Saudi Arabia’s crown prince likely approved the killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, according to a newly declassified US intelligence report released Friday that instantly ratcheted up pressure on the Biden administration to hold the kingdom accountable for a murder that drew worldwide outrage.
The intelligence findings were long known to many US officials and, even as they remained classified, had been reported with varying degrees of precision. But the public rebuke of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is still a touchstone in U.S-Saudi relations. It leaves no doubt that as the prince continues in his powerful role and likely ascends to the throne, Americans will forever associate him with the brutal killing of a journalist who promoted democracy and human rights.
Yet even as the Biden administration released the findings, it appeared determined to preserve the Saudi relationship by avoiding direct punishment of the prince himself despite demands from some congressional Democrats and Khashoggi allies for significant and targeted sanctions.
Questioned by reporters, Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the approach.
“What we’ve done by the actions we’ve taken is not to rupture the relationship but to recalibrate it to be more in line with our interests and our values,” he said. “I think that we have to understand as well that this is bigger than any one person.”
The conclusion that the prince approved an operation to kill or capture Khashoggi was based on his decision-making role inside the kingdom, the involvement of a key adviser and members of his protective detail and his past support for violently silencing dissidents abroad, according to the report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Though intelligence officials stopped short of saying the prince ordered the October 2018 murder, the four-page document described him as having “absolute control” over the kingdom’s intelligence organizations and said it would have been highly unlikely for an operation like the killing to have been carried out without his approval.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry responded by saying the kingdom “categorically rejects the offensive and incorrect assessment in the report pertaining to the kingdom’s leadership.”
Shortly after the findings were released, the State Department announced a new policy, called the “Khashoggi Ban,” that will allow the US to deny visas to people who harm, threaten or spy on journalists on behalf of a foreign government. It also said it would impose visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals who have engaged or threatened dissidents overseas.
The State Department declined to comment on who would be affected, citing the confidentiality of visa records. But a person familiar with the matter said the prince was not targeted. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The Treasury Department also announced sanctions against a former Saudi intelligence official, Ahmad Hassan Mohammed al Asiri, who US officials say was the operation’s ringleader.
Democrats in Congress praised the administration for releasing the report — the Trump administration had refused to do so — but urged it to take more aggressive actions, including against the prince.
Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, urged the Biden administration to consider punishing the prince, who he says has the blood of an American journalist on his hands.
“The President should not meet with the Crown Prince, or talk with him, and the Administration should consider sanctions on assets in the Saudi Public Investment Fund he controls that have any link to the crime,” Schiff said in a statement.
Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, called for consequences for the prince — such as sanctions — as well as for the Saudi kingdom as a whole.
Rights activists said the lack of any punitive measures would signal impunity for the prince and other autocrats.
Without sanctions, “it’s a joke,” said Tawwakol Karman, a Nobel Peace Price winner from neighboring Yemen and friend of Khashoggi’s.
While Biden had pledged as a candidate to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the killing, he appeared to take a milder tone during a call Thursday with Saudi King Salman.
A White House summary of the conversation made no mention of the killing and said instead that the men had discussed the countries’ long-standing partnership. The kingdom’s state-run Saudi Press Agency similarly did not mention Khashoggi’s killing in its report about the call, focusing on regional issues like Iran and the war in Yemen.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has told reporters that the administration intends to “recalibrate” the US relationship with Saudi Arabia. Biden previously ordered an end to US support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen and said he would stop the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia but has given few details of his plans.
Though the Biden administration’s relationship with Riyadh is likely to be more adversarial than that of Donald Trump’s, the reality is that Riyadh’s oil reserves and status as a counterbalance to Iran in the Middle East have long made it a strategic — if difficult — ally.
The broad outlines of the killing have long been known. The document released Friday says a 15-member Saudi team, including seven members of the prince’s elite personal protective team, arrived in Istanbul, though it says it’s unclear how far in advance Saudi officials had decided to harm him.
Khashoggi had gone to the Saudi consulate to pick up documents needed for his wedding. Once inside, he died at the hands of more than a dozen Saudi security and intelligence officials and others who had assembled ahead of his arrival. Surveillance cameras had tracked his route and those of his alleged killers in Istanbul in the hours before his killing.
A Turkish bug planted at the consulate reportedly captured the sound of a forensic saw, operated by a Saudi colonel who was also a forensics expert, dismembering Khashoggi’s body within an hour of his entering the building. The whereabouts of his remains remain unknown.
The prince, an ambitious 35-year-old who has rapidly consolidated power since his father became king in 2015, said in 2019 that he took “full responsibility” for the killing since it happened on his watch, but denied ordering it. Saudi officials have said Khashoggi’s killing was the work of rogue Saudi security and intelligence officials. Saudi Arabian courts last year announced they had sentenced eight Saudi nationals to prison in Khashoggi’s killing. They were not identified.