The U.S. on Friday released a 2018 intelligence report that concluded the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian agents in Turkey was done “on behalf” of and “approved” by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who considered the regime critic a threat to the kingdom.
Congress and the White House were briefed on the formerly classified report in November 2018, one month after Khashoggi’s death, and its general conclusions were widely reported. The U.S. Treasury sanctioned 17 Saudis linked to the killing, but took no action against bin Salman, often referred to as MBS, or the kingdom. Then-President Donald Trump rebuffed calls to release the report and falsely asserted that U.S. intelligence was not certain about bin Salman’s role.
President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s decision to release the report could have implications for relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Biden has been critical of the Saudi record on human rights, particularly since King Salman, MBS’s father, came to power in 2015, and since taking office Biden has halted military aid to the Saudis’ war in Yemen and lifted the terrorist designation placed on Houthi rebels during the Trump administration.
Karen Elliott House, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and editor for The Wall Street Journal who covered the Middle East and foreign affairs for more than three decades before retiring as the paper’s publisher in 2006, is now a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Elliott House spoke with the Gazette about the report, how Biden is likely to approach U.S.-Saudi relations, and what that could mean for the region.
Karen Elliott House
GAZETTE: We already knew the CIA implicated the crown prince. What else did we learn that was significant or surprising in the report? Why did Biden put out the report when the matter had long faded from the headlines, other than fulfilling a somewhat back-burner campaign promise?
ELLIOTT HOUSE: There are no surprises in the report. No smoking gun. The case against the prince is circumstantial, as it was when the report was concluded more than two years ago. Essentially, the intelligence community concluded that an operation involving close associates of the prince who intimidates all around him could never have taken place without his approval.
Biden seems to want to humiliate the crown prince anew by releasing the report at Congress’ insistence. Democrat activists in Congress who despise the abrasive crown prince in large part because he was close to Donald Trump will undoubtedly push President Biden to take more punishing actions against the crown prince and Saudi Arabia than merely releasing old news blaming him for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
This is potentially very dangerous, as President Biden likely will find himself dealing with the 35-year-old prince because his ailing father, King Salman, seems unlikely to survive the next four years.
Indeed, no sooner did Biden release the report than he or his team leaked to The New York Times that he isn’t going to punish Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman because the “diplomatic cost” is “too high.”
But that will not be the final word. Biden is going to find himself pushed by a Democrat pack to alienate the de facto Saudi leader more than he intends. The Biden administration should beware of unintended consequences. The crown prince is combative and has demonstrated he sometimes acts before thinking through the consequences of his actions. While the release of this report is political, it could spiral into actions and reactions that damage U.S. interests in the Mideast.