‘There’s not a smoking gun but a smoking saw…’
(Michael Mathes, AFP) Two key Republican senators said a Tuesday briefing by the CIA’s director only strengthened their conviction that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince directed the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The White House, meanwhile, has downplayed possible links between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the October killing of journalist and palace critic Khashoggi at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
“I have zero question in my mind that the crown prince directed the murder and was kept appraised of the situation all the way through it,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker told reporters after CIA director Gina Haspel briefed a small group of senators.
“If MBS were in front of a jury, he’d be convicted in less than 30 minutes,” Corker said, using the prince’s initials.
Fellow Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally who has joined a growing collection of lawmakers urging the president to take a far tougher stance against Riyadh, also attended the hour-long closed-door briefing, and minced no words afterwards.
The crown prince is “crazy” and “a wrecking ball” who is “complicit in the murder of Mr Khashoggi to the highest level possible,” Graham said in withering criticism of an American ally.
“There’s not a smoking gun but a smoking saw.”
Graham’s comments directly countered those by top Trump administration officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who just last week said there was “no smoking gun” implicating the crown prince.
Trump questioned the CIA’s analysis of the intelligence and expressed his intention not to get involved in the official investigation being led by Saudi Arabia into the murder. The Arab nation is a longtime strategic ally and trade-partner helping to balance the influence of Russia and Iran in the Middle East.
However, as evidenced at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires last weekend, the stigma has likely had a chilling effect on U.S. relations with the Saudis even if no overt tension exists.
U.S. newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, have reported that the CIA has evidence that Prince Mohammed exchanged 11 messages with his close aide Saud al-Qahtani, who allegedly oversaw the murder, just before and after it took place.
Some of the most important evidence may be an audio recording of the murder that Turkey said it has distributed. Graham said that was not played in Tuesday’s briefing.
‘He is Dangerous’
The Saudi government went into damage control mode, with a spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy, Fatimah Baeshen, saying the kingdom maintains its “steadfast” commitment to the U.S.–Saudi relationship and does “categorically reject” accusations linking the prince to the killing.
“At no time did HRH the Crown Prince correspond with any saudi officials in any government entity on harming Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen,” she said on Twitter.
Graham stressed that he believes the crown prince has put the decades-long U.S.-Saudi relationship at risk.
“If the Saudi government is going to be in the hands of this man for a long time to come, I find it very difficult to be able to do business, because I think he’s crazy, I think he is dangerous,” he said.
After reports that the CIA concluded that the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s assassination in the Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2, Trump warned that U.S.-Saudi ties and oil market stability were too important to rock over the scandal.
Under mounting pressure from lawmakers who wanted action against Riyadh, Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told senators there was no direct evidence linking the crown prince to the murder.
Graham rejected their assessment outright, saying “you have to be willfully blind” not to conclude that the murder was orchestrated by people under Prince Mohammed’s command.
Democrats provided similar reactions after the briefing, which was given to leaders of Senate committees that focus on national security.
“I am now more convinced than I was before—and I was pretty convinced—that in fact the United States must have a strong response to both the war in Yemen as well as the killing” of Khashoggi, Senate Democrat Bob Menendez said.
Like the Saudi prince, Menendez himself is believed to have dodged both justice and political consequences over a series of egregious alleged ethical and sex offenses, though none of the allegations against him rose to the level of murder.
With many senators furious about being excluded from the briefing, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer demanded Haspel “brief the full Senate without delay.”
The Yemen legislation, which may face another procedural vote this week, could set up a bitter year-end Senate floor fight over U.S. war powers. Some lawmakers, like Graham, want a bill with teeth that will punish Saudi Arabia, while others are keen not to antagonize the White House.
There are several proposals in the works, including freezes on all U.S. arms sales to Riyadh and tightening sanctions on those involved in Khashoggi’s murder.