Intelligence report on Jamal Khashoggi's murder released

By Melissa Macaya, Meg Wagner and Veronica Rocha, CNN

Updated 6:14 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021
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4:10 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

Despite promise to punish senior Saudi leaders, Biden doesn't penalize crown prince

From CNN's Kaitlan Collins, Kevin Liptak and Vivian Salama

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images/FILE

Despite promising to punish senior Saudi leaders while on the campaign trail, President Biden declined to punish the one the US intelligence community determined is responsible for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

The choice not to punish Prince Mohammed directly puts into sharp relief the type of decision-making that becomes more complicated for a president versus a candidate, and demonstrates the difficulty in breaking with a troublesome ally in a volatile region.

On Friday: Biden's administration released an unclassified intelligence report on the Khashoggi's death, an action his predecessor refused to take as he downplayed US intelligence.

The report from the director of national intelligence says the crown prince, known as MBS, directly approved the killing of Khashoggi. But while a sanctions list from the Treasury Department listed a former deputy intelligence chief and the Saudi Royal Guard’s rapid intervention force, the crown prince wasn't listed. 

Two administration officials said there was a concern that sanctioning MBS was never really an option, operating under the belief it would have been “too complicated” and could have jeopardized US military interests in Saudi Arabia. As a result, the administration did not even request the State Department to work up options for how to target MBS with sanctions, one State Department official said. 

State Department officials said that the Biden administration made a point not to upend any working-level discussions between the two countries because the security relationship is so important.

More context: In November 2019, Biden promised to punish senior Saudi leaders in a way former President Trump wouldn't. 

"Yes," he said when directly asked if he would, "And I said it at the time. Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered, and I believe on the order of the crown prince. And I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them, we were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them the pariah that they are."

2:50 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

US sanctions elite Saudi force known as "Tiger Squad" and former Saudi intel official over Khashoggi murder

The US Treasury slapped sanctions on the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force known as the "Tiger Squad" and former deputy head of Saudi General Intelligence Presidency for their role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“Those involved in the abhorrent killing of Jamal Khashoggi must be held accountable. With this action, Treasury is sanctioning Saudi Arabia’s Rapid Intervention Force and a senior Saudi official who was directly involved in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement Friday. “The United States stands united with journalists and political dissidents in opposing threats of violence and intimidation. We will continue to defend the freedom of expression, which is the bedrock of a free society.”

The Rapid Intervention Force was mentioned in the US intelligence report on the murder of Khashoggi which was declassified today.

“The RIF-a subset of the Saudi Royal Guard-exists to defend the Crown Prince, answers only to him, and had directly participated in earlier dissident suppression operations in the Kingdom and abroad at the Crown Prince's direction. We judge that members of the RIF would not have participated in the operation against Khashoggi without Muhammad bin Salman's approval,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence report wrote.

2:37 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

State Department enacts "Khashoggi Ban" visa restriction

From CNN's Kylie Atwood and Ellie Kaufman

Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced a new “Khashoggi Ban,” which includes visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals believed to be involved in “threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing,” he said in statement just after a long-awaited report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was declassified. 

“The Khashoggi Ban allows the State Department to 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,” Blinken said in a statement. “Family members of such individuals also may be subject to visa restrictions under this policy, where appropriate.”

Blinken made it clear that these Saudi individuals will not be allowed to visit the US. The names of the list were not disclosed which is the normal policy of the State Department.

“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,” Blinken said.

The 76 Saudi individuals subject to visa restrictions “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing,” Blinken said.

He said that these visa restrictions, in conjunction with the report, will reinforce condemnation of Khashoggi’s murder.

“Alongside the transmission of that report, and as part of the President’s pledge, the United States Government is announcing additional measures to 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,” Blinken said. 

He said that the actions taken fit in the context of the Biden administration’s grander thinking on Saudi Arabia. 

“While the United States remains invested in its relationship with Saudi Arabia, President Biden has made clear that partnership must reflect U.S. values. To that end, we have made absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents, and journalists must end. They will not be tolerated by the United States,” Blinken said.

He also said that the State Department will now “report on any such extraterritorial activities by any government in our annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The United States will continue to shine a light on any government that targets individuals, either domestically or extraterritorially, merely for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

2:51 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

Khashoggi's fiancé says she is more "devastated than ever before"

From CNN's Madalena Araujo

In an emotional phone interview, Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, told CNN, “I am [more] devastated than ever before" following the report from the US intelligence community that claims Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince approved the operation to capture or kill the Washington Post journalist.

"Now I believe he will never come back," Cengiz said.

She called on world leaders to take action “for justice for Jamal.”

Cengiz was waiting for Khashoggi outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul the day he was killed.

 

Watch here:

1:43 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

House and Senate intelligence committee chairs praise release of Khashoggi report

From CNN's Jeremy Herb

The chairs of the Senate and House intelligence committees have each released separate statements praising the Biden administration's decision to release the unclassified report containing details about the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

“For too long, the United States failed to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the brutal murder of journalist, dissident, and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi. I’m encouraged to see the new administration taking steps to rectify that by releasing this long-overdue congressionally mandated report into his killing," Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in the statement.

