The U.S. released a declassified intelligence report Friday that assessed that Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the grisly murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Turkey, adding it is "highly unlikely" it would have been done without the prince's approval.
Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, and killed by operatives linked to the crown prince. His body was dismembered, and his remains have never been found. Riyadh eventually admitted that Khashoggi was mistakenly killed in what it called a rogue operation but denied the crown prince’s involvement.
The role of the crown prince, often referred to by his initials, MBS, in Khashoggi’s death has been the subject of media reports since late 2018.
“While the United States remains invested in its relationship with Saudi Arabia, President (Joe) Biden has made clear that partnership must reflect U.S. values,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
“To that end, we have made absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents, and journalists must end. They will not be tolerated by the United States,” Blinken added.
The report said the intelligence community based its conclusions on the fact that the prince is known to exert tight control over decision-making in the kingdom and on his support for using violence to silence dissidents abroad.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry said it rejected completely "the negative, false and unacceptable" assessment by the U.S. intelligence report and said it contained “inaccurate information and conclusions.”
Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen, was a legal U.S. resident and had written op-ed columns for the Post that were critical of the crown prince. He had four adult children.
The report, which said the crown prince likely authorized Khashoggi’s killing or capture, prompted the Biden administration to announce visa restrictions against 76 Saudi citizens. Blinken said they are “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”
The U.S. Treasury Department also announced sanctions on Ahmad Hassan Mohammed al Asiri, Saudi Arabia’s former deputy head of General Intelligence Presidency, and Saudi Arabia’s Rapid Intervention Force in connection with Khashoggi’s murder.
“These persons are designated pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13818, which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and targets perpetrators of serious human rights abuse and corruption around the world,” the Treasury statement said.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said, “The United States stands united with journalists and political dissidents in opposing threats of violence and intimidation. We will continue to defend the freedom of expression, which is the bedrock of a free society.”
The Biden administration stopped short of sanctioning Crown Prince Mohammed himself, a move criticized by Saudi rights group DAWN, founded by Khashoggi in 2018.
The executive director of DAWN, Sarah Leah Whitson, said Biden should sanction Crown Prince Mohammed if he “meant what he said when he promised accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi."
U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in a statement the report had been “coordinated with the Intelligence Community and the information has been declassified to the greatest extent possible while still protecting the IC’s critical sources and methods.”
UN official's demands
U.N. Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard called on the U.S and the global community to “take the additional steps needed to end the ongoing crime against Mr. Khashoggi and his loved ones, to ensure accountability, and to prevent future killings of journalists.”
Callamard also demanded that the Saudi government “disclose whether his remains were destroyed onsite or how and where they were disposed” and that the international community must pressure the kingdom for “full disclosure of all the facts.”
When asked Friday about the impact of the ODNI Khashoggi report on U.S.-Saudi military relationship, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said, "I'm not going to speak to the specifics of this report. That's outside of the lanes of the Defense Department, but Saudi Arabia remains a strategic partner in the region.”
“From a military-to-military perspective, as I've said many times we take seriously, our security commitments to Saudi Arabia with respect to their ability to defend themselves and they do need to defend themselves, particularly along that southern border,” Kirby added. “And it's important that we continue to be able to have frank and candid conversations about how that relationship [with Saudi Arabia] should go forward.”
President Biden talked Thursday with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. The White House said Biden and Salman “discussed regional security, including the renewed diplomatic efforts led by the United Nations and the United States to end the war in Yemen, and the U.S. commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups.”
The White House readout of the call noted the recent release of several Saudi American activists and Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul from custody and affirmed the importance the U.S. places on universal human rights and the rule of law. It did not mention the report on Khashoggi.
The Trump administration rejected demands by lawmakers to release a declassified version of the report as the White House prioritized arms sales to the kingdom and alliance with Riyadh amid rising U.S. tensions with Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran.