PRESIDENT TRUMP and his top aides keep insisting there is no “direct evidence” or “smoking gun” connecting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A new leak from the CIA underlines just how disingenuous those claims are. According to an agency assessment reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, the crown prince had at least 11 exchanges of messages with a top aide around the time a hit team overseen by that aide was entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and ambushing Mr. Khashoggi.
It was already known that the 15-member hit team was headed by an official, Maher Mutreb, who is close to Mohammed bin Salman, and included at least four other operatives connected to the prince’s personal security detail. It was known that Mr. Mutreb called Saud al-Qahtani, the crown prince’s closest associate, from the consulate and told him to “tell your boss” that Mr. Khashoggi was dead. Now we also know that Mr. Qahtani and Mohammed bin Salman exchanged numerous messages at this time.
According to the Journal, the CIA assessment says, “It is highly unlikely this team of operators . . . carried out the operation without Mohammed bin Salman’s authorization.” Its conclusion that the crown prince “personally targeted” Mr. Khashoggi and “probably ordered his death” is labeled as “medium-to-high confidence.”
So, yes, there is no “direct evidence” — but any reasonable assessment must conclude that the crown prince is responsible. That the Trump administration refuses to draw that conclusion means its policy toward the kingdom is based on denying reality.
Whether the United States preserves or alters its present relationship with Saudi Arabia, the starting point must be recognizing the truth about the regime and its reckless de facto ruler. That’s why there ought to be an independent international investigation of the Khashoggi case. In addition, congressional leaders should insist that CIA Director Gina Haspel appear before relevant committees to lay out the agency’s evidence and answer questions.
After the administration offered spin rather than hard intelligence to senators last week, the chamber voted overwhelmingly to advance a War Powers Act resolution that would stop U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in Yemen. That was a good first step, but legislators should support legislation that is broader. One bill with bipartisan sponsorship would require the administration to sanction anyone in the Saudi leadership connected to the Khashoggi killing and suspend all military sales to Saudi Arabia. That could be offered as an amendment to the War Powers Resolution.
Saudi Arabia remains a “semi-important ally” of the United States, as Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) aptly put it last week. But Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman are not synonymous, and the crown prince is, as Mr. Corker said, “out of control” — a conclusion underlined by the jubilant high-five with which the prince greeted Russian President Vladimir Putin, another murderer of journalists, at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires. If Mohammed bin Salman is not sanctioned and restrained, he will continue to damage U.S. interests in the Middle East — which is why Congress must act.