US Releases Report Blaming Saudi Prince for Khashoggi Killing

Just before taking the step certain to mark a foreign policy shift from the Trump administration, President Biden made a last-minute call Thursday to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.

Joe Biden, right, was vice president at the time of this picture in 2011 in which he offered his condolences to Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz after the death of his brother, Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. The photo was taken at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The White House on Friday declassified its long-buried report that says Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia approved “and likely ordered” the grisly killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Not including the title page and an executive summary, the report is barely 2 pages, mincing no words in saying that Khashoggi’s assassination could not have been carried out without the orders of the crown prince who has “absolute control” over decision making in the kingdom. 

The U.S. intelligence report had been previously withheld as part of former President Donald Trump’s bid to put the economic advantages of selling weapons to Turkey above the country’s record of human rights abuses.

Trump said shortly after the killing that bin Salman denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, but both the CIA and Turkish intelligence officials soon reached the conclusion that Khashoggi’s assassination had been ordered by the crown prince, the country’s de facto ruler.

Khashoggi was 59 when he was lured from the consulate, then killed and dismembered by a team of operatives linked to the crown prince. The declassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence contains the names of 15 people who traveled to Istanbul to conduct the operation.

It says the crown prince most likely fostered an environment in which his aides feared arrest if they didn’t carry out their assignments.

A Saudi journalist living in northern Virginia, Khashoggi wrote columns that were often critical of the Saudi monarchy and the crown prince’s policies. He had previously been close to the royal family and served as an adviser to the Saudi government until he fell out of favor and went into self-imposed exile in the U.S.

His remains have never been found. 

“The Crown Prince viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the Kingdom and broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him,” the report states.

Saudi officials initially denied knowing what happened to Khashoggi and later said that he had died during a fight. After facing international pressure, officials eventually admitted that Khashoggi was killed in “rogue” extradition operation gone wrong, but denied the assassination was ordered by the crown prince. Salman said the killing was “a mistake.” 

The United Nations released the results of its investigation in 2019, finding Saudi Arabia responsible for the “premeditated execution.” The following year, two special U.N. rapporteurs concluded that Jeff Bezos, the billionaire Amazon founder and owner of the Washington Post, had his phone hacked by the prince himself. Nude photos taken from the phone were meant to extort Bezos.

Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, five of Khashoggi’s killers were sentenced to death but saw their sentences commuted to 20 years after being forgiven by Khashoggi’s family.  

In Washington, Khashoggi’s fiancée has filed a lawsuit against the crown prince and over two dozen other Saudi officials for the writer’s killing.

Biden is expected to get tougher on Saudi Arabia than his predecessor, who only half-heartedly denounced the journalist’s murder. 

The declassified version of the intelligence report was released Friday after Biden read the report and spoke to the Saudi Arabian King Salman, father of the 35-year-old crown prince.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that, on the call, Biden raised concerns about human rights abuses and “steps that we expect the government and officials in the country to take moving forward.”

In a press conference last week, Psaki said that Biden is working to “recalibrate” the U.S.-Saudi relationship. It’s unclear whether the administration is weighing the possibility of sanctions against Saudi Arabia.

The recalibration is likely to strain relations, as Biden ended U.S. military aid for the Saudi War in Yemen earlier this month and is working to resurrect the Iran Nuclear Deal. 

Democratic representatives David Trone of Maryland and Gerry Connolly of Virginia are expected to introduce a resolution Friday to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for Khashoggi’s death and other human rights violations.

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