Trump Likes The US-Saudi Status Quo. Thanks To The CIA, Congress Wants It Upended.

Despite heavy White House pressure, U.S. intelligence officials did their job when it came to investigating Jamal Khashoggi's murder.

WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump is still showering praise on Saudi Arabia in his bid to stay close to the kingdom after Saudi officials murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist. But a plan in the Senate to move this week on serious anti-Saudi legislation shows that away from the White House, the U.S. government has grown far more skeptical of Riyadh, thanks to Capitol Hill becoming more assertive and the intelligence community continuing to gather information about the killing despite political pressure.

It’s evidence that two years into the Trump era, and even before a serious check on his power arrives in January in the form of an opposition-controlled chamber of Congress, some critical American institutions have worked out how to act in their view of the national interest while avoiding the kind of public drama the president often uses to obscure substantive policy.

As Trump cast doubt on indications that his ally Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally directed the killing, intelligence officials followed leads that offered proof of MBS’ role, and used regular dialogue with lawmakers and the media to show they had grounds for what ultimately became a CIA assessment pointing the finger at the prince. And while the president’s team tried to limit senators’ access to CIA Director Gina Haspel, both parties united to demand a briefing with Haspel last week ― one that left senators publicly condemning MBS and itching to act, even in the final days of an outgoing Congress, to show the Saudis their support in Washington is not unconditional.

Intelligence has been key to the Khashoggi scandal since he disappeared at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2. Turkish spying drove early reports that he was brutally murdered, and the Turks’ well-timed leaks kept the killing in the news for weeks. Given the two countries’ importance to American foreign policy and Khashoggi’s status as a U.S. resident, the U.S. intelligence community swung into action too.

By the time Haspel discussed the matter on Capitol Hill, the CIA was in possession of at least 11 messages between MBS and Saud al-Qahtani, the top Saudi directing the hit job; recordings of a phone call in which MBS’ brother, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., urged Khashoggi to go to Turkey; a call between a hit team member and al-Qahtani; and a copy of a Turkish recording from inside the consulate. That’s just what’s been disclosed so far; there are likely further grounds for the agency’s medium- to high-confidence conclusion that MBS was responsible for the assassination. 

It’s a striking amount of work to get to a conclusion the agency’s ostensible boss ― the man who hand-picked Haspel ― doesn’t like. It’s also a reminder that there are limits to how far Trump’s mob-like views on loyalty can spread throughout the federal government.  

“They serve the office of the president... not a candidate, not a politician, not Donald Trump,” Ali Soufan, a former FBI official, said of U.S. intelligence officials’ work. “They briefed the White House, they briefed others about it, and it’s not the first time that Trump did not take the assessment of the intelligence community.”

And just because the president will behave that way doesn’t mean others will follow his lead. Senators are expected to vote Wednesday on an increasingly popular bill from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) that would pull U.S. support for a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and others are working on separate legislation to include sanctions on powerful Saudis, though that will now likely wait until the next session of Congress.

Jamal Khashoggi was killed in Istanbul in October.
Jamal Khashoggi was killed in Istanbul in October.

In the month leading up to this flurry of congressional action, and as frustration grew following Trump aides’ initial effort to prevent Haspel from briefing lawmakers, intelligence officials and their allies tried to ensure their findings would receive serious attention by leaking to the press ― a time-honored method that the national security establishment employs and decries in roughly equal measure.

The first public revelation of the CIA conclusion came in a Washington Post story on Nov. 16. Subsequent reports in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times provided further detail about the extent of the CIA’s material and were more specific about the assessment, saying the confidence level was “medium to high” rather than the initially reported “high.”

“Different media has different sources,” Soufan said, arguing that it was not about a shift in the assessment so much as a question of who felt compelled to talk when.

The Post piece likely came from congressional leaks after initial briefings on the Hill, while the later disclosures seem to have come from “people who are frustrated deeper down in the bowels” of the intelligence community, said a former senior administration official who asked to speak on background to discuss intelligence matters.

In this way, reigniting public pressure helped cut through the denunciations of U.S. intelligence from the president and made it clear that the matter was being investigated like any other intelligence concern ― that is, to the greatest extent possible, but not to the kind of crystal-clear standard Trump was suggesting should be established for MBS to face any consequence. (His line, of course, eventually changed to the idea that the prince was invaluable regardless of whether he was proven to be involved.) 

“It’s not the same as evidence you would see in a court, so sometimes it’s hard for the public,” said Alex Finley, a former CIA official who now provides public commentary using a pen name. “You will almost never in intelligence reach 100 percent.” 

What’s crucial is that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies know they’re not just answerable to the president. Trump often appears to forget that Congress is another of what those agencies call “customers,” Finley said.

Legislation aside, Capitol Hill is now better informed as it acts to shape U.S. policy on how to handle the prince, broader Saudi human rights violations and Middle East maneuvering overall. It also has a chance to build public faith in its efforts to do so, given the widespread public interest in Khashoggi’s case and the interest in rethinking American foreign policy orthodoxies such as the ties with the Saudis. For instance, Congress might consider declassifying some version of the intelligence it’s gleaned, said Ned Price, a former CIA official who worked in President Barack Obama’s White House.

It’s an opportunity to be more honest in discussing a core U.S. political, military and economic alliance that doesn’t have to maintain a status quo where one country feels empowered to use a bone saw on someone who resides in the other country’s borders.

“Given the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia, the intelligence is going to be very, very thorough,” Soufan said.