The Biden administration will take no direct action against Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman following the release of a US intelligence assessment that concluded he ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The long-awaited report was released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on Friday, more than two years after dissident Khashoggi was murdered by a hit squad at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the report noted.
The assessment was based on “the crown prince’s control of decision making in the kingdom since 2017, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Mohammed bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the crown prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi”.
Soon after the release of the report, the State Department announced sanctions against 76 Saudi individuals who it said had engaged in threatening dissidents overseas. The sanctions will apply to some who were believed to have been involved in Khashoggi’s murder.
The report was compiled by US intelligence agencies soon after the brutal killing of Khashoggi in October 2018 , but had not been released by the Trump administration due to fears it would impact arms sales worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the kingdom.
Donald Trump cited the economic benefits of the US relationship with Saudi Arabia as a reason for not acting on the killing of Khashoggi, who worked as a columnist for the Washington Post.
“I only say they spend $400 to $450 billion over a period of time, all money, all jobs, buying equipment,” Mr Trump said in 2019 when asked for his response to a United Nations report into the killing. “I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them.’ And by the way, if they don’t do business with us, you know what they do? They’ll do business with the Russians or with the Chinese.”
The decision to declassify the intelligence report is an early indication that Joe Biden’s administration is likely to take a tougher approach with the long-time US ally.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday that the administration has been clear that it will “recalibrate our relationship” with Saudi Arabia. Mr Biden announced earlier this month that the US would halt its support for a Saudi Arabia-led military campaign in Yemen.
The release of the report was followed by an announcement by the State Department of new measures which it claimed would “reinforce the world’s condemnation of that crime, and to push back against governments that reach beyond their borders to threaten and attack journalists and perceived dissidents for exercising their fundamental freedoms”.
Secretary of state Antony Blinken said the so-called “Khashoggi Ban” would impose visa restrictions on individuals “who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities, including those that suppress, harass, surveil, threaten, or harm journalists, activists, or other persons perceived to be dissidents for their work, or who engage in such activities with respect to the families or other close associates of such persons”.
“As a matter of safety for all within our borders, perpetrators targeting perceived dissidents on behalf of any foreign government should not be permitted to reach American soil,” Mr Blinken added in a statement.
The State Department is also said to be considering a halt to the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia.
But the Biden administration’s response to the murder was conspicuous for the absence of any specific sanctions targeting Prince Mohammed, who the ODNI report found to have ordered the operation. During his presidential campaign, Mr Biden had promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for the murder.
One senior Biden administration official told Reuters they are seeking a “recalibration (in ties) – not a rupture. That’s because of the important interests that we do share.”
But some Democrats are calling for tougher action against the crown prince. Elizabeth Warren welcomed the report’s release “so the whole world can see Mohammed bin Salman for who he is.”
But she added: “Nobody should escape consequences for their role in this assassination. All pending arms sales to the Saudis should be cancelled and the administration should conduct a wholesale review of the US-Saudi relationship.”
The ODNI, a cabinet-level agency that coordinates between US intelligence arms, said the killing could not have been carried out without his approval.
“Since 2017, the crown prince has had absolute control of the kingdom’s security and intelligence organisations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the crown prince’s authorisation,” it said.
Khashoggi was working as a columnist for the Washington Post when he was killed by a hit squad which included members of Prince Mohammed’s security team. The 59-year-old had gone to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to collect documents needed to obtain a licence to marry his fiancee Hatice Cengiz.
Ms Cengiz waited outside while Khashoggi entered the building to receive the documents. Inside, he was set upon by the hit squad, who strangled him and dismembered his body. His remains have never been found.
A Turkish bug planted at the consulate reportedly captured the sound of a forensic saw, operated by a Saudi colonel who was also a forensics expert, dismembering Khashoggi’s body within an hour of his entering the building.
The prince said in 2019 he took “full responsibility” for the killing since it happened on his watch, but denied ordering it.
Saudi officials have said Khashoggi’s killing was the work of rogue Saudi security and intelligence officials. Saudi Arabian courts last year announced they had sentenced eight Saudi nationals to prison in Khashoggi’s killing. They were not identified.