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On Friday, November 16, the Central Intelligence Agency released a report concluding that the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was responsible for ordering the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October.
Khashoggi, a Saudi national, was an outspoken critic of the crown prince and the kingdom. After the government censored and harassed him on social media, he decided in September 2017 to leave the country in “self-exile” so he could express his views freely.
Khashoggi returned to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to secure documents he required to marry his fiancée, but disappeared after entering the building. Weeks later, the government of Turkey began releasing a steady stream of evidence indicating that Khashoggi had been murdered and dismembered inside the consulate.
The assessment released by the CIA described a 15-man hit team consisting of top Saudi security and forensics officials, who assembled in Istanbul on government flights to assassinate Khashoggi. Their conclusions were backed by video and audio intelligence, much of which was provided by the Turkish government.
Key pieces of intelligence included a phone call in which the prince’s brother urged the journalist to visit the consulate, an audio recording of the torture and killing of Khashoggi, and a call in which suspect Maher Mutreb confirmed the operation’s completion to a high-ranking Saudi official. In this way, the primary focus of the report was to definitively demonstrate that the operation was too well-orchestrated and involved too many high-ranking Saudi officials to have occurred without the crown prince’s approval.
President Trump unexpectedly expressed solidarity with bin Salman in a November 20 statement titled, “Standing with Saudi Arabia”. He insisted that the CIA report was inconclusive and that the nation’s economic and political relationship with the Arab country was too important to jeopardize.
“Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” he wrote.
The president’s hesitation to condemn Riyadh was exemplified in his claims of economic dependency. He asserted that cutting ties would lead to the loss of $110 billion in arms sales, as well as about half a million jobs. However, an independent report by the Center for International Policy found that arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia typically generate just $2.5 billion in revenue and only 17,500 jobs.
Former senior CIA official Bruce Riedel proposes that the administration’s actions may have a basis in ensuring that the US has a steady supply of oil after Iranian sanctions kick in. “If they are going to squeeze Iran with new sanctions next month they need the Saudis to fill the gap on world markets.”
Trump said in a later statement to reporters, “If you want to go see oil prices go to $150 a barrel, all you have to do is break up our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
In the face of a Senate proposal to condemn the kingdom, Secretary of State and former CIA director Mike Pompeo spoke for the administration. Upon reviewing the CIA report, he found “no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi.” Because sitting CIA directors are typically responsible for briefing the press on intelligence issues, the absence of the current director, Gina Haspel, was noted by reporters. This suggests an internal conflict between the Trump administration and the intelligence agency, arising from their contradictory positions.
Additionally, Pompeo cited ceasefire negotiations in Yemen as an important reason to delay a strong response against the kingdom. The U.S. has been backing Saudi forces as they bomb members of the Iran-supported Houthi militia group. Riyadh has been criticized for attacking civilian targets, and the war has sparked a humanitarian crisis that has left 20 million Yemenis without vital supplies. In response to concerns by reporters about Iran’s willingness to negotiate, Pompeo said, “There’ll be representatives from the Yemeni government, from the Houthis—all those interested parties… We do hope the Iranians won’t upset this opportunity to both resolve the civil war and give everyone the opportunity to resolve a massive humanitarian crisis that’s in Yemen today.”
Mohammed bin Salman is slated to appear at the G20 summit in Argentina, along with other key world leaders.
Photo via Creative Commons