CAPITOL HILL - U.S. senators, many of them still seething over the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, are receiving a closed door briefing Wednesday from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis about last month's murder of the Saudi dissident and U.S. resident at the kingdom’s consulate in Turkey.
Ahead of the meeting, lawmakers of both parties blasted CIA Director Gina Haspel’s exclusion from the scheduled classified briefing on Saudi Arabia.
“I want the CIA — I want somebody from the intelligence community to brief the Congress about what the president’s heard about [Saudi Crown Prince] MBS [Mohammed bin Salman],” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters.
“Why would we not have the director of the CIA briefing us?” Delaware Democratic Senator Chris Coons asked. “Because she might tell us what they actually concluded.”
According to persistent news reports, the CIA assessed that Salman ordered Khashoggi killed. Saudi Arabia has denied the allegation, blaming the death on rogue agents. U.S. President Donald Trump has echoed Riyadh’s denials and said the matter remains an open question.
“There are a lot of tough questions that need to be answered [at Wednesday’s briefing],” Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado said. “I would like to know exactly what our intelligence has and who is responsible [for Khashoggi’s death]. I think we have that information. It would be nice if they shared it with us.”
“We don’t accept the explanations given,” the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, said. “It’s not credible that no one in the hierarchy of the Saudi kingdom knew about this [killing]. And there have to be consequences.”
The Trump administration has sanctioned 17 Saudi officials but argued against tougher measures to punish Riyadh, with the president highlighting the economic importance of U.S. arms sales to the kingdom.
Secretary Pompeo says the U.S. doesn't condone Khashoggi's murder but also warned of harming U.S - Saudi ties. "The October murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has heightened the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on. But degrading U.S.-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the U.S. and its allies," he wrote in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.
Trump and his administration's stance has been widely criticized by lawmakers, including some of his most vocal backers.
“He [Trump] is focused on the strategic [U.S.-Saudi] relationship, which I understand,” Graham said. “The difference I have is that to give MBS a pass — if he clearly is complicit — is a huge mistake. One of the most dangerous things is for an ally of the United States to disrespect our values and be so flagrant about it.”
In coming days, the Senate is expected to vote on ending U.S. backing for the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign in Yemen, a measure that was defeated earlier this year but has been revived amid mounting anger with the kingdom on Capitol Hill.
“I think we have a real good shot at doing this [passing the resolution],” Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who co-authored the measure, said. “There is a growing understanding of the humanitarian disaster [in Yemen]. People are understanding the despotic nature of the Saudi regime.”
“We shouldn’t be rewarding regimes that are indiscriminately bombing civilians in Yemen, and I’m for ending the arms sales that we have with Saudi Arabia,” Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said.
“On both sides of the aisle there is a growing frustration with the lack of willingness by the administration to challenge the Saudis, particularly on the Khashoggi killing but also on the question of Yemen,” Menendez said. “You just can’t let an ally do anything they want simply because they’re an ally. And if you do, you send a global message that you can kill with impunity.”
Not all senators endorse a heavily punitive treatment of Riyadh, however.
“I think our challenge here is how to express our disappointment and condemnation to Saudi Arabia without rupturing the relationship,” Louisiana Republican Senator John Kennedy said. “The president has said: this murder was wrong, we may never know with 100 percent certainty who ordered who to do what, but that Saudi Arabia needs to be held responsible. And I agree with that.”
“We should be very careful,” Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma said. “Yes, we don’t want to accept the brutality surrounding the murder. But we’ve got to maintain a relationship and I anticipate that we will.”