Saudi Crown Prince MBS approved the murder of Jamal Khashoggi

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, according to a US intelligence report that could further strain US-Saudi relations as the White House reassesses ties with Riyadh.

The report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, released on Friday, cites the crown prince’s control over decision-making in Saudi Arabia as well as the involvement of a key adviser and members of the prince’s protective service in the operation. who killed Khashoggi, a critic of the royal family.

Also on Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken imposed visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals who “are suspected of threatening dissidents abroad, including but not limited to the killing of Khashoggi.” . A State Department spokesperson did not provide the names of those individuals, saying visa records are confidential under US law.

However, The New York Times reported that the Biden administration would not penalize the crown prince for Khashoggi’s murder. The White House decided that such an action would come at too great a cost to U.S.-Saudi cooperation in the areas of counterterrorism and confrontation with Iran, according to the Times.

Blinken said the restrictions are part of a new “Khashoggi ban” that will ban visas for people acting on behalf of a foreign government who are suspected of having engaged in “serious extraterritorial counter-dissent activity”.

When asked why the crown prince was not among those punished, Blinken stressed the importance of American interests and of not severing relations with Saudi Arabia.

“And so what we’ve done by the actions that we’ve taken is really not to sever the relationship but to recalibrate to be more in line with our interests and our values,” Blinken told reporters during a briefing. press conference. “And I think we also have to understand that it’s bigger than anyone.”

The Treasury Department on Friday imposed sanctions on the crown prince’s security service, known as the Rapid Reaction Force. It also sanctioned the former deputy head of the kingdom’s intelligence services, Ahmad Hassan Mohammed al-Asiri, accused of being a ringleader in the plot.

“Absolute control”

The ODNI report noted that “as of 2017, the Crown Prince has absolute control over the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without proper authorization. of the Crown Prince”.

The Saudi government, in a statement on Friday, said it “completely rejects” the report’s findings as unacceptable, saying the assessment contained inaccurate information. Riyadh has condemned Khashoggi’s killing as a “heinous crime” that violates the kingdom’s laws and values, attributing his death to a rogue group.

The CIA-led assessment, which until now has been classified, comes as President Joe Biden aims to reshape US-Saudi relations after years in which the Trump administration ignored the kingdom’s human rights abuses despite condemnation from Congress and the United Nations.

The Trump administration had refused to provide a report to Congress in 2019 on who was responsible for Khashoggi’s death. Lawmakers had requested the report under the Magnitsky Act, which would have required penalties against those responsible for the murder.

Khashoggi, a 59-year-old US resident and Washington Post columnist, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 and never left.

He was killed by a group of assassins, who then dismembered his body. His remains have never been found.

Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, speaks during a press conference to appeal to the UN over the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the United Nations in New York, United States, on October 18, 2018.

Shannon Stapleton | Reuters

“The Crown Prince viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the kingdom and widely supported the use of violent measures if necessary to silence him,” the ODNI report said.

“Although Saudi officials pre-planned an unspecified operation against Khashoggi, we don’t know how far in advance Saudi officials decided to harm him.”

DOWNLOAD: The Complete ODNI Intelligence Assessment

Relationship recalibration

Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, on Friday called on the White House to impose “serious repercussions on all responsible parties it has identified” for Khashoggi’s killing and to reassess the US relations with Saudi Arabia. following the intelligence report.

“We must ensure that if foreign governments target journalists simply for doing their job, they are not immune from serious repercussions and sanctions, because restoring trust in American leadership requires that we act in accordance to the values ​​that have long distinguished America,” Schiff said. .

“The administration should take further steps to reduce US reliance on Riyadh and reinforce that our partnership with the Kingdom is not a blank check,” he added.

In a diplomatic rebuke to the crown prince, the White House clarified this week that Biden doesn’t see Ben Salman, 35, as his counterpart and will instead conduct relationships through his aging father, King Salman. Bin Salman has been the public face of the kingdom since becoming crown prince in 2017.

The Trump administration maintained relations through the Crown Prince, who maintained close personal ties to members of the Trump family, particularly the former president. donald trumpJared Kushner’s son-in-law.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday, “As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, I would say that we have made it clear from the beginning that we will recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”

Thursday, Biden during 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 White House reading.

Biden also told King 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 reading.

Biden’s review of relations with Saudi Arabia is part of a broader shift in US foreign policy in the Middle East. The president ended US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen while seeking to return to the negotiating table with Riyadh’s enemy Iran over its nuclear program.

On Thursday, Biden also “discussed regional security” during his call with King Salman, noting his administration’s efforts to end the war in Yemen “and the United States’ commitment to helping Saudi Arabia. to defend its territory against attacks from groups aligned with Iran”. The White House reading said.

Biden and King also “affirmed the historic nature of the relationship and agreed to work together on matters of mutual interest and concern,” according to the White House.

Saudi denials and Trump doubts

Saudi authorities initially denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s death, and later claimed that the journalist had fought inside the consulate and died in the clash. Saudi authorities eventually admitted that Khashoggi was killed in a “rogue operation”, while denying that the crown prince was involved.

A United Nations investigator concluded in a June 2019 report that Khashoggi was “the victim of a deliberate and premeditated execution, an extrajudicial execution for which the Saudi state is responsible under international human rights law”.

A Saudi court sentenced five people to death, three to prison and exonerated three others. UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Agnès Callamard, condemned the verdict as a “mockery” of justice

Asset sought to publicly cast doubt on the Crown Prince’s involvement in Khashoggi’s deatheven after several media outlets reported that the CIA had concluded bin Salman himself ordered the murder of the journalist. Trump said the CIA had ‘nothing definitive’ while saying the oil-rich kingdom would remain a ‘staunch partner’ of the United States

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