A damning new report released by the Biden administration's Office of National Intelligence on Friday appears to confirm what national security and foreign policy experts have long suspected: that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was directly responsible for the 2018 murder of U.S.-based Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkey.
The intelligence report bases its assessment that "Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi" on a number of interrelated factors, including "the Crown Prince's control of decision making in the Kingdom since 2017, 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 Crown Prince has long disavowed responsibility for Khashoggi's murder, declaring in a 60 Minutes interview in 2019 that he "absolutely" did not order the assassination, but as leader of his country takes "full responsibility" for the crime. But despite his protestations, American intelligence agencies had long believed bin Salman was behind the attack on a journalist widely seen as one of the Saudi royal family's harshest critics. Despite that deeply held assessment, the Trump administration conspicuously appeared willing — if not overtly eager — to avoid blaming the Crown Prince for Khashoggi's murder.
A bizarre, rambling statement issued in 2018 by then-President Trump shortly after a CIA report also pointed to bin Salman's role in the murder cautioned that "the world is a very dangerous place!" and that" it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn't!"
President Biden, meanwhile, prefaced Friday's intelligence report with a phone call to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud on Thursday. While the official White House readout of the call did not include mention of Khashoggi's murder, or the Crown Prince's alleged role therein, it did state that the two leaders "affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law." Biden has long publicly stated that he believed Khashoggi's murder had been carried out on the orders of bin Salman, stating during a 2019 Democratic presidential primary debate that "Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered. I believe on the order of the Crown Prince."
During a press briefing last week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki described Biden's plans to "recalibrate" the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Although the exact nature of that recalibration is still unclear, State Department spokesman Ned Price hinted that the Biden administration might be open to more proactive responses to Khashoggi's assassination, saying, "I expect that we will be in a position before long to speak to steps to promote accountability going forward for this horrific crime."