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Jake Tapper presses WH comms chief on Saudi sanctions
01:47 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

When the Biden administration announced a ban on dozens of Saudis from traveling to the US in response to intelligence that the kingdom’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had approved the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it was rolling out a plan that had been spiked by the Trump administration and brought back to life once President Joe Biden took office.

Dubbed the “Khashoggi Ban” by the State Department, the measure issued visa restrictions on 76 Saudis and their families. The plan had initially been drafted by the Trump administration, which shelved it over fears of alienating the key Middle Eastern ally. While Biden’s team had contemplated the idea during the transition, once they were in office they found that career State Department officers had already worked up the plan, according to people familiar with the policy’s development.

“The work was done,” a senior Trump administration official confirmed, noting that the plan was rejected by “consensus recommendation” after it had been sent up and discussed by the most senior officials in the Trump administration.

Once Biden was sworn in, new officials appointed to the State Department arrived with “a very similar concept already in mind,” a Biden administration official said. They asked the career experts who had fleshed out the plan under Trump what could be done to bring it to fruition.

Ultimately, the list of 76 Saudis on the “Khashoggi Ban,” whose names the State Department has said it will not publish, had been sent to Congress in February 2020 as part of a classified report of actions the department was considering under then Secretary Mike Pompeo, an official who has seen the lists told CNN.

While it’s not unusual for an administration, especially early on, to use an idea that had been considered by past White Houses, it is notable that the Biden team would implement a policy that had been discussed at such high levels under Trump, given how critical the incoming President and his foreign policy team were of the Trump administration’s handling of the Saudis.

“It is fairly normal for departments and agencies to float previously considered policies up for review when new administrations come in,” said Javed Ali, a longtime national security official who served under both Trump and President Barack Obama. “This is especially the case in the first few months of any new administration.”

The visa ban on the 76 Saudis was paired with sanctions against one Saudi official and the crown prince’s personal protective team, the Rapid Intervention Force. But no direct punishment was aimed at the crown prince himself, who was specifically named at the top of the long-awaited unclassified intelligence report as having approved the murder of Khashoggi.

For many, including lawmakers in both parties, human rights activists and Khashoggi’s former fiancée, that fell well short of Biden’s campaign promise to take a tougher stance against Saudi Arabia and make it, “the pariah that it is.”

The goal now, the Biden administration argued last week, is “recalibration” with Saudi Arabia, not “rupture.”

“Any country that would dare engage in these abhorrent acts should know that their officials – and their immediate family members – could be subject to this new policy,” a senior State Department official said in a statement. “We expect it will have a deterrent effect the world over.”

The Trump administration had disagreed, feeling the visa ban would be counterproductive, the senior Trump official told CNN. The ban was “judged to be symbolic, ineffective, and likely to drive the Saudis into Russian [and] Chinese embrace,” the official said.

While former President Donald Trump was roundly criticized for refusing to single out the crown prince, known as MBS, for being responsible for Khashoggi’s death, his administration did impose sanctions on 17 Saudis involved.

When the intelligence report came out on Feb. 26, the Biden administration announced the “Khashoggi Ban,” and the new sanctions aimed at the crown prince’s protective team and one former senior Saudi intelligence official, Ahmad al-Asiri. But sanctions were never considered for MBS himself, according to administration officials. It was never a “viable option” and would be “too complicated,” multiple administration officials said, with the potential to jeopardize US military interests.

In responding to criticism it didn’t go far enough against MBS, the Biden administration has defended itself by pointing to early moves it’s taken against Saudi Arabia: ending US support for the war in Yemen, a review of arms sales, and placing a heavier focus on human rights.

When Biden’s top intelligence official, Avril Haines, released the unclassified report on Khashoggi’s murder, she was making good on a promise to Congress to publish it. The release was required by law, which was ignored by the Trump administration.

Still unexplained is why on the day the long-awaited report was published, the Office of Director of National Intelligence quietly took it down and replaced it with a second version in which three names were removed.

ODNI refused to fully explain why the names had been taken off, beyond saying they “should not have been included.”

Last week, ODNI sent a classified explanation for the mistake to Capitol Hill, according to an official who has seen it and who said the three men were indeed connected to Khashoggi’s murder.

“It was not some accident the three names were on one version of the report,” the official said.

ODNI declined to comment on its clarification to Congress.

The error, which now appears to be a clumsy revelation of classified information, is all the more glaring because the Biden administration said the report didn’t contain any new information and had been briefed to Congress over a year ago. Yet none of the three names have been previously mentioned in connection with Khashoggi’s death.

One of the three men whose names were removed, Abdulla Mohammed Alhoeriny, is a senior counterterrorism official whose brother is the head of Saudi Arabia’s Presidency of State Security. It’s not known whether he or the others are among the 76 who’ve been banned from traveling to the US.

CNN’s Vivian Salama and Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.