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Why Senate reaction to CIA Khashoggi briefing is ‘unprecedented’

After a briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel, several prominent Democratic and Republican senators have concluded that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was indeed involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the significance of the bipartisan criticism of Saudi Arabia and three options for how U.S. policy could respond.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, CIA Director Gina Haspel today briefed a dozen U.S. senators about the October murder of a Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

    The Saudi government claims the murder was a — quote — "rogue operation." But the senators who were briefed believe responsibility lies near the very top of the Saudi royal family, with the powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS.

    Here are Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker, who's chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

  • Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.:

    I have zero question in my mind that the crown prince, MBS, ordered the killing, monitored the killing, knew exactly what was happening, planned it in advance. If he was in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes, guilty.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    There's not a smoking gun. There's a smoking saw.

    You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organized by people in — under the command of MBS and that he was intricately involved in the demise of Mr. Khashoggi.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Our foreign affairs correspondent, Nick Schifrin, is here now to walk us through the latest.

    Some rally strong language there, Nick, from these senators, but what does it mean? How significant is it?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Well, I think we should pause for a second and just examine the words.

    I mean, these are unprecedented. This is unprecedented bipartisan criticism against Saudi Arabia. Remember, these are senators who have defended Saudi Arabia in the past, despite human rights abuses in the past, senators who have defended said Arabia even after 9/11. Nine Saudis participated in 9/11.

    They called a Saudi Arabia strategic ally, now calling Saudi Arabia a strategic liability. We don't know what happened in that briefing, because it was classified, but we heard a couple of hints there.

    One, Senator Graham saying a smoking saw, seemingly a confirmation of something that Turkish officials have said, which this team that flew from Saudi Arabia to Istanbul to murder Khashoggi brought a bone saw, clearly indicating premeditation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's been — that evidence has been confirmed, or…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Not officially. Not officially by…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's a lot of reference to it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There's only reference to it, and mostly from Turkish officials.

    But, really, they came out very strongly talking about MBS, Mohammed bin Salman, being — orchestrating this attack. Remember, that's not what the president says. This really does put the senators against U.S. policy.

    Mattis, Pompeo, the secretaries, came to the Hill last week and said, you cannot punish MBS. You cannot punish Saudi Arabia, because they're so important to what we're doing, confronting Iran, trying to get Israeli-Palestinian piece.

    Graham said, look, I need to hear from Gina Haspel.

    He has heard from her now and came out very strongly against the administration's defense of MBS.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, when it comes to policy, what exactly can the Senate do?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, that's the big question.

    So, what the senators said today is, they want to distinguish between Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia. They want to somehow punish the prince without affecting the strategic alliance.

    There's a couple of options on the table right now. One is a bill from Senator Sanders and Lee that would end the war in Yemen that is basically being led by the Saudis. There's some problems with that. Some of it is controversial. But over 60 senators voted to have a vote on that next week, and that will probably happen. But that's just about Yemen.

    The second option goes further. It's a bill sponsored by Senator Menendez, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, along with Senator Graham, that would end arms sales to Saudi Arabia and require sanctions on anyone connected to Jamal Khashoggi's death.

    And there's a third option, which Senator Graham raised today, which is some kind of sense of the Senate, MBS is guilty and ordered Khashoggi's murder, again, more of a guilt MBS and don't change the Saudi relationship.

    But Senator Bob Corker today said, look, this is really hard. We don't have consensus. Maybe the president should just come out and criticize MBS and call him responsible for the murder.

    And so there's no guarantee that the Senate can turn all this rhetoric into policy change. It's rare, as you know, for senators to try and forcibly change foreign policy of the administration — clearly an indication today that bipartisan senators want to do just that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tricky to separate the person who's in charge of a country, or almost in charge of a country, from policy toward the country overall.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's right.

    And Mohammed bin Salman is really the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nick Schifrin, thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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