WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Biden administration is expected to release a declassified U.S. intelligence report on Thursday finding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, four officials familiar with the matter said.
The release would represent the latest move by U.S. President Joe Biden to realign ties with Riyadh after years in which Washington largely gave its key Arab ally and major oil producer a pass on its human rights record, intervention in Yemen’s civil war and other issues.
The report’s release is expected to coincide with the first phone conversation, possibly on Wednesday, between Biden and Saudi King Salman since Biden took over the presidency.
Biden is shifting U.S. policy away from the cozy relationship that the White House of former president Donald Trump had with the crown prince. Biden is working to bring contact with Riyadh back along traditional lines after four years under Trump.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday Biden would only have communications with the 85-year-old Saudi king and said the declassified Khashoggi report was being readied for release and will come out soon.
The 59-year old Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, and killed by a team of operatives linked to the crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. They then dismembered his body. His remains have never been found.
Riyadh eventually admitted that Khashoggi was killed in an “rogue” extradition operation gone wrong, but it denied any involvement by the crown prince. Five men given the death penalty for the murder had their sentences commuted to 20 years in jail after being forgiven by Khashoggi’s family.
Four U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the declassified U.S. intelligence report – to which the CIA was the main contributor - assessed that the crown prince approved and likely ordered the murder of Khashoggi, who had used his Washington Post column to criticize the crown prince’s policies.
A classified version of the report was briefed to Congress in late 2018.
But the Trump administration rejected demands by lawmakers and human rights groups to release a declassified version, seeking to preserve cooperation amid rising tensions with Riyadh’s regional rival, Iran, and promote U.S. arms sales to the kingdom.
Biden pledged during the 2020 presidential campaign to reassess U.S.-Saudi ties in part over Khashoggi’s murder. Since taking office, he has ended sales of offensive arms that Riyadh could use in Yemen and appointed a special envoy to boost diplomat efforts to end that country’s grueling civil war.
Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell