The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion New Khashoggi revelations show we don’t have the full story about his killing. The Biden administration must disclose what it knows.

An image of Jamal Khashoggi projected onto the front of the Newseum in Washington in October 2019. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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Sarah Leah Whitson is the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), the organization founded by Jamal Khashoggi.

Two recent revelations about the murder of Saudi journalist and Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — including that four members of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s hit team, known as the “Tiger Squad,” received paramilitary training in the United States, and that Egypt allegedly provided them the lethal poison they used to kill Khashoggi — are just tips of an iceberg of information that still remains hidden.

Who else outside of Saudi Arabia was involved in this crime? What did U.S. officials know, and when, about plans to kill him? What else does the Biden administration know that it might not be telling us? Will they question Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to the United States and currently its deputy defense minister, during their meetings with him when he comes to Washington this week, about his own role in the murder, including phone records of his communications with Khashoggi?

The U.N. report by its special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, previously disclosed that the plane of several of the Saudi hit team members stopped in Cairo on their way back from Istanbul after killing Khashoggi. But evidence that the hit team stopped in Cairo on their way to the murder to collect the poison emerged only this month.

A Yahoo News investigation revealed that the plane stopped in Cairo en route to the murder in Istanbul on Oct. 2, based on information from Plane Finder, an app that tracks the course of flights by their tail numbers. Yahoo News also uncovered a Saudi prosecutor’s statement, recorded in a Turkish official’s notes from the secret Riyadh trial of the lower-level hit team members, that they stopped in Cairo in order to pick up the poison. The plane itself was owned by Sky Prime Aviation, a company seized by the Saudi crown prince in 2017 and now owned by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, which he chairs. The stopover in Cairo certainly buttresses the piles of evidence that the Saudis planned to kill Khashoggi from the get-go, although who in the Egyptian government coordinated the delivery of the poison remains unknown.

We also now know, because of reporting by the New York Times, that Tier 1 Group, a U.S. security contractor (staffed by former U.S. military officials) and owned by the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management (currently staffed by some prominent Trump administration allies and officials) provided military training, approved by the U.S. government, to four Tiger Squad members just a year before the murder. Louis Bremer, a senior Cerberus executive who sat on the board of Tier 1, told the Senate last year during his failed confirmation hearing for a Pentagon job that he was “not aware” that his company had trained hit squad members, though their names were public by then. But he later confirmed their training in written testimony that the Trump administration kept hidden from Congress, in an apparent attempt to cover up for more than just MBS. Coincidentally, Cerberus CEO Stephen Feinberg, whom Trump also tried to place into a top intelligence job last year, gave over $3.2 million to pro-Trump PACs and recently hired former Trump official and Saudi apologist Brian Hook as a vice chairman at Cerberus.

President Biden has talked a good game about holding Khashoggi’s murderers accountable, even promising during his campaign to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But not only has his administration refused to sanction MBS — the chief architect of the murder — and continued arms sales under the moniker of “defensive weapons,” it now seems like it’s keeping a lid on critical information about Khashoggi’s killing.

While the administration gloated about its transparency when it finally released the two-page summary of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s report concluding that MBS ordered the crime, it’s still refusing, in a lawsuit pending against the intelligence community, to release the CIA’s records related to the killing. This includes the identities of those responsible and the audio recordings of the murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which Turkish intelligence gave them.

And the administration has refused, in a second suit, to release documents requested from U.S. intelligence agencies regarding who in the U.S. government might have known about the plans to kill Khashoggi, what they knew and whether they considered warning him. This is required by law, since he was a U.S. resident.

It’s very hard to believe that American officials were not closely monitoring the U.S.-trained Saudi hit men. They were certainly surveilling the top Saudi echelon: The CIA intercepted 11 WhatsApp messages from MBS to his senior henchman, Saud al-Qahtani, who orchestrated Khashoggi’s killing, in the hours before and after the murder, as well as the calls that the crown prince’s brother Khalid bin Salman made to Khashoggi soliciting him to go to Istanbul.

The Biden administration also won’t tell us what the CIA may have known about Egypt’s role, including who in Egypt’s government furnished the Saudis with the illegal narcotics, though it’s hard to imagine that Abbas Kamel, Egypt’s iron-fisted intelligence chief, didn’t know about it.

It’s clear that the Biden administration isn’t really interested in fundamentally altering its relationship with the unaccountable Saudi and Egyptian governments, much less ending its military and political support for both of them. Regardless of the State Department’s occasional, throwaway lines about human rights, values and democracy, the message that the despots ruling both those countries have taken from Washington is they need not worry that anything will radically change. The United States still has their back, no matter how awfully they continue to terrorize their citizens.

But the Biden administration has an absolute duty to protect people in the United States from targeted attacks abroad, like the Saudi plot to lure Khashoggi from Washington to Istanbul in order to kill him, and countless other efforts to spy on and abduct critics of Saudi Arabia in the United States since then.

We need to know what U.S. officials knew about the plot to kill Khashoggi, who those officials were and why they failed to warn him. Much of this information is critical to DAWN’s own civil lawsuit against MBS and his co-conspirators for Khashoggi’s murder, one of the very last chances for judicial accountability.

We also need to know what the Biden administration is doing to protect people in the United States right now from ongoing Saudi and Egyptian attacks on their critics abroad. And will the administration actually end the reckless training of security forces of abusive governments by the U.S. military and private American contractors? In some cases, that training has led to the killing of Americans, such as the 2019 Saudi air force officer’s attack on a U.S. military base in Florida that killed three and injured eight. Persisting in protecting and supporting the Middle East’s worst tyrants will always come back to hurt Americans, too, as we have painfully learned.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Egypt’s top spy is visiting Washington. He ought to answer these questions.

David Ignatius: The Biden administration’s Saudi problem

Areej Al-Sadhan: Saudi Arabia sentenced my brother to 20 years for tweeting. This could be his last chance.

The Post’s View: Biden gave Mohammed bin Salman a pass. Now his victims are piling up.

David Ignatius: The United States failed Khashoggi. It can protect others like him.