On Feb. 26, the Biden administration disclosed perhaps the worst-kept secret in Washington: The U.S. intelligence community blames Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, for ordering the operation that ended in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
The paper includes the following sentence: “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” Based on this, calls to sanction the crown prince and putative Saudi leader bellowed throughout Washington. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee was pleased the word was finally out. “There is no escaping that stark truth laid bare in the Intelligence Community’s long overdue public assessment,” he said.
This public assessment was based almost entirely on a classified one prepared shortly after Khashoggi was murdered, in early October 2018. At the time, this paper was sent throughout the United States government and its conclusions were widely leaked to the press. Last week’s follow-up makes no reference to intercepts, human sources, or any other kind of espionage that would give its analysis evidentiary weight. Instead the key judgment about the Saudi crown prince is based on inference and supposition. “We base this assessment on the Crown Prince’s control of decision making in the Kingdom since 2017, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Mohammad bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”
The 2018 classified assessment also lacked hard proof of the crown prince’s role in Khashoggi’s murder. Kirsten Fontenrose, who was serving as senior director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council at the time of Khashoggi’s murder, told me this week that she believed the 2018 assessment—on which the 2021 assessment is based—was “an abuse of the intelligence community’s power.” She was so concerned at the time that she warned the CIA that if the report was included in the president’s daily intelligence briefing, she would attach a memo that warned him, “this is intelligence based on supposition and triangulation and being used to force your hand.”
In October 2018, word leaked that Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist and former aide to Saudi spy chief Prince Turki al Faisal, had been murdered. The crime scene was the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Turkish authorities soon released videotape and passport photos of the alleged assailants. A tragic disappearance soon became an international scandal. All the while, the Saudis offered a series of pathetic denials, until MBS himself was shamed into taking moral responsibility for what he still insists was a rogue operation.
The scandal infuriated members of both parties in Washington. By December of 2018, Congress passed a resolution blaming the crown prince for Khashoggi’s demise. In 2019, a provision was included in the bill authorizing the defense budget requiring that an unclassified assessment of the role Saudi leaders played in the Khashoggi operation be sent to Congress.
Despite the pressure, the Trump administration resisted calls to declassify the intelligence assessment. A news story about a gruesome murder of a “U.S. resident” in Istanbul soon turned into another battle in the Trump wars. The president said there was no smoking gun. His spies insisted there was.
Cries of “cover-up” echoed from the rooftops of Washington, as streets were renamed in Khashoggi’s honor. For the Washington establishment, the Khashoggi story was a morality play about the politicization of intelligence: Bad presidents like Donald Trump cherry-pick classified facts to support their preferred policies, while intelligence community leaders fearlessly speak truth to power. In this case though, it was the intelligence community that sought to portray supposition as fact, egged on by a press corps that saw itself engaged in a cosmic struggle of good versus evil with the president.
Fontenrose was not a political appointee, but rather a career civil service officer who worked for presidents of both parties in the Pentagon and the State Department. She left the National Security Council in late 2018 because she clashed with senior Trump White House officials. Before she left, she was working on the American policy response to Khashoggi’s murder, which included imposing sanctions on many of the same Saudi officials Biden just imposed sanctions on for participating in Khashoggi’s murder.
Fontenrose told me that the declassified document released last month used very similar language to the classified report that crossed her desk in 2018. “The only piece of this that is high confidence is the last paragraph,” she said, noting that this paragraph lists the names of the Saudi henchmen who were outed by Turkish intelligence at the time, but makes no mention of the Saudi crown prince.
Phrases like “high confidence” are important to intelligence assessments because they convey how certain the analyst is of the conclusion. The 2021 document does not state the degree of confidence analysts had in the conclusions about Crown Prince Mohammed’s culpability. A spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence told me the intelligence community had “high confidence” in the overall unclassified product. “We have been in the moderate to high confidence range since 2018. Since that time, additional information has bolstered our confidence in the longstanding pillars of our analytic judgment and this has allowed the IC to get to high confidence,” the spokesperson said.
The chances that Crown Prince Mohammed’s closest aides would approve an operation against one of his well-known and vocal opponents without approval from the crown prince himself are indeed quite low. But presuming that MBS, as the crown prince is often known, signed on in some way to the operation is very different than presenting proof that he personally ordered Khashoggi’s murder. Nor does it seem reasonable to necessarily assume that the Saudis intended to murder a highly visible regime opponent inside their own consulate in Turkey—a country with which the kingdom has had uneven relations. Rather, the Khashoggi killing has many hallmarks of an attempted kidnapping gone wrong.
This distinction matters a great deal to American foreign policy. Fontenrose told me that the 2018 assessment provided no “smoking gun” proof of the crown prince’s role in a murder plot. “Without that smoking gun there is insufficient justification to trash the U.S.-Saudi relationship when bin Salman is going to lead that country for decades unless the U.S. wants to get back into the business of regime change.”
After Fontenrose’s argument with the CIA, the agency then went on to produce a less classified version of the report, making it possible to spread it far and wide. “That meant that every senior national security adviser on the hill now had access to it,” Fontenrose said. “They released it on the day Congress came back into session, knowing that these guys would all come back from recess and it would cause an explosion.”
So why would the Biden administration throw a wrench in the U.S.-Saudi relationship? One answer is that the administration wishes to distance the United States from Saudi Arabia. Strategically, the administration’s announced intention to draw closer to Iran by reentering a 2015 nuclear deal necessarily means widening the distance between America and the Saudis—who fear and loathe the Iranian regime with whom they are currently fighting a proxy war in Yemen. The release of the assessment came after the Biden administration announced that it would stop supplying arms to Saudi allies in Yemen and would no longer list their Houthi opponents as terrorists.
From the CIA’s perspective, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman humiliated the agency in 2017 when he named MBS his heir. The agency had a long and fruitful relationship with Muhammad bin Nayef, who was crown prince from 2015 to 2017. When MBS was named as crown prince, bin Nayef was stripped of his titles and government duties. MBS, in an effort to consolidate his power, then targeted bin Nayef and other rivals to the throne, seizing his bank accounts in 2017 and last year ordering his arrest—greatly diminishing the CIA’s influence networks within the kingdom.
Close readers of the news would have known from the beginning that the foundations on which this morality play rested were cracked. As The Wall Street Journal’s Warren Strobel reported in 2018, the CIA’s assessment lacked “direct reporting of the Crown Prince issuing a kill order.” And while the headline read, “CIA Intercepts Underpin Assessment Saudi Crown Prince Targeted Khashoggi,” the story itself conceded that the CIA was in fact unable to read the crown prince’s communications with the adviser who oversaw the operation that resulted in Khashoggi’s gruesome murder. This kind of nuanced reading was rare in the Trump years. Judging by the response from many in the media to the declassified report on Khashoggi’s murder, it will remain rare in the Biden years as well.
Eli Lake is a syndicated columnist for Bloomberg and a fellow at the Clement Center for National Security at the University of Texas, Austin.