U.S. officials released an intelligence assessment on Friday saying Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the horrifying murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 ― foiling a yearslong effort by the kingdom, the Trump administration and global power players to dodge accountability for one of the biggest international scandals in recent memory.
“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” reads the report, which was led by the CIA. The document says American officials reached their conclusion because of their understanding of the prince’s “absolute control” over Saudi security operations, the involvement of people close to him in the assault and his view that Khashoggi was a threat.
The brief analysis does not mention other U.S. intelligence on the matter that remains classified, like intercepts of calls by the prince and his allies.
Separately, Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced a new policy called the “Khashoggi ban” to block visas for people harassing dissidents and journalists. Blinken said the U.S. will bar entry to 76 Saudis involved in targeting critics of the regime ― but he notably did not mention the prince.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also announced sanctions on an elite Saudi force linked to the prince as well as high-ranking former Saudi intelligence official Ahmed al-Asiri.
President Joe Biden and his director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, repeatedly promised to release the findings regarding Khashoggi’s assassination. The intelligence community had concluded weeks after it occurred that the prince was to blame, but then-President Donald Trump defied a law saying he must make that conclusion public and instead defended bin Salman.
“I saved his ass,” Trump told journalist Bob Woodward in 2019. Trump repeatedly spread the prince’s lie that he was not responsible, including in a shocking White House statement that smeared Khashoggi.
“It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said as the attack, which was partly carried out with a bone saw, dominated headlines worldwide.
The then-president used his veto power to block congressional efforts to punish the Saudis by cutting off weapons sales and U.S. support for the kingdom’s vicious military campaign in Yemen, instead offering Riyadh additional arms worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Saudis offered a shifting narrative about Khashoggi’s killing at their Istanbul consulate, finally settling on saying it was a botched security operation and blaming low-level government officials while sustaining the prince’s position as their de facto ruler.
A Saudi court convicted eight men for the murder and the judge gave five of them the death sentence.
That punishment was commuted, however, amid statements from Khashoggi’s family members that they forgave the killers. The slain reporter’s son was thought to have said so under duress, and the United Nations expert investigating the Khashoggi case, Agnes Callamard, said the Saudi trial represented “the antithesis of justice.”
Saudi authorities additionally cleared two close associates of the prince, Saud al-Qahtani and al-Asiri ― men who the U.S. intelligence report blames for the assassination.
Khashoggi, who had previously worked with the Saudi government, “loved Saudi Arabia more than anywhere else,” according to his fiancée, and said he questioned the prince and his destructive policies for the benefit of the kingdom and its people.
Biden’s move to release the intelligence community’s findings on Khashoggi’s killing is in keeping with his pledge to prioritize human rights, unlike the previous administration. It is also a major step toward reforming America’s role in the Middle East, where the U.S. has, for decades, maintained close ties to repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia despite its stated commitment to advocating for democratic values.
As longtime American partners closely tied to the U.S. economy and military, the Saudis are now assessing how to maintain their vital ties to Washington amid bipartisan criticism ― and are expected to build on recent steps to signal goodwill, like releasing jailed activists. Biden spoke with Saudi King Salman, the prince’s father, on Thursday.
On the campaign trail, Biden had said that given the country’s abuses, he expected to treat it as a “pariah.” He has cut off U.S. assistance for the Saudi intervention in Yemen and frozen huge weapons transfers that Trump planned for the kingdom soon before leaving office.
Still, Biden is not expected to torpedo U.S.-Saudi relations. He has publicly promised to help defend the wealthy kingdom, and soon after his inauguration, the Pentagon said it may ramp up the American troop presence in the country. He also wants to avoid creating the perception that Washington is souring on its traditional Middle Eastern partners as it pursues diplomacy with Iran, which the Saudis and others see as a major threat.
Top lawmakers, human rights activists and some foreign policy analysts say the Saudis’ disturbing track record of abuses ― particularly since the prince, known as MBS, consolidated power beginning in 2015 ― should make the U.S. extremely cautious about the relationship.
“Biden’s expressions of toughness against Saudi Arabia may be intended to appease the U.S. public without altering the decades of U.S. support for the House of Saud,” Annelle Sheline of the Quincy Institute think tank wrote in a Wednesday blog post. She said the president cannot let the kingdom be “a pariah with benefits.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Biden’s Friday move should be “only a first step.”
“We must also ensure that there are real consequences for individuals like MBS; if not, autocrats around the world will get the message that impunity is the rule,” Menendez said in a statement.