Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, according to an intelligence report released Friday by the Biden administration which could have sweeping implications for U.S.-Saudi relations.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence cited the crown prince’s control of decision making in Saudi Arabia as well as the involvement of a key advisor and members of his protective detail in the operation that killed Khashoggi.
“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 said.
The intelligence assessment also noted “the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”
The CIA-led assessment, which until now had been classified, comes as President Joe Biden aims to reshape the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia after years in which the Trump administration ignored the kingdom’s human rights abuses despite condemnation in Congress and at the United Nations.
Khashoggi, a 59-year-old U.S. resident and Washington Post contributor who had criticized the Saudi royal family, entered a Saudi consulate in Turkey on Oct. 2, 2018 and never left. He was killed by a group of assassins, who then dismembered his body. His remains were never recovered.
In a diplomatic rebuke to the crown prince, the White House made clear this week that Biden does not view 35-year-old bin Salman as his counterpart and will instead conduct relations through his aging father, King Salman. The younger bin Salman has been the public face of the kingdom since becoming crown prince in 2017.
Robert Mahoney, Deputy Executive for the Committee to Protect Journalists, speaks during a news conference to issue an appeal to the UN on the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the United Nations in New York, U.S., October 18, 2018.
Shannon Stapleton | Reuters
“On Saudi Arabia I would say we’ve made clear from the beginning that we are going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Psaki said Tuesday from the White House.
On Thursday, Biden in his first call with the 85-year-old king “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law,” according to a readout from the White House.
Biden also told Salman that he would “work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible,” the White House said.
Khashoggi’s name was not mentioned in the readout.
Saudi authorities had at first denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s death, and later claimed the journalist got into a fight inside the consulate and died in the clash. Saudi authorities eventually admitted Khashoggi was killed in a “rogue operation,” while denying that bin Salman was implicated.
A United Nations investigator concluded in a June 2019 report that Khashoggi was “the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law.”
Trump sought to cast doubt publicly about the crown prince’s involvement in Khashoggi’s death, even after multiple outlets reported that the CIA concluded bin Salman himself ordered the journalist’s killing. Trump said the CIA had “nothing definitive” while asserting that the oil-rich kingdom would remain a “steadfast partner” to the U.S.
“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 less than two months after Khashoggi’s death. Trump’s conciliatory stance contrasted sharply with outrage from members of Congress and the media over the killing of Khashoggi.
The Trump administration conducted relations through the crown prince, who maintained close personal ties with members of the Trump family, particularly former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Trump made Saudi Arabia his first stop in the Middle East when he made his debut visit to the region in 2017. The kingdom rolled out the red carpet for the former reality star.
The Trump administration leveraged its ties with Gulf monarchies to normalize relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
The former president also vetoed an effort by Congress to block billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates, and an attempt to end U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen.
Biden’s review of relations with Saudi Arabia is part of a broader U.S. foreign policy shift in the Middle East.
The president has ended U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen while seeking to return to the negotiating table with Iran, Riyadh’s enemy, over its nuclear program.
The U.S. president called Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, his first conversation with a Middle East leader since taking office. The Saudis and Israelis are de facto allies, though they have no formal diplomatic ties, in their efforts to counter Iranian influence in the region.
Biden on Thursday “discussed regional security” in his call with King Salman, noting his administration’s efforts to end the war in Yemen “and the U.S. commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups,” the White House readout said.
Biden and Salman also “affirmed the historic nature of the relationship and agreed to work together on mutual issues of concern and interest,” according to the White House.
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