People hold posters picturing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and lightened candles during a gathering outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, on October 25, 2018.

People hold posters picturing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and lightened candles during a gathering outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, on October 25, 2018. YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images

Khashoggi Report Blames MBS; Biden Skips Sanctions For Crown Prince

Punishing MBS would put the United States in a “hostile” position with Riyadh, an administration official told reporters.

The American intelligence community concluded that Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved a “capture or kill” operation that resulted in the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, according to a long-awaited assessment made public by the Biden administration on Friday. 

The Treasury Department on Friday also issued sanctions against some Saudi intelligence and security forces for their involvement in the assassination. The Biden administration will not levy penalties against bin Salman himself, U.S. officials told reporters.

“We assess that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” read the intelligence assessment, which was issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and dated Feb. 11. “We base this assessment on the Crown Prince's control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman's protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince's support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”

The intelligence agencies’ conclusion that bin Salman was behind Khashoggi’s murder was already publicly known from news reports, and the four-page document released on Friday revealed few previously unknown details. Much of the intelligence underlying the assessment remains classified. But its release nevertheless represents a shift in the U.S. approach towards the Gulf kingdom under President Joe Biden, who has vowed to recalibrate the relationship to reemphasize human rights. Then-President Donald Trump declined to publicly attribute the killing to the crown prince and stood by him in the midst of a wave of international outrage.

But how significant that shift is in practice remains to be seen. The Biden administration’s decision not to sanction bin Salman is likely to frustrate human rights advocates who have long argued that the crown prince should face accountability for the killing. 

“There is still far more to do to ensure that the Saudi government follows international law,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “There should be personal consequences for MBS — he should suffer sanctions, including financial, travel and legal — and the Saudi government should suffer grave consequences as long as he remains in the government.”

A senior administration official who briefed reporters said that to sanction bin Salman would put the United States in a “hostile” position with Riyadh, and that "the aim is recalibration, not a rupture, because of the important interests that we do share.”

Saudi authorities have long denied bin Salman’s involvement and blamed his murder on a “rogue operation” by a team of agents sent to return him to Saudi Arabia. Five individuals were sentenced to 20 years in prison last September. 

The intelligence community has rejected that assertion, claiming in the report that bin Salman has had “absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence operations” since 2017, “making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince's authorization.”

The document also names the individuals who carried out the killing and dismemberment.

The release of the report comes at a delicate moment in U.S.-Saudi relations. Biden has sought to maintain the broader strategic relationship with Riyadh while still moving to curtail some arms sales and support to the Kingdom used in its campaign in Yemen, as well as pushing the Kingdom on other human rights issues. The Friday release of the report came only after two days of careful diplomatic outreach, including phone calls between Biden himself and King Salman, and between Secretary of State Tony Blinken and his counterpart. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to bin Salman on Feb. 18 “to reaffirm the strategic defense partnership between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

What long-term impact that the public attribution will have on the U.S.-Saudi relationship remains to be seen. Although most of the report’s conclusions were already public, the grisly circumstances of Khashoggi’s killing still holds the power to outrage in Washington. Khashoggi was a legal resident of Virginia and wrote for the Washington Post

In 2018, Trump in 2018 reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to “standing with Saudi Arabia” even though “it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of” Khashoggi’s murder, citing the value of U.S. arms sales to Riyadh and the Kingdom’s role in Trump’s strategy to constrain Iran. 

"I saved his ass," Trump said of bin Salman to the Post’s Bob Woodward, according to his 2020 book Rage. "I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop."

The report’s release was long in coming. In 2019, Congress mandated that the executive branch provide it with an unclassified accounting of the intelligence community’s conclusions about Khashoggi’s death. The Trump administration never complied, but newly-installed National Intelligence Director Avril Haines in her confirmation hearing committed to releasing the report. 

Biden has made clear that he will only speak directly with the aging King Salman, a stark departure from the Trump administration, which dealt at the highest levels with the crown prince. Whether Biden will be able to successfully bypass the crown prince, and the nation’s de facto ruler, is also unclear. 

The State Department also announced the so-called Khashoggi Ban on Friday, which will allow the United States 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.” 

It has taken action under the new policy against 76 Saudi individuals, some in association with the Khashoggi killing, Blinken said in a statement.