CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed senators from the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees behind closed doors Tuesday on what the agency has learned about the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and whatever she said only exacerbated congressional anger toward Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The briefing had generated conflict between the Senate and the White House. Last week, the Trump administration dispatched Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Capitol Hill to meet with senators ahead of a key procedural vote on a resolution that would invoke the War Powers Resolution to cut off U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The White House did not make Haspel available to discuss the latest intelligence on Saudi culpability in Khashoggi’s killing, which angered a number of senators and may have contributed to the overwhelming vote in favor of bringing the resolution to the full Senate for debate. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is normally a staunch supporter of the administration but has been extremely critical of the Saudis since Khashoggi’s death, had said he would not vote for any GOP bills or nominees until he received the briefing.
Newspapers have been reporting for weeks that the CIA believes, based on intercepts, that the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s torture and murder. The leak of this information reportedly infuriated Haspel. (This is somewhat ironic given that she herself was allegedly involved in efforts to cover up evidence of torture by the CIA.) This intelligence has not swayed President Donald Trump, who has continued to say that it’s impossible to know whether the crown prince had advance knowledge of the killing—“maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
But Haspel’s briefing today evidently left senators with little doubt. Graham said after the briefing today that he had “high confidence and overwhelming belief” that Crown Prince Mohammed was responsible for Khashoggi’s death. According to CNN, Graham said that there is not a “smoking gun” but a “smoking saw,” referring to the bone saw that was allegedly used to dismember the journalist’s body.
Sen. Bob Corker, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was even more blunt, telling reporters, “Let me put it this way. If the crown prince went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes.”
So what are they going to do about it? Graham said, “Saudi Arabia is put on notice that business as usual has come to an end for me. I will not look at the kingdom the same way that I used to look at it. I will not support arms sales until all responsible for the death of Mr. Khashoggi have been brought to justice. I will no longer support the war in Yemen as constructed.”
Both Graham and Corker voted for the resolution against the Yemen war, co-sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders, Chris Murphy, and Mike Lee, but still say they are unlikely to support the bill without significant amendments. Graham called it the “wrong approach” Tuesday.
Corker’s and Graham’s concerns are somewhat valid. Cutting off support for the war in Yemen seems like an odd response to Khashoggi’s killing, and the resolution would raise the tricky legal question of whether U.S. support for the Saudi coalition constitutes hostilities as defined by the War Powers Resolution.
But if Graham is fed up with the Saudis and no longer supports the war, as he said Tuesday, the obvious question is what he plans to do about it. The Trump administration argues that it is Iranian support for the Houthi rebels, not the Saudi coalition, driving the devastating conflict in Yemen, and that cutting off U.S. support would be a gift to Tehran. Both Corker and Graham seem to share the Trump team’s Iran-centric view of this conflict and the Middle East generally. Corker will be in office for only a few more weeks, but for Graham, the question going forward will be whether he can square his revulsion at the Saudis with his desire to confront the Iranians.