WASHINGTON — Senior senators said Tuesday that a classified briefing by CIA director Gina Haspel left them more convinced than ever that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman played a role in the October death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee and the outgoing chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after the briefing that there was “no question whatsoever” that Prince Mohammed was ultimately responsible for Khashoggi’s death. “If the crown prince went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes,” Corker added.
Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and ranking member of that same committee, said he was “more convinced than [he] was before” that the United States should address the Khashoggi killing and its own role in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Corker and Menendez were two members of a select group of senators to hear from Haspel — the chair and ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee were also in attendance, one senator involved told CNN.
Last Wednesday, Haspel was not in a classified briefing for all senators by Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. She was reportedly absent because the White House instructed her not to join. Haspel reportedly has listened to the tape of Khashoggi’s killing, and the CIA has concluded the crown prince was involved, reportedly drawing from the 11 messages the crown prince sent to the leader of the squad that carried out the hit at the consulate around the time of Khashoggi’s death. The CIA has officially denied that the White House blocked Haspel from joining the original briefing.
In the wake of Haspel’s failure to brief the Senate, senators last week voted to consider a bill ending support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The vote on the bill itself, which is expected this week, was used as leverage by Republican senators to get a briefing by Haspel, congressional Democratic sources told BuzzFeed News.
Senators who voted for the bill to move out of committee included Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and a Trump ally, who said he’d changed his mind on the bill because he was “pissed” with the way the administration handled Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Khashoggi killing.
“Not having Haspel there was such an unforced error by the White House. It pretty clearly implies that she knows things that they don’t want her to share with senators. The fact that they pissed off Graham in particular shows that they’ve caused a real problem,” one Senate Democratic aide said last week. “If Haspel had come, they could have at least made their case, but now, when Haspel eventually does brief the senators, there will be MORE attention, more skepticism, etc.”
The Haspel briefing appeared to confirm Graham’s skepticism toward the White House and State Department line that there was no “direct evidence” to support the crown prince’s role in the killing.
“Business as usual has come to an end for me,” Graham, who was in the briefing as the chair of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations Appropriations, said after the briefing, adding that he wouldn’t support arms sales to Saudi Arabia until justice had been done for all involved, including the crown prince.
The White House has argued that it is not in the US’s economic interest to hold the crown prince personally accountable for the murder.
Graham rejected the administration’s assertion that there was no “smoking gun” proving Prince Mohammed’s involvement. “There’s not a smoking gun, there’s a smoking saw,” he said, a reference to the bone saw allegedly used to dismember Khashoggi’s body at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.
Haspel’s briefing didn’t serve only to convince those allowed in the briefing that the crown prince was responsible for Khashoggi’s killing; it also convinced those who were not allowed in that the White House had something to hide.
“Do you want to know what the deep state is? The CIA director is coming to the US Senate and only briefing a select few members of the Senate,” Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who was not in the briefing tweeted Tuesday morning. “Why shouldn’t every senator know what is going on? The deep state wants to keep everyone in the dark. This is just ridiculous!”
“It is outrageous that the White House is still hiding what they know about the Khashoggi murder from Congress,” tweeted Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who is also a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a driving force against US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. “White House only letting leadership into this briefing. So, for instance, the 3 sponsors of the pending Saudi/Yemen bill, me and [Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders] won’t be there.”
“At some point Washington needs to have a good hard talk about the over-classification of information. Not everything needs to be secret,” he added. “For instance, if our government knows that Saudi leaders were involved in the murder of a U.S. resident, why shouldn’t the public know this?”