WASHINGTON — Senators leaving a briefing with CIA Director Gina Haspel on Tuesday said they are even more convinced that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he believes if the crown prince were put on trial, a jury would find him guilty in “about 30 minutes.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who demanded the briefing with Haspel, said there is “zero chance” the crown prince wasn’t involved in Khashoggi’s death.
“There’s not a smoking gun. There’s a smoking saw,” Graham said, referring to reports from the Turkish government that said Saudi agents used a bone saw to dismember Khashoggi after he was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Graham said “you have to be willfully blind” not to conclude that this was orchestrated and organized by people under the crown prince’s command.
But President Donald Trump has equivocated over who is to blame for the killing, frustrating senators who are now looking for ways to punish the longtime Middle East ally. Senators overwhelmingly voted last week to move forward on a resolution curtailing U.S. backing for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
It’s unclear whether or how that resolution will move forward. The vote last week set up debate on the measure, which could happen as soon as next week, but senators are still in negotiations on whether to amend it and what it should say.
Haspel met with a small group of senators, including the chairmen and top Democrats on the key national security committees, after senators in both parties complained that she didn’t attend a briefing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last week.
Pompeo and Mattis tried to dissuade senators from punishing Saudi Arabia with the resolution, saying U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict is central to the Trump administration’s broader goal of containing Iranian influence in the Middle East. Human rights groups say the war is wreaking havoc on the country and subjecting civilians to indiscriminate bombing.
The two men also echoed Trump’s reluctance to blame the crown prince. Pompeo said there was “no direct reporting” connecting the crown prince to the murder, and Mattis said there was “no smoking gun” making the connection.
After that briefing, Graham threatened to withhold his vote on key legislation until he heard from Haspel. “I’m not going to blow past this,” he said. That afternoon, senators frustrated with the briefing and the lack of response to Khashoggi’s killing overwhelmingly voted to move forward with consideration of the Yemen resolution, 63-37.
Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin said the briefing with Haspel “clearly went in to an evaluation of the intelligence” and was much more informative.
“I went in believing the crown prince was directly responsible or at least complicit in this and my feelings were strengthened by the information we were given,” Durbin said.
Some senators were frustrated that they were not invited to the briefing with Haspel. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a critic of Saudi Arabia, said that excluding some lawmakers is “the very definition of the deep state” and that he suspected that the Trump administration is attempting to get some lawmakers to switch their votes on the resolution by giving them information.
Khashoggi was killed two months ago. The journalist, who had lived for a time in the U.S. and wrote for The Washington Post, had been critical of the Saudi regime. He was killed in what U.S. officials have described as an elaborate plot as he visited the consulate for marriage paperwork.
U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that the crown prince must have at least known of the plot, but Trump has been reluctant to pin the blame. He has touted Saudi arms deals worth billions of dollars to the U.S. and recently thanked Saudi Arabia for plunging oil prices.
In a column for the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Graham wrote that the killing and other moves by the Saudi regime showed “astounding arrogance entitlement” and disregard for international norms.
“We are a coequal branch of government exercising leadership to safeguard the country’s long-term interests, values and reputation,” wrote Graham, a frequent ally of the president. “After all, someone’s got to do it.”
Even if the Yemen resolution passes the Senate, it appears unlikely to advance in the House. Speaker Paul Ryan last week said the Yemen resolution “isn’t the way to go.”
Associated Press writer Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.