More than 100 days after the disappearance and murder of Saudi writer and Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump administration has refused to reveal what the U.S. intelligence community knows about the killing. Now, a new Congress and a leading nongovernmental organization are renewing calls for justice and transparency from both the Saudi and U.S. governments.
In Riyadh on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated his mantra that “every single person responsible” for Khashoggi’s brutal murder in October in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul should be held accountable. Pompeo encouraged the Saudi government to continue its investigation to ascertain “facts” and punish the perpetrators. He told the media that both King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) “acknowledge that this accountability needs to take place” and “reiterated their commitment to achieving the objective.”
The absurdity of Pompeo calling on the alleged murderers to catch the murderers is bad enough. In November, President Trump declared he doesn’t care whether MBS was involved, stating, “it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!" Trump said he didn’t want to lose the commercial arms deals that Saudi Arabia has given to the United States.
The Trump administration’s defense of MBS is built upon its denials of a reported CIA assessment that MBS ordered the murder. That CIA “high confidence” assessment was reportedly supported by intercepts of electronic messages between MBS and Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser who is on the list of Saudi officials sanctioned by the U.S. government in November.
Pompeo has attacked the reporting on the CIA assessment as “inaccurate” and said there is no “direct evidence” tying MBS to the murder. The CIA hasn’t commented. There’s now a growing effort to declassify and release the assessment, to see whether Pompeo is being truthful and whether MBS’s guilt can be proved.
Last week, the Open Society Justice Initiative, a nonpartisan human rights project, filed a lawsuit against the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, seeking to compel them to disclose the CIA’s assessment of the Khashoggi murder to the public. Open Society brought the legal action in the Southern District of New York under the Freedom of Information Act.
“The full disclosure of these records is a vital step towards ending impunity for the perpetrators, no matter how powerful they might be, and allowing the public to evaluate for itself how the U.S. government is responding to this flagrant disregard for the rule of law,” said Amrit Singh, who directs the initiative’s project on national security and counterterrorism.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last week that the new Congress will pursue justice and accountability for Khashoggi’s murder because it’s clear the Trump administration will not.
“The assault on Khashoggi was an attack on our democratic principles and our democracy, really,” she said at a Capitol Hill event marking the 100-day anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder, hosted by the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Commercial transactions, whatever they may be, or even a strategic location is not a license to kill.”
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who previously served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told the audience that true accountability must include calling out and punishing MBS himself.
“If the administration will not do what is right, Congress can, and I think Congress will,” he said. “We can and we should wipe the smug smile of impunity off of Mohammed bin Salman’s face, and restore proper balance to our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
Open Society has asked for expedited processing because time is of the essence. In early February, the Trump administration is required to report to Congress on its investigation of the Khashoggi murder. That deadline was triggered when the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote to Trump in October, invoking a human rights law known as the Global Magnitsky Act.
In November, the Trump administration sanctioned 17 Saudi officials under the Global Magnitsky Act, including Qahtani, but not MBS. The coming report will force Trump to defend that call. The administration may claim the CIA assessment is too sensitive to release, but Congress isn’t buying it.
“As long as it can be done in a way that protects sources and methods, and I believe that should be possible, it’s an appropriate request given what seems to be the secretary of state’s lie about the conclusions of the intelligence community,” Malinowski told me.
Pompeo’s repeated claims that the administration is sincerely searching for the truth about Khashoggi’s murder are undermined by his refusal to acknowledge what the U.S. intelligence community has already concluded. The executive branch will clearly not seek justice for this atrocity, so the legislative and judicial branches have no choice but to step in.