CIA's report complicates US response to Khashoggi murder

CIA's report complicates US response to Khashoggi murder
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For those who tried to give themselves a break from the news over the weekend, a lot has happened in the continuing saga of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And further developments are likely this week because President TrumpDonald TrumpSchumer: Impeachment trial will be quick, doesn't need a lot of witnesses Nurse to be tapped by Biden as acting surgeon general: report Schumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency MORE promised “a very full report” about “who caused it” and “who did it,” likely by today or Tuesday. Whether this report will be released publicly is unclear.

The president also revealed that he had received a full report of the clandestinely recorded audio of Washington Post columnist’s death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Although Trump did not listen to the recording, he said, “It’s a suffering tape. It’s a very terrible tape. … It was very violent, very vicious.”


On Friday, major media outlets reported that the CIA has concluded Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, known as MbS, ordered the assassination of Khashoggi. This apparently was the substance of an intelligence briefing given to members of Congress the day before. There was “no smoking gun,” but the agency has “high confidence” that the order to kill Khashoggi must have come from MbS, given the power structure in the kingdom.

This reporting contradicts a statement by the Saudi public prosecutor on Thursday that the murder was a rogue operation, originally intended as a rendition, for which 11 men have been indicted, including five who face a possible death penalty. The Saudi official denied any involvement by MbS. In what, in retrospect, clearly was coordinated with Washington, the U.S. Treasury announced that 17 Saudis have been sanctioned for their involvement with the murder, including Saud al-Qahtani, a former adviser to the royal court and MbS’s media guru, but not MbS himself.

The 30,000-foot view of what is going on (at least last week) shows the Trump administration apparently trying to work out a way to move forward. As the world’s largest oil exporter, the kingdom is a crucial strategic partner for the West, needed to ensure a stable world economy. By this logic, we may think that  MbS was probably directly involved, but without proof it is essential in terms of realpolitik to hold our noses and move forward. Implicitly making this argument, national security adviser John Bolton pointed out the audio did not appear to connect the crown prince to the murder.

Given MbS’s apparent predilection for making poor policy decisions — the Yemen war, the rift with Qatar, the temporary kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the August squabble with Canada over a tweet — it would nice, if not essential, if we could rein in some of his wilder moves. Last week’s nomination of retired Gen. John Abizaid, former CENTCOM commander, to be the ambassador to Riyadh clearly is intended to be the fix.

The CIA’s finding threw a spanner in the works of White House policy, at least temporarily. Congress was bipartisanly outraged by what its senior members had been told. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) tweeted: “Everything points to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, MbS, ordering @washingtonpost journalist Jamal #Khashoggi’s killing.” On Meet the Press, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial Trump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair MORE described MbS as “irrational” and “unhinged.” Slightly more discreetly, Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerModerates vow to 'be a force' under Biden The next pandemic may be cyber — How Biden administration can stop it Bipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief MORE (D-Va.) said: “All evidence is that it’s a fairly tightly controlled command and control system.”

Such sentiments do not augur well for future U.S. arms supplies to Saudi Arabia, especially since Congress was aerated on the subject because of the humanitarian situation in Yemen even before Khashoggi fatefully entered the consulate in Istanbul. But whether any blockage of supplies is anything more than a slapped wrist is questionable. Indeed, it may prompt a negative overreaction by MbS.

Any threat to future arms sales to the kingdom likely would not be appreciated by President Trump, who remains focused on the $110 billion worth of orders that he announced when visiting Riyadh last year on his first foreign trip (even if most analysts regard this figure as inflated).

The above summation of the situation has missed some other, perhaps important, elements. The New York Times reported on Saturday the resignation of the National Security Council director for the Gulf, apparently over a disagreement in policy regarding Saudi Arabia. The Turkish defense minister asserted that parts of Khashoggi’s body may have been taken back to the kingdom. And CNN reported that MbS “threw a fit” when meeting British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to discuss a proposed British plan for a United Nations Security Council resolution on Yemen.

On top of this, the Turks appear ready to drip out more details of what their intelligence operation against the Saudi consulate in Istanbul overheard, likely contradicting Riyadh’s changing narrative once more.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.