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also commended the administration for the release of the report.

"For years, the House and Senate have pressed for this measure of accountability, and I’m grateful to President Biden and Director of National Intelligence Haines for making this report public as we requested," Schiff said in a statement.

"The highest levels of the Saudi government, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are culpable in the murder of journalist and American resident Jamal Khashoggi, and there is no escaping that stark truth laid bare in the Intelligence Community’s long overdue public assessment," he continued.

Schiff went on to call on the Biden administration to "take further steps to diminish the United States’ reliance on Riyadh and reinforce that our partnership with the Kingdom is a not a blank check.”

1:41 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

The report's conclusion was not expected to be a surprise. Here's why it matters.

From CNN's Nicole Gaouette

The US intelligence community just released a report on Jamal Khashoggi's murder. Its basic conclusion was not expected to be a surprise.

Shortly after Khashoggi's October 2018 killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the CIA assessed with high confidence that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman had personally ordered the murder. In June 2019, a United Nations investigator found that it was "inconceivable" the royal heir hadn't been aware of the operation.

Then-President Trump, however, refused to condemn the Saudi prince, even after it became clear that Saudi Arabia's initial claims that Khashoggi's killing was a rogue operation were baseless. Instead, Trump dismissed intelligence that the prince had had a hand in the killing, saying that "maybe he did, maybe he didn't," and stressing that billions of dollars in US arms sales to Saudi Arabia weren't worth sacrificing over the matter.

In contrast, President Biden declared during a November 2019 Democratic presidential candidates' debate that "Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered, and I believe on the order of the crown prince."

What the report's release means: The report's release will be just the latest shift Biden is making, with support from Congress, in relations with US ally Saudi Arabia. Democratic lawmakers are expected to introduce a resolution on Friday to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for Khashoggi's death and dismemberment as well as other human rights violations. 

Biden and administration officials have stressed that they are committed to the kingdom's security. At the same time, the President has ended US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen launched by the crown prince six years ago. Biden has also ordered an end to some weapons sales to the kingdom and will soon release the report, which is expected to highlight the prince's lawless abuse of fundamental human rights.

2:00 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

Khashoggi operation would not have been carried out without crown prince's authorization, report says

From CNN's Jeremy Herb

The long-awaited intelligence report regarding the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi says that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has “absolute control” of the Saudi intelligence and security operation, meaning such an operation to target Khashoggi would not have been carried out without his authorization.

“Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom's security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince's authorization,” the report says.

The report says that the 15-person Saudi team that arrived in Istanbul in October 2018 when Khashoggi was killed included members associated with the Saudi Center for Studies and Media Affairs (CSMARC) at the Royal Court, led by a close adviser of bin Salman, as well as “seven members of Muhammad bin Salman's elite personal protective detail, known as the Rapid Intervention Force (RIF).”

CNN's Kaitlan Collins breaks down the report: 

1:32 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

Biden spoke to the Saudi King yesterday ahead of the report's release

From CNN's Nicole Gaouette

Saudi's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud
Saudi's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images/FILE

President Biden spoke with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud yesterday, ahead of the release today of the long-awaited US intelligence report on the killing of Saudi insider turned dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

The US intelligence report on Khashoggi's murder says that that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman was responsible, saying he approved the operation to capture or kill Khashoggi.

There was no mention of Khashoggi on the White House readout of the call yesterday, which said Biden welcomed the release of several Saudi-American activists and "affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law."

When asked Thursday by a reporter if it was a good call, the President replied, "Yes."

A source close to the Saudi government told CNN it "went well."

Some more context: Biden and administration officials have stressed that they are committed to the kingdom's security. At the same time, the President has ended US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen launched by the crown prince six years ago.

Biden has also ordered an end to some weapons sales to the kingdom and will soon release the report, which is expected to highlight the prince's lawless abuse of fundamental human rights.

1:23 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

What you need to know about Khashoggi's 2018 murder

Jamal Khashoggi, looks on during a press conference in the Bahraini capital Manama, on December 15, 2014.
Jamal Khashoggi, looks on during a press conference in the Bahraini capital Manama, on December 15, 2014. Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images

The US just released an intelligence report about the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and a Washington Post columnist. Khashoggi was critical of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies.

He was killed and allegedly dismembered on Oct. 2, 2018, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by men with close ties to the highest levels of the Saudi government and bin Salman.

Shortly after Khashoggi's killing, the CIA assessed with high confidence that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman had personally ordered the murder. In June 2019, a United Nations investigator found that it was "inconceivable" the royal heir hadn't been aware of the operation. 

Then-President Trump, however, refused to condemn the Saudi prince, even after it became clear that Saudi Arabia's initial claims that Khashoggi's killing was a rogue operation were baseless. Instead, Trump dismissed intelligence that the prince had had a hand in the killing, saying that "maybe he did, maybe he didn't," and stressing that billions of dollars in US arms sales to Saudi Arabia weren't worth sacrificing over the matter.