President Joe Biden called it “outrageous" that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman signed off on the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and cast ahead to an announcement about Saudi Arabia next week.
Biden said in an interview with Univision News that he had told Saudi King Salman this week “that the rules are changing" in the kingdom’s relationship with the U.S. and promosed “significant changes" on Monday.
The Biden administration on Friday released a partially redacted report the Trump administration had withheld from the public revealing that the U.S. intelligence committee believed the crown prince was responsible for Khashoggi’s October 2018 murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi," the report concluded.
“We immediately, when I got in, filed the report, read it, got it, and released it today," Biden said. “And it is outrageous what happened."
Kingdom ‘Rejects’ Finding
The report builds on classified intelligence from the CIA and other agencies after Khashoggi’s murder.
“The government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report pertaining to the Kingdom’s leadership, and notes that the report contained inaccurate information and conclusions," the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.
The decision to release the report, compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, reflects the Biden administration’s determination to recalibrate relations with Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, over its human rights record.
Prince Mohammed has denied involvement in the killing, while saying he accepts symbolic responsibility as the country’s de facto ruler. Saudi officials have said the murder was carried out by rogue agents who’ve since been prosecuted.
Saudi Commentators Welcome U.S. Report as Vindication
Although the four-page declassified version of the report didn’t disclose any direct evidence or the U.S. intelligence methods that were used in reaching its conclusion, it said the team that killed Khashoggi included seven members of the crown prince’s “elite personal protective detail" who wouldn’t have taken part without his approval.
“The Crown Prince viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the Kingdom and broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him," the report said. “Although Saudi officials had pre-planned an unspecified operation against Khashoggi we do not know how far in advance Saudi officials decided to harm him."
The report said it had “high confidence" about the 21 people who were involved in the killing on the prince’s behalf.
The Saudi foreign ministry said in its statement that “this was an abhorrent crime and a flagrant violation of the Kingdom’s laws and values" by “a group of individuals that have transgressed all pertinent regulations and authorities of the agencies where they were employed. The relevant authorities in the Kingdom took all possible measures within our legal system to ensure that these individuals were properly investigated, and to ensure that justice was served."
It said “the partnership between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America is a robust and enduring partnership."
In advance of the report’s publication, Biden held a call Thursday with King Salman. Biden discussed regional security and the renewed U.S. and United Nations effort to end the war in Yemen. He also “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law," the White House said in a statement.
Biden’s Untapped Options to Pressure Saudi Arabia
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declined to say Friday whether Biden raised Khashoggi’s death directly or told the king that the report would be released.
At least for now, there is no indication that the U.S. plans to sanction the crown prince. That’s in keeping with a broader assessment that he’s destined to be the kingdom’s ruler for years to come and punishing him now would risk alienating a country that, for all its flaws, remains a crucial ally. “There will be an announcement on Monday as to what we are going to be doing with Saudi Arabia generally," Biden told reporters as he departed the White House Saturday for his home in Delaware. Still, any action that does not hold the crown prince directly accountable is likely to leave Democratic lawmakers dissatisfied.
“There should be personal consequences for MBS -- he should suffer sanctions, including financial, travel and legal -- and the Saudi government should suffer grave consequences as long as he remains in the government," Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said in a statement, using a common abbreviation for the crown prince’s name.
After the report was released, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced sanctions against 76 Saudi individuals under what he called a new “Khashoggi Ban" policy. Under that authority, the U.S. says it will single out anyone who, acting for a foreign government, engages in “counter-dissident activities" beyond that country’s borders.
“While the United States remains invested in its relationship with Saudi Arabia, President Biden has made clear that partnership must reflect U.S. values," Blinken said. “To that end, we have made absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents, and journalists must end."
State Department spokesman Ned Price had told reporters Thursday that the U.S. was looking at other ways to punish the perpetrators of Khashoggi’s killing. Among the options may be cutting back arms sales to Saudi Arabia, he said without elaborating.
“I expect that we will be in a position before long to speak to steps to promote accountability going forward for this horrific crime," Price told reporters in Washington.
Democrats in Congress cheered the release of the report, saying that it was the first step toward revamping the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.
“The Biden administration will need to follow this attribution of responsibility with serious repercussions against all of the responsible parties it has identified, and also reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia," Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “The administration should take further steps to diminish the United States’ reliance on Riyadh and reinforce that our partnership with the Kingdom is a not a blank check."
Saudi authorities didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Biden’s decision to release the report, or the prospect of the U.S. imposing sanctions on one of its closest and most important Middle East allies. Saudi Arabia dominates the Gulf Arab region geographically, is its economic powerhouse, and has for decades been a political heavyweight in regional affairs.
Goods and services trade between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia amounted to almost $39 billion in 2019, with American exports totaling about $24 billion and imports reaching nearly $15 billion, according to U.S. government figures. That made Saudi Arabia the U.S.’s 27th-largest goods trading partner but one of the biggest customers for American arms.
The decision to release the report reflects a return, under Biden, to routine diplomatic channels and traditional U.S. pressure over human rights, even on allies.
Trump put Saudi Arabia at the center of his Middle East strategy, making it his first foreign visit. He later abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal with a common enemy, Iran, and reimposed sanctions on Tehran.
Trump dismissed concerns about whether the crown prince approved the Khashoggi killing -- “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t," he said -- citing the economic rewards of selling arms to the Saudis. His secretary of state, Michael Pompeo, said the U.S. had “no direct evidence" linking the prince to the murder, while Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner maintained a close working relationship with him.
In contrast, within his first few days in office, Biden put on hold major weapons sales to the kingdom pending review, and announced an end to U.S. support for offensive actions in Yemen, where he wants to wrap up a Saudi-led military intervention that’s contributed to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
In an overt rebuke, he’s also downgraded relations with Prince Mohammed, who runs the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom and typically liaises directly with foreign leaders. Instead, Biden has called King Salman his official counterpart.
Biden will have to navigate the relationship with Saudi Arabia carefully, however, as he seeks to re-engage Iran and persuade it to resume compliance with the nuclear accord. Signaling that being tougher on Saudi Arabia won’t mean he’s soft on Iran, the administration ordered airstrikes overnight on Iranian-backed militias in Syria that it blames for rocket attacks on U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq.
In recent days, Saudi newspapers and commentators have emphasized the kingdom’s close relationship with the U.S.
Abdullah Al Tayer, a former Saudi official, said last week on Twitter that any attempt to “target" the king or the crown prince was targeting “the nation and its citizens in their present and their future."
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