Numerous media organizations have reported that sources within the CIA say that the U.S. intelligence community believes that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered the killing of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Reports added that the CIA has notified the relevant entities, including Congress, of its assessment, which contradicts assurances from Saudi officials that Salman was not involved in the assassination.
The CIA primarily relied on a phone call in which Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, received orders from his brother to guarantee Khashoggi’s safety during his visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The CIA also relied on another phone call made by Maher Mutrib, the man accused of leading the assassination team, from the consulate building after Khashoggi’s killing to Saud al-Qahtani, who is considered the right hand of Mohammad bin Salman, in which Mutrib confirmed the mission had succeeded. Although there is no “concrete evidence" implicating Salman, the CIA’s assessment concludes that the crime would not have happened without the crown prince’s consent.
This is considered the most serious accusation to date of a direct link between the Saudi crown prince and the assassination. There was an immediate response from the Trump administration decrying the fallout from the CIA’s confirmation of this serious accusation.
This fallout took the form of the resignation of Kirsten Fontenrose, the official responsible for American policy in Saudi Arabia, who played an important role in the U.S. imposition of sanctions on a number of Saudi nationals in the wake of the assassination case. It is clear that the CIA’s report put Fontenrose in a position to demand that the White House back the accusation of Salman, and that her resignation is an attempt by the Trump administration to push back.
Donald Trump, for his part, continued to walk a tightrope. Trump accepted the mounting official confirmations of Salman’s role at first — Trump said that the CIA’s assessment was premature but possible. Then he undermined those reports by talking about the crown prince’s assurances that he had nothing to do with the assassination! Trump also said that he does not want to lose Saudi Arabia as an ally because of its role in confronting Iran (and managing Arab-Israeli affairs), adding that he does not wish to listen to the tape recording of Khashoggi’s killing because it is “vicious and terrible.”
Another important factor, in addition to the intelligence community’s report, is the enormous resolve of a large part of the American media, which is determined to prevent a cover-up of the assassination and to follow the case to its logical conclusion: holding the true culprit of the assassination responsible, not just the pawns who will be sacrificed as scapegoats.
In Saudi Arabia, we have heard only one response, which came from Prince Khalid bin Salman, who said that he never called Khashoggi to tell him to go to Istanbul, and asked the U.S. government to “release any information regarding this claim.”
It is clear that the Trump administration is still trying to free the Saudi crown prince from this predicament. However, the administration is only implicating itself in a cover-up. We learned from the fierce reaction of The Washington Post, the newspaper where Khashoggi worked as a journalist, that it considers the U.S. sanctions on 17 Saudis an attempt to spare the Saudi crown prince from judgment and the White House from having to admit that its bet on the 33-year-old prince as its only strategic ally was an enormous mistake.
People are betting on the ability of the CIA’s report to shake up the ranks of the Trump administration (which has happened, in part) as well as convince more active members of Congress, which has also happened with Republican senators on the Foreign Relations Committee joining the list of people demanding the punishment of Salman. They are also betting on the ability of Salman to persevere under the foreign and domestic pressures which are increasing day by day.