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U.S. Intelligence: Saudi Crown Prince Approved Operation To Kill Jamal Khashoggi

"The fact that the crown prince approved that operation ... is likely not to be a surprise," Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly in an exclusive interview on Friday.
Claire Harbage
"The fact that the crown prince approved that operation ... is likely not to be a surprise," Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly in an exclusive interview on Friday.

Updated at 7:32 p.m. ET

Saudi Arabia's crown prince approved the operation that led to the brutal 2018 death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the U.S. intelligence community said in a report released Friday.

President Biden has been critical of Saudi Arabia and the report is expected to further harm the increasingly fraught relations between the two longtime allies. He said Friday that he will hold Saudi Arabia accountable for human rights abuses.

"We assess that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill" Khashoggi, said the report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

"Since 2017, the crown prince has had absolute control of the kingdom's security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the crown prince's authorization," it added.

Shortly after the report was released, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines gave an exclusive interview to NPR.

"The fact that the crown prince approved that operation ... is likely not to be a surprise," she told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. "I am sure it is not going to make things easier, but I think it's also fair to say that it is not unexpected."

Asked how this might affect the U.S.-Saudi relationship, she said: "I think there will be ways to weather the various storms that we have in front of us."

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia said it rejected completely "the negative, false and unacceptable" finding of the U.S. intelligence community, adding "that the report contained inaccurate information and conclusions."

The basic facts of the killing have long been clear. Khashoggi, 59, was a Saudi citizen living in Northern Virginia and writing columns for The Washington Post that were often critical of the Saudi monarchy. He was killed during a visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. His body was dismembered, and his remains have never been found.

Saudi Arabia initially denied knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi. But in the face of intense international pressure, the kingdom blamed his death on "rogue" security officials.

However, the crown prince's involvement in the killing has long been suspected.

Two months after Khashoggi's death, in December 2018, then-CIA Director Gina Haspel returned from a trip to Turkey and briefed Senate leaders on her findings. The senators emerged from that meeting convinced that the crown prince was responsible.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman "is a wrecking ball. I think he is complicit in the murder of Khashoggi in the highest possible level," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

In a 2019 report, U.N. human rights investigator Agnes Callamard said Khashoggi "has been the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law."

The U.N. report said a 15-member team of Saudi agents flew to Istanbul specifically to meet Khashoggi. The team included a forensic doctor and people who worked in the crown prince's office.

The U.S. intelligence report released Friday says seven of the team members were part of the crown prince's "elite personal protective detail." It says that group, called the Rapid Intervention Force, "exists to defend the crown prince" and "answers only to him."

"We judge that members of the RIF would not have participated in the operation against Khashoggi without Mohammed bin Salman's approval."

Saudi courts have sentenced five men to death for Khashoggi's murder, but the sentences were later reduced to 20 years. Three other men received lesser sentences.

Biden to "recalibrate" relations

Biden has already made it clear that he plans to take a more critical position toward Saudi Arabia, which has had close ties with many U.S. presidents, including President Donald Trump.

Trump's first foreign trip as president was to Saudi Arabia in 2017, where he described the kingdom as a regional leader and praised it for the billions of dollars the Saudis spend on U.S. weapons.

During last year's presidential campaign, Biden called Saudi Arabia a "pariah" and was critical of its human rights record and its intervention in Yemen's civil war, which has contributed to one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

"The president's intention, as is the intention of this government, is to recalibrate our engagement with Saudi Arabia," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday. Psaki said earlier this month that Biden would conduct relations with Saudi Arabia "counterpart to counterpart."

"The president's counterpart is King Salman," Psaki said.

Biden said he has read the intelligence report produced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all 18 of the U.S. intelligence agencies.

According to the White House, Biden spoke by phone Thursday with King Salman. They discussed a range of issues, and Biden "affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law."

The White House statement made no mention of the Khashoggi case.

In an interview with Univision on Friday, Biden said he "made it clear to him that the rules are changing, and we're going to be announcing significant changes today and on Monday. We're going to hold them accountable for human rights abuses, and we're going to make sure that they in fact, you know if they want to deal with us, they have to deal with it in a way that human rights abuses are dealt with."

Shortly after the report was released, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is imposing "visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing."

The U.S. Treasury also announced sanctions against the Rapid Intervention Force and Ahmad Hassan Mohammed al Asiri, the former deputy head of Saudi Arabia's General Intelligence Presidency, who it says was "assigned to murder" the journalist. The designation blocks all property and interests in property they own in the U.S. It also freezes their relevant property "in the possession or control of U.S. persons."

Analysts who follow Saudi Arabia say that the king, 85, has been in poor health for years and that the crown prince, 35, is the driving force in the kingdom. Friday's announcement of U.S. sanctions conspicuously did not include the crown prince.

The U.S.-Saudi partnership has often been described as transactional. The U.S. has long imported Saudi oil and relied on the kingdom's output to help stabilize world oil prices. The Saudis, in turn, buy U.S. weapons in bulk and view the U.S. as its main protector. The two countries have also cooperated in counterterrorism efforts against radical Islamist groups such as al-Qaida.

But critics say the U.S. and the Saudis share little in terms of values. Many U.S. administrations have been all but silent on Saudi Arabia's lack of democracy, the restrictions it places on women and its human rights violations.

The Obama and Trump administrations assisted the Saudi military campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, a group backed by Iran. But with no military solution on the horizon, and the impoverished country shattered by years of war, the Biden administration says it will press the Saudis to find a diplomatic solution in Yemen.

Deborah Amos contributed to this report.

This story was originally published on Feb. 25.

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Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
Vanessa Romo
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.