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Senators accuse Saudi prince of complicity in Khashoggi murder

Following a briefing from the CIA director, lawmakers said the evidence of Mohammed bin Salman's involvement in the assassination was overwhelming.

Gina Haspel, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, waves while walking to a meeting with Senators on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 7, 2018. (Zach Gibson / Bloomberg)
Gina Haspel, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, waves while walking to a meeting with Senators on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 7, 2018. (Zach Gibson / Bloomberg)Read moreZach Gibson / Bloomberg (custom credit) / Bloomberg

WASHINGTON - Senators emerged from a closed-door briefing with the CIA director on Tuesday and accused the Saudi crown prince of complicity in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In some of their strongest statements to date, lawmakers said evidence presented by the U.S. spy agency overwhelmingly pointed to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's involvement in the assassination.

"There's not a smoking gun, there's a smoking saw," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., referring to the bone saw that investigators believe was used to dismember Khashoggi after he was killed by a team of Saudi agents inside the country's consulate in Istanbul in October.

Graham made clear that the crown prince's involvement in the killing had caused a breach in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and said the United States should come down on the government in Riyadh like "a ton of bricks." He said he could no longer support arms sales to the Saudis as long as Mohammed was in charge.

"Saudi Arabia's a strategic ally and the relationship is worth saving - but not at all costs," Graham said.

The accusations by Graham and other lawmakers were all the more striking because they followed a briefing from CIA Director Gina Haspel, who had come to lay out the agency's classified assessment, based on multiple sources of intelligence, that Mohammed likely ordered the killing of Khashoggi, who was a Washington Post contributing columnist.

"This just confirmed what I thought all along: This all leads up to the crown prince," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala. "It would defy logic to think" someone other than Mohammed was responsible, Shelby said, noting that members of the prince's own royal guard are believed to have been part of the team that killed Khashoggi.

"Somebody said, 'Well, we don't have a smoking gun.' Well, you don't have a smoking gun in a lot of criminal investigations, but we know what happened here."

President Donald Trump and senior members of his administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, have insisted that no single piece of evidence irrefutably links Mohammed to the killing.

But the senators, in effect, said that doesn't matter, because the evidence they heard convinced them beyond the shadow of a doubt.

"If the Crown Prince went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations.

Graham leveled sharp criticism at Pompeo and Mattis.

"I think Secretary Pompeo and Mattis are following the lead of the president," Graham said, adding that one would "have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion" that Mohammed was "intricately involved in the demise of Mr. Khashoggi."

"It is zero chance, zero, that this happened in such an organized fashion without the crown prince," Graham continued, echoing one of the CIA's central conclusions that no operation so brazen as the killing of a prominent critic of the royal family on foreign soil could have happened without the knowledge of the crown prince, who is a notorious micromanager and exercises total control over the government.

"The reason they don't draw the conclusion that he's complicit is because the administration doesn't want to go down that road - not because there's not evidence to suggest it," Graham said.

"I would imagine if they were in a Democratic administration I would be all over them for being in the pocket of Saudi Arabia," Graham said of the secretaries, "but since I have such respect for them, I am going to assume that they are being good soldiers . . . I would really question somebody's judgment if they couldn't figure this out."

Trump has said the potential value of arms sales to the Saudis, as well as the country's strategic check on Iran, are too important to jeopardize over the killing of a journalist, an act that he has condemned.

Haspel, who was notably absent last week from an all-senators briefing with Pompeo and Mattis, had faced mounting pressure to speak to lawmakers and more fully explain the CIA's findings. Lawmakers complained that the Trump administration was depriving Congress of key information about the killing by refusing to order Haspel to go to Capitol Hill and explain the CIA's assessment.

Some senators had accused the White House of barring Haspel's participation in last week's briefing. But CIA spokesman Timothy Barrett said nobody told Haspel not to appear.

