WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of senior senators on Tuesday said that a classified briefing by the CIA director had only solidified their belief that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, ordered the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
Mohammed "is a wrecking ball," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters after an hourlong briefing by Gina Haspel, the CIA director. "I think he's complicit in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi to the highest level possible."
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the Appropriations Committee chairman, echoed that "all evidence points to that, that all this leads back to the crown prince."
"This is conduct that none of us in America would approve of in any way," Shelby said.
The clear and biting assessment put Republican senators at odds with the White House, which has steadfastly refused to cast blame on Saudi Arabia's leadership for the death of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist. His killing sparked an international outcry over the kingdom's heavy-handed tactics and renewed attention to the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Last week, the White House dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis to persuade senators to stay the course with Saudi Arabia, a key Middle East ally, in the interest of national security.
But U.S. officials have said that the CIA has concluded that Mohammed ordered the Oct. 2 killing. The intelligence agency is also believed to have evidence that the crown prince communicated repeatedly with an aide who commanded the team that assassinated Khashoggi, around the time of the journalist's death.
Senators, however, were divided as to what steps to take next, after a stinging vote last week to consider a measure cutting off U.S. military aid to Saudi Arabia's campaign.
"Somebody should be punished, but the question is: How do you separate the Saudi crown prince from the nation itself?" Shelby said.
Graham said he would not vote for the Yemen resolution. Instead, he said, he would rally support for a different, broader effort against the kingdom -- to cut off arms sales and military aid for the war in Yemen, and to impose new sanctions on those responsible for the killing, including the crown prince.
"There is not a smoking gun, there's a smoking saw," Graham said, referring to a bone saw that Turkish officials have said was used to dismember Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. "You have to be willfully blind" not to see it, he added.
But Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who was not at Tuesday's meeting, said that "as a member of the intelligence committee and someone who has reviewed all the intelligence, I know of no reason to dispute what Secretary Mattis and Secretary Pompeo said last week, which is there is no direct evidence of involvement or direction by the crown prince in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi."
Cotton noted that U.S. intelligence officials are "trying to give the president and the Congress the best picture they can of what happened," adding that "you can't ever rule anything out."
Tuesday's closed session in the basement of the Capitol came after senators from both parties demanded that Haspel provide details of intelligence about the killing, exasperated that Pompeo and Mattis had only lobbied for the continued war support in Yemen.
After emerging from the classified discussion, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., head of the Foreign Relations Committee, said there was "no question in my mind" that the crown prince had ordered the killing.
"The royal family looks to what the president says, and so do people in the region," he said.
Referring to Mohammed by his initials, Corker added, "It would appear to them, based on what's been said, that someone like M.B.S. can murder people and have immunity. That's the reason it's important to address this differently than the way it's been addressed."
Information for this article was contributed by Frank E. Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 12/05/2018
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