October 2, 2018 inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.’
President Joe Biden this week spoke with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, who the White House noted was his counterpart. The Trump administration had extensive contacts with MBS.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who is traveling with Biden, declined to say whether Biden brought up the killing, which was not mentioned in an official readout of their conversation.
‘I don’t have more to read out from the call’ she said. She said that ‘broadly’ the president and officials ‘at every level’ have raised human rights concerns.
‘Let me first say that we’ve been clear at every level that our intention is to recalibrate the relationship and this will be a different relationship with the Saudi government,’ she said.
Congress ordered the report to be released, although the Trump administration did not do so. She declined to say if any further actions would occur, saying only to ‘stay tuned.’
Asked if Biden had any concerns about MBS being in the succession, she responded: ‘This is for the, the government of Saudi Arabia to determine the path forward on their future leadership. I will say that the President has been clear, and we’ve been clear by our actions that we’re going to recalibrate the relationship, including ensuring that engagement happens counterpart to counterpart.’
Tweeted House Intelligence chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.): ‘The highest levels of the Saudi government, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are responsible for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. There must be accountability, and we will continue to press for it.’
The crown prince has denied involvement in the October 2018 murder of Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who wrote columns critical of MBS. MBS did accept responsibility for the assassination as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. And Riyadh eventually admitted that Khashoggi was killed in an ‘rogue’ extradition operation gone wrong.
Five men were given the death penalty for the journalist’s murder but had their sentences commuted to 20 years in prison after being forgiven by Khashoggi’s family.
Khashoggi fled Saudi Arabia in September 2017 to live in self-imposed exile. He was writing columns critical of the Saudi government – including of both King Salman and MBS – for The Washington Post when he was killed.
In October 2018, Khashoggi visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, to pick up the paperwork required for his marriage to a Turkish citizen. He was never seen leaving.