Her closed-door appearance on Tuesday was for a select number of senior lawmakers, including Senate leaders and the heads of national security committees with an interest in Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, which the United States supports, and the intelligence on Khashoggi's killing, according to multiple people familiar with the plans.

In a brief interview with The Washington Post, Graham said he was "very impressed with [the CIA's] analysis and their conclusions," noting that Haspel had brought a team from the agency.

Graham declined to say what the CIA officials had told lawmakers, but he noted, "you can be assured it was thorough and the evidence is overwhelming."

The CIA has concluded that Mohammed probably ordered the killing, based in part on intercepted communications involving him and a key aide, who is alleged to have overseen the team that killed the journalist inside the Saudi consulate, according to people familiar with the matter.

The spy agency also analyzed other intercepted communications and listened to audio provided by Turkey from inside the consulate, people familiar with the CIA's conclusions said.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said that senators had asked Haspel to return later and provide the same briefing to all members of the chamber.

Next Thursday, House members are supposed to receive a briefing on Yemen and Saudi Arabia similar to the one that the Senate received last week, with Pompeo and Mattis. Thus far, Haspel has not committed to attend.

Last week, the Senate took the historic step of voting to take up a resolution, spearheaded by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, where thousands of civilians have been killed and, according to the United Nations, millions are at risk of starvation.

For some of the 14 Republicans who supported the procedural step last week, the vote was intended as a warning shot to Trump, to inspire him to start openly condemning Mohammed or withholding military support from the Saudis.

Haspel's briefing may have been designed to placate some of those senators, such as Graham, who last week said he would not support "any key vote" until the CIA director spoke to senators about the agency's findings. Graham said Tuesday that he was satisfied with Haspel's briefing and would not be backing the Yemen resolution to its conclusion.

In place of that, he announced that he would be introducing a "sense of the Senate" resolution to specifically condemn Mohammed as responsible for Khashoggi's murder, and that he would not support any future arms sale to Saudi Arabia as long as Mohammed remains in power.

But between the Senate Democrats and the handful of Republicans who firmly believe that U.S. participation in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is either morally repugnant or unconstitutional, supporters of the Yemen resolution have enough support to advance the measure to the stage where lawmakers may propose amendments to it, when the measure faces its next procedural hurdle next week.

Graham and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the co-authors of a bill to sanction Saudi Arabia and curtail almost all weapons transfers to the kingdom, may propose their package of punitive measures as an amendment to the Yemen resolution, as it appears that talks to attach it to a must-pass spending bill have not gained enough momentum.

Speaking to reporters after the Haspel briefing, Menendez, the top Democrat on the foreign relations committee, argued that Congress needs to pass "something strong" in addition to the Yemen resolution that would bring "a real set of consequences."

There are concerns, among Republicans especially, that if the Congress were to invoke the War Powers Resolution for Yemen, it would be challenged by the White House as unconstitutional - further complicating and slowing down what they bemoan has already been a too-sluggish response to Khashoggi's murder

"The administration can easily turn right back around and say 'we're not involved in hostilities,' " Corker said, especially since the United States announced an end to the practice of refueling Saudi aircraft.

Corker said he was working with others to try to come up with a "consensus amendment" to the Yemen resolution that would let the Senate present as strong and as unified a face as possible, to reflect the bipartisan revulsion with Saudi Arabia's conduct.

"We've got a task in front of us: I would like to actually pass something that became law," Corker said, a sideways reference to the fact that House GOP leaders will likely try to stop any Yemen resolution that emerges from the Senate dead in its tracks before it can be taken up in the House.

"There are some people that would like to speak only to the killing of the journalist. There are other people who want to speak to the Yemen issue at large. Trying to pool that together in a manner that unifies Congress is difficult," Corker said. "It would be much better if the commander in chief would stand up and say to the world, we don't condone the ordering, the killing, and the dismemberment of journalists."

Paul Kane and Josh Dawsey contributed reporting.