CIA director Gina Haspel found herself at the center of a political dispute Tuesday amid reports that the White House was blocking her from briefing Senators on the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Illinois Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Tuesday that senators were told Haspel will not participate in Wednesday’s all-Senate classified briefing alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis despite indications that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle would like to hear from her directly about the CIA’s assessment regarding Khashoggi’s killing.
“We were told that she would not be attending the briefing for members of Congress,” Durbin said.
“That is extraordinary when we are dealing with the Khashoggi situation, the assertion by the State Department and intelligence agencies, her absence is obvious and its noted, and it raises a serious question as to whether this administration is giving us the whole truth,” he added.
A US official confirmed that Haspel will not attend the briefing, citing the fact that it is a policy-oriented meeting on Yemen and not a situation a CIA director would typically be involved in alongside the defense secretary and secretary of state.
Specifically, Haspel may be able to provide details related to a tape which contains audio of the killing of Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in early October.
White House national security adviser John Bolton dismissed questions on Tuesday about whether he has listened to the recording and President Donald Trump has previously said that he declined to listen to the audio.
Senate Foreign Relations chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, has suggested that the planned Wednesday briefing from Mattis and Pompeo alone would not be sufficient to answer the growing number of questions about Khashoggi’s death.
And claims that the White House was actively working to prevent her from testifying only fueled concerns about Trump’s willingness to appropriately respond to the murder.
The CIA declined to comment on what led to the decision that Haspel will not brief lawmakers Wednesday.
A Senate aide told CNN that the White House is responsible for determining who briefs the Senate on behalf of the administration, and they seem determined to ignore requests from Corker to include an appropriate intelligence briefer, which could include Haspel or Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
Another congressional aide said Tuesday that the White House is attempting to “hide” Haspel in an attempt to prevent her from sharing details that may not align with its public response to Khashoggi’s murder.
“If they were confident in their story they would send her to the US Senate and have her brief US senators. But the fact that they are hiding her and not allowing her to tell the Senate what she knows … it really tells you all you need to know,” the aide said.
But Bolton denied claims that the White House was preventing Haspel from participating in the briefing, responding “certainly not” when asked about the reports.
Trump has rankled top lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in recent weeks by signaling he will not take strong action against Saudi Arabia or its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, for the murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi.
The President has also raised doubts about the CIA’s assessment connecting the regime to the murder.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders pushed back on the assertion Tuesday that Trump does not believe Khashoggi was killed at the direction of the crown prince.
“We haven’t seen definitive evidence come from our intelligence community that ties him to that,” she said.
A US official told CNN last week that there is still is no smoking gun implicating the crown prince directly and the intelligence assessment is ongoing. Intelligence officials have said the CIA presented the President with a confidence-based assessment given the facts of the situation.
Though sources tell CNN that the CIA has assessed with high confidence that the prince directed Khashoggi’s murder, which was conducted by members of bin Salman’s inner circle, the fact that they don’t make a final conclusion gives the White House an out.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell raised concerns about the “abhorrent” actions by Saudi Arabia during a press briefing when asked if he believes the crown prince and others should be punished for Khashoggi’s killing.
McConnell noted that senators are currently discussing how to respond but would not answer CNN’s question if Haspel should attend Wednesday’s briefing.
Congressional lawmakers have continued to push for answers from the administration despite the White House’s public response.
Corker warned Monday that there will be “a lot happening” in Congress on Saudi Arabia, including a vote as soon as this week calling for an end to US involvement in Yemen, as he renewed demands for Haspel to brief senators on Khashoggi’s murder.
As lawmakers continue to discuss potential options for a response, Trump has signaled he will not take strong action against Saudi Arabia or bin Salman.
Two sources told CNN on Monday that the US has “slammed the brakes on” a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a limited ceasefire and increased humanitarian aid in Yemen over concerns about angering Saudi Arabia.
One source familiar with the negotiations over the resolution tells CNN the US “has slammed the brakes on,” saying that “we can’t support a resolution at the moment.”
The source also said the move is at odds with what US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has been signaling to her counterparts at the UN, since she was supportive of the planned resolution weeks ago.
The White House declined to comment as did the US Mission to the United Nations.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert responded by stating that “negotiating the Security Council Resolution is important as we look to increase international consensus around Yemen.”
“Our main focus at this time is offering our support for UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths who is making progress in his negotiations with the Republic of Yemen and the Houthi rebels,” she said.
The reason for the delay continues to be a White House worry about angering Saudi Arabia, which strongly opposes the resolution, multiple sources say. CNN reported earlier this month that bin Salman “threw a fit” when presented with an early draft of the document, leading to a delay and further discussions among Western allies on the matter.
CNN’s Pamela Brown, Ted Barrett and Michelle Kosinski contributed to this report.