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Nation & World

U.S. Intelligence: Saudi Crown Prince Approved Operation To Kill Jamal Khashoggi

"The fact that the crown prince approved that operation ... is likely not to be a surprise," Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly in an exclusive interview on Friday.
"The fact that the crown prince approved that operation ... is likely not to be a surprise," Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly in an exclusive interview on Friday.

Saudi Arabia's crown prince approved an operation in 2018 to "capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi," according to a report from the U.S. intelligence community released Friday.

The report will likely damage the already complicated relations between the traditional allies.

"We based this assessment on the Crown Prince's control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom since 2017, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman's protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince's support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi," the report states.

The basic facts of the killing have long been clear. Khashoggi, 59, was a Saudi citizen living in Northern Virginia and writing columns for The Washington Post that were often critical of the Saudi monarchy. He was killed during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. His body was dismembered and his remains have never been found.

Saudi Arabia initially denied knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi. But in the face of intense international pressure, the kingdom blamed his death on "rogue" security officials. The Saudis continue to insist the crown prince was not involved.

But many believe otherwise, even before the report's release.

Two months after Khashoggi's killing, in December 2018, then-CIA Director Gina Haspel returned from a trip to Turkey and briefed Senate leaders on her findings. The senators emerged from that meeting convinced that the crown prince was behind the killing.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman "is a wrecking ball. I think he is complicit in the murder of Khashoggi in the highest possible level," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

Speaking to NPR in an interview broadcast Thursday, before the report's release, Gregory Gause, a Saudi watcher who heads the international affairs department at Texas A&M University, said he "would assume that any release would confirm what almost everyone assumes. Operations like this don't happen without approval from the top."

In a 2019 report, U.N. human rights investigator Agnes Callamard said Khashoggi "has been the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law."

The U.N. report said a 15-member team of Saudi agents flew to Istanbul specifically to meet Khashoggi, including a forensic doctor and people who worked in the crown prince's office.

Saudi courts have sentenced five men to death, but the sentences were later reduced to 20 years. Three other men received lesser sentences.

Biden to "recalibrate" relations

President Biden has already made clear that he plans to take a more critical position toward Saudi Arabia, which has had close ties with many U.S. presidents, including former President Donald Trump.

Trump took his first presidential trip abroad to Saudi Arabia in 2017, describing the kingdom as a regional leader and praising it for the billions of dollars the Saudis spend on U.S. weapons.

During last year's presidential campaign, Biden called Saudi Arabia a "pariah" and was critical of its human rights record and its intervention in Yemen's civil war, which has contributed to one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

"The president's intention, as is the intention of this government, is to recalibrate our engagement with Saudi Arabia," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

Biden said he has read the intelligence report produced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all 18 of the U.S. intelligence agencies.

According to the White House, Biden spoke by phone Thursday with King Salman. They discussed a range of issues, and Biden "affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law."

The White House statement made no mention of the Khashoggi case.

Analysts who follow Saudi Arabia say the king, 85, has been in poor health for years, and that the crown prince, 35, is the driving force in the kingdom.

The U.S.-Saudi partnership has often been described as transactional. The U.S. has long imported Saudi oil and relied on the kingdom's output to help stabilize world oil prices. The Saudis, in turn, buy U.S. weapons in bulk and view the U.S. as its main protector. The two countries have also cooperated in counterterrorism efforts against radical Islamist groups such as al-Qaida.

But critics say the U.S. and the Saudis share little in terms of values. Many U.S. administrations have been all but silent on Saudi Arabia's lack of democracy, the restrictions it places on women, and its human rights violations.

The Obama and Trump administrations assisted the Saudi military campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, a group backed by Iran. But with no military solution on the horizon, and the impoverished country shattered by years of war, the Biden administration says it will press the Saudis to find a diplomatic solution in Yemen.

Deborah Amos contributed to this report.

This story was originally published on Feb. 25.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.