Several leading senators briefed by the director of the Central Intelligence Agency said Tuesday that they were left more convinced that the killing of a Saudi Arabian journalist was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and vowed to press forward on ways to penalize Riyadh.
President Trump and members of his administration have said there is no direct link between Prince Mohammed and the brutal Oct. 2 killing of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. But a group of senators reached the opposite conclusion after hearing from CIA Director Gina Haspel.
“I have zero question in my mind that the crown prince directed the murder and was kept apprised of the situation all the way through,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) told reporters after the closed-session briefing. “If he was in front of a jury, he would have a unanimous verdict in about 30 minutes—a guilty verdict.”
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the CIA determined in a highly classified assessment that Prince Mohammed sent at least 11 messages to his closest adviser, who oversaw the team that killed Mr. Khashoggi, in the hours before and after the journalist’s death.
The Saudi leader also had told associates in August 2017 that if efforts to persuade Mr. Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia weren’t successful, he could be lured to someplace outside the country, with “arrangements” made for his return, according to the assessment, a communication the CIA said “seems to foreshadow the Saudi operation launched against Khashoggi.”
Fatimah Baeshen, a spokeswoman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said in a series of Twitter posts Tuesday that Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, communicates regularly with various senior officials.
“At no time did…the Crown Prince correspond with any Saudi officials in any government entity on harming Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen,” she added. “We categorically reject any accusations purportedly linking the Crown Prince to this horrific incident.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr. Trump’s top national security adviser, John Bolton, said Mr. Khashoggi’s death was one of many “heinous crimes” that have taken place in the Middle East, and that the administration was pressing the Saudi monarchy for accountability.
The CIA briefing appeared to harden senators’ resolve to rebuke Saudi Arabia for the killing, but they said they were still discussing how to do so.
Lawmakers have two main legislative options. Last week, the Senate voted to advance one, a resolution to withdraw U.S. support for Saudi-led forces fighting in Yemen in a vote coming just hours after top administration officials urged them not to do so.
The U.S. already has trimmed its support for Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen, ending the jet refueling it provided until last month. U.S. military officials also have been providing logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi military, services that could be ended within days, military officials said.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis argued last week during a Capitol Hill briefing that ending U.S. involvement could allow Saudi Arabia and ally United Arab Emirates to accelerate their airstrike campaign in Yemen, leading to more civilian casualties.
A second legislative option is a bill by Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) that would suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, sanction people who block humanitarian access in Yemen or aid Houthi rebels there. The legislation would also sanction those responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s death.
Mr. Corker said lawmakers were trying to get a large group of senators to agree on an amendment to the Yemen resolution that would deliver a stronger message to Riyadh.
Both Mr. Corker and Mr. Menendez, the foreign relations panel’s top Democrat, voted for the Yemen resolution last week after previously opposing it.
“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 Mr. Khashoggi, Mr. Menendez said after the briefing with Ms. Haspel.
Mr. Graham said while he understood the importance of Saudi Arabia as an ally in a volatile Middle East region, the U.S. had to act in response to Mr. Khashoggi’s death.
“Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally and the relationship is worth saving, but not at all costs,” he said. “We’ll do more damage to our standing in the world and our national security by ignoring MBS [the crown prince] than dealing with him.”
Mr. Graham denounced Saudi Arabia in a Journal op-ed on Tuesday and called for passage of a measure imposing punitive measures on the country’s monarchy.
“Given the evidence U.S. intelligence has gathered on Khashoggi’s killing, denying the crown prince’s involvement amounts to willful blindness,” Mr. Graham wrote. “Failing to censure him would give authoritarians a green light to murder their critics.”
Other Senate leaders said the evidence posed a dilemma for U.S. policy makers. “I believe, and all evidence points to that, that all this leads back to the crown prince,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) said after the briefing. But he said the challenge will be crafting a response that targeted the crown prince without hurting U.S.-Saudi ties.
“The question is how do you separate the Saudi crown prince and his group from the nation itself? That might be the real policy question,” he said.
Mr. Khashoggi, a former U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist, was killed by Saudi agents after he entered the country’s consulate in Istanbul. The Saudi government has repeatedly said the crown prince had no knowledge of the operation, even though two of his closest aides are suspected of having been involved.
The case has strained U.S.-Saudi ties and cast a shadow over Prince Mohammed’s efforts to overhaul the kingdom’s economy and attract foreign investment.
Mr. Bolton, speaking earlier Tuesday at the annual Wall Street Journal CEO Council meeting, said the Trump administration has “made it very clear…we expect that the Saudis do everything they can” to determine who is responsible for ordering and carrying out the slaying of Mr. Khashoggi.
“But it’s a region where a lot of heinous crimes are committed, by Iran, by the [Syrian] regime, by terrorists all around,” Mr. Bolton said.
Write to Kristina Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org and Nancy A. Youssef at email@example.com