WASHINGTON — Key Senate leaders emerged from a briefing Tuesday with CIA Director Gina Haspel convinced that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince was complicit in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and that Congress must respond by penalizing the kingdom.
“He murdered him, no question in my mind,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said of Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the killing. “The crown prince directed the murder and was kept apprised of the situation all the way through.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who had demanded the Haspel briefing, called the crown prince a "wrecking ball" and suggested the evidence against the prince, known by his initials MBS, was overwhelming.
"I think he’s complicit to the highest level possible,” Graham said.
"There’s not a smoking gun. There’s a smoking saw," Graham added, a reference to reports that the Saudi operatives who killed Khashoggi used a bone saw to dismember him after the murder. Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, was killed inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 by a team of Saudi operatives.
Only about 10 senators were allowed to attend the briefing with Haspel on Tuesday. They included the chairmen and ranking members of four key committees, including the Senate intelligence panel and the Armed Services Committee. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., were also in the closed-door, classified session.
McConnell and Schumer left the briefing without talking to reporters.
But Corker, Graham and others said the only question now was how Congress would respond. Graham said he would push legislation to sanction the crown prince and other high-level Saudis involved in Khashoggi’s killing and halt arms sales to the regime. He said he also wanted the Senate to pass a non-binding resolution naming Mohammed as responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
"Saudi Arabia's a strategic ally and the relationship is worth saving, but not at all costs," Graham said. "We’ll do more damage to our standing in the world by ignoring MBS" than by confronting him.
Lawmakers were infuriated last week when Haspel declined to brief lawmakers on Khashoggi's murder. Senators wanted to hear directly from Haspel because the CIA has reportedly concluded that the Saudi crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s murder. But the Saudi government has denied that, and President Donald Trump has cast doubt on the CIA's conclusions.
Last week, the Trump administration dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to brief lawmakers, and both men played down the U.S. intelligence on Mohammed's involvement.
Pompeo told reporters last week there was "no direct reporting connecting" the crown prince to the killing, and Mattis said there was no "smoking gun" implicating him.
Graham suggested the two cabinet secretaries were being "willfully blind" in their statements because the Trump administration does not want to confront Saudi Arabia over the murder.
"I’m going to assume they’re being good soldiers," the South Carolina Republican said. "I think 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."
Haspel's closed-door briefing came as the Senate considers legislation that would force the Trump administration to end its military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has caused a horrific humanitarian disaster. That measure could become the main vehicle for penalizing Saudi Arabia's role in Khashoggi's death.
Corker said he is trying to craft an amendment to that proposal that would directly rebuke Saudi Arabia and the crown prince for Khashoggi's murder, separating the murder from the war in Yemen. He said combining the two issues would make it more complicated to win broad bipartisan support.
"Temperatures are up by all involved," Corker said. "So figuring out something that can pass overwhelmingly still is going to be difficult."
But Democrats have signaled they want the war in Yemen to be part of any legislative response.
"The United States must have a strong response to both the war in Yemen as well as the killing of a United States permanent resident and journalist," said Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Last week, senators voted 63-to-37 to advance the Yemen measure, a direct rebuke to President Trump's warm embrace of Saudi Arabia. The timing for further debate and final passage is unclear.
Pompeo has warned lawmakers against ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where the U.S. is providing logistical assistance, munitions, and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
"Abandoning Yemen would do immense damage to U.S. national security interests and those of our Middle Eastern allies and partners," the secretary of state told lawmakers last week, according to excerpts released by the State Department.