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U.S. report implicates Saudi crown prince in killing of Khashoggi

WASHINGTON - Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman "approved" the operation that led to the brutal 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to a long-withheld U.S. intelligence report made public Friday. 

The unclassified report, by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), confirmed classified conclusions reached by the CIA just weeks after the killing of the dissident writer, a Virginia resident and contributing columnist for The Washington Post.

The two-page report said the intelligence community based its conclusions on the absolute control the crown prince, known as MBS, had over decision-making in the kingdom, his "support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi," and the participation in the operation of his senior aides and security officials.

"We assess that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill" Khashoggi, the report said. "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 State Department, "to reinforce the world's condemnation of that crime," and push back at governments that threaten reporters, announced a new visa restriction policy against anyone "acting on behalf of a foreign government" involved in "serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities."

But in a reflection of what officials described as the complications of bilateral relations with a traditional partner nation, the restrictions will not be applied against the 35-year-old crown prince.

Officials sharply denied that the administration had ducked the problem, even as it heralded its dedication to transparency and accountability.

The United States, "as a matter of practice has not generally applied sanctions on the highest leadership" of countries with which it has diplomatic relations, said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House.

"Having looked at this extremely closely, over the last five weeks or so, really, the unanimous conclusion is that there's just another more effective means to dealing with these issues going forward," the official said.

The administration has said it does not intend to deal with the crown prince in any capacity other than as Saudi defense minister, a position he holds in addition to being the official heir to the throne of his 85-year-old father, King Salman. He is not likely to be given an invitation to visit the United States any time soon.

Failure to impose direct penalties on Mohammed is not likely to sit well with lawmakers who for years have pushed for him to be held accountable.

"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," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a statement made before the State Department announced the visa measures.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called for "serious repercussions against all of the responsible parties [the administration] has identified."

While the Saudi government offered no initial response to the report, al-Arabiya, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab news outlet, published an online headline that said "U.S. State Department: Washington is still invested in its relationship with Saudi Arabia." The top trending tweet in the country was "We are all Mohammed bin Salman."

In a statement announcing what he called the "Khashoggi ban," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that visa action had already been taken against 76 Saudi "individuals believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing."

The Treasury Department is also imposing sanctions on Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, who served as a close aide to Mohammed as deputy chief of Saudi intelligence. He was fired from the post a few weeks after Khashoggi was killed and implicated by Saudi prosecutors in the murder plot. But the Trump administration, while sanctioning 17 other Saudi operatives, declined to list him, for reasons it never explained.

As part of his promise to "recalibrate" relations with Saudi Arabia, President Joe Biden has cited several issues, including Saudi human rights violations and political repression, the prosecution of the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the Khashoggi killing. He has already stopped the U.S. sale of offensive weapons used in the war against Yemen's Houthi rebels and paused for review all other weapons purchases by the kingdom, the world's largest customer for U.S. defense goods.

At the same time, Biden has called the Saudis important regional partners, saying the United States will continue counterterrorism cooperation and its assistance against regional threats, including Iran.

The White House delayed Biden's initial call with Salman until after a month after the inauguration and made clear it did not want his son on the line. Neither side mentioned whether the Khashoggi issue was discussed on the call, which took place Thursday.

But future relations with the kingdom will be challenging as the administration tries to stick to its determination to avoid the crown prince. Barring an unforeseen upheaval in the royal family, he is certain to become king in the not-to-distant future.

Friday's release of the ODNI report marks the end of a long process that began when Khashoggi, lured to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to pick up documents, was drugged and dismembered by Saudi agents. His remains have never been found.

The CIA, based in part on intercepts of text messages and telephone calls, along with an audio recording of the actual killing, quickly contradicted the Saudi government's claims that the crown prince was not involved. After a classified briefing just weeks after Khashoggi's death, lawmakers said the evidence was irrefutable.

"If the crown prince went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes," then-Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters.

But President Donald Trump, who had also been briefed, continued to insist there were no firm conclusions, asking, "Well, will anybody really know?"

Although his administration imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi officials with alleged direct involvement in the killing itself, Trump insisted that the U.S. security alliance and massive Saudi purchases of U.S. weaponry were more important than holding the top Saudi leadership accountable.

"We do have an ally, and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good," he told Fox News after hearing the intelligence evidence.

In an early 2019 measure introduced by Wyden, Congress demanded that the ODNI produce an unclassified report of U.S. intelligence conclusions, including names of involved Saudi officials at all levels, and passed legislation giving the administration 30 days to release it.

For the next two years, Trump ignored the law, while he and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the White House official in charge of the Saudi account, continued to develop a close relationships with Mohammed.

Saudi Arabia, while convicting 11 intelligence agents of the murder in a closed-door trial - with five death sentences later commuted to 20 years - avoided directly addressing the CIA findings and instead raised Trump's skeptical public comments.

The crown prince, during a 2019 interview with "60 Minutes," pointed out that the United States had never released "an official statement" implicating him. "There isn't clear information or evidence that someone close to me did something," he said.

Asked about the CIA finding, he said, "If there is any such information that charges me, I hope it is brought forward publicly."

While bipartisan majorities voted to stop weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, they were unable to muster the votes necessary to override Trump's veto. When further sales were up for approval by lawmakers, the administration bypassed Congress altogether and declared a national security emergency required delivery.

Last year, on the second anniversary of Khashoggi's murder, Biden said in a statement that, as president, he would "reassess our relationship with the Kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil."

"Jamal's death will not be in vain," Biden said.

Asked during her confirmation hearing whether she would release the ODNI report, Avril Haines, now Biden's national intelligence director, said yes and confirmed she would "follow the law."

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The Washington Post's Anne Gearan, Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.

 

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