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Opinion What did U.S. spy agencies know about threats on Khashoggi — and when?

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Bahrain in 2015. (Hasan Jamali/AP)

Saudi Arabia must conduct a serious, no-holds-barred investigation of the apparent gruesome murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The kingdom’s relationship with the United States, and its access to global financial markets, hangs in the balance.

But in the meantime, the Senate and House intelligence committees should begin an urgent oversight investigation of what U.S. spy agencies knew about threats against Khashoggi — and also into their broader reporting and analysis on Saudi Arabia and its headstrong crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

This congressional inquiry should focus first on the intelligence agencies’ “duty to warn” Khashoggi about any lethal threat, because his U.S. residency qualified him as a “U.S. person” for whom such a warning was required. It should look, too, for any hint that U.S. intelligence about MBS, as the crown prince is known, has been skewed by the Trump White House for political reasons. And the investigation should examine the larger problem of U.S. visibility into the kingdom, which has too often been a black hole for our spy agencies.

Columnist David Ignatius and editor Karen Attiah remember Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post, Photo: Courtesy of Hatice Cengiz/The Washington Post)

A congressional inquiry would blunt an apparent White House effort to put a lid on Saudi-related information. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) complained Wednesday: “I suppose they don’t want us to see the intel.”

The bottom line: Saudi Arabia is at an existential tipping point. The United States urgently needs to understand how the kingdom got into this grisly mess, and where it’s going.

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A Saudi friend tells me that we are at an unanticipated fulcrum of history, a bit like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, or the failed plot by German officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. Khashoggi’s apparent death may seem unimportant by comparison, but it has begun a chain of events that could alter the Middle East.

This congressional inquiry should be secret, because it would involve highly sensitive information. The committees should review every Saudi-related item included in the President’s Daily Brief since President Trump took office. If the daily briefing missed important developments, why? Did the CIA prepare a psychological profile of MBS? What did it say? Did the intelligence community augment its collection as reports emerged about Khashoggi’s death? Did the White House or the National Security Council make any special tasking requests? Did Trump or his aides ignore or dismiss any vital intelligence?

Here are some specific questions I hope would guide the committees’ inquiry:

● From King Salman’s accession in January 2015, what was the role of the Allegiance Council, the body that supposedly oversees Saudi political transitions? What did the CIA know about the council’s quick ratification of MBS’s elevation to deputy crown prince in April 2015 , and to crown prince in June 2017? How do the analysts assess the council’s potential role now, with MBS under a dark cloud of suspicion?

● When MBS replaced Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince, did U.S. intelligence have advance warning? Did the close personal relationship between MBS and Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner affect U.S. assessment of the putsch against Nayef, a longtime CIA partner? Did the pro-MBS tilt affect U.S. intelligence collection or analysis in other ways?

● When MBS ordered the arrests in November 2017 of more than 200 Saudis — including many princes — what assessment did the intelligence community offer? When Gen. Ali al-Qahtani, an aide to one of the sons of the late King Abdullah, died in captivity, did the CIA try to discover what happened?

● When the Saudis tried during the summer of 2016 to arrest and kidnap from overseas a prominent businessman critical of MBS, was U.S. intelligence aware? Gen. Yousuf bin Ali al-Idrissi, the deputy chief of intelligence who had allegedly been sent to organize this “rendition,” was reportedly fired after he returned home empty-handed. Did the CIA ask why?

● When Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri became deputy chief of intelligence last year, replacing Idrissi, he moved into the crown prince’s inner circle. What did U.S. intelligence do after it learned last month that Assiri was organizing a “tiger team” for covert special operations? What does the intelligence community know about reported Saudi plans this week to identify Assiri as the culprit in Khashoggi’s death?

● Saudi sources tell me that those who oppose MBS are quietly rallying around Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the last remaining son of the founding King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. Have U.S. intelligence agencies provided the White House any assessments about Ahmed’s views and political prospects? Would he stabilize the kingdom after the MBS earthquake, or produce greater instability?

These are intrusive questions, but that’s the essence of good oversight. The congressional intelligence committees were created for moments like this. The committees need to do their job, urgently. A U.S. resident appears to have been brutally murdered in Istanbul. What did U.S. intelligence know, and when did it know it?

Twitter: @IgnatiusPost

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Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: There’s no perfect answer on Khashoggi. So don’t expect Trump to have one.

Jamal Khashoggi: What the Arab world needs most is free expression

Anne Applebaum: Saudi Arabia’s information war to bury news of Jamal Khashoggi

Max Boot: Trump has given every despot on the planet a license to kill