US finds Saudi crown prince approved Khashoggi murder but does not sanction him

US intelligence agencies concluded that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, approved the 2018 murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi but stopped short of personally targeting the future Saudi king with financial or other sanctions.

The four-page report confirmed the long-suspected view that the 35-year-old future king had a personal hand in the violent murder of one of his most prominent critics, a columnist and former Saudi insider who was living in exile in the US and used his platform to decry the prince’s crackdown on dissent.

Friday’s release of the assessment was accompanied by further actions from the Biden administration, including the unveiling of a new “Khashoggi policy” which is set to impose visa sanctions on individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, engage in “counter-dissident” activities, including harassment, surveillance, and threats against journalists, activists, and dissidents.

The US treasury also issued new sanctions against Ahmad Hassan Mohammed al Asiri, the former deputy head of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Presidency, who it said was “assigned” to murder Khashoggi and was the ringleader of the operation, as well as several members of the hit squad that killed the journalist.

But even as the Biden administration was praised for releasing the partially redacted assessment there were hints of frustration in Washington that Prince Mohammed would not face personal accountability for the grisly murder.

Senator Ron Wyden, who said there was “no question” in his mind that there was more that needed to be declassified.

He added that more needed to be understood about the Saudi royal’s relationship with Donald Trump, whom he accused of covering up the murder as part of his “transactional” relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Asked whether Joe Biden had concerns about Prince Mohammed’s position in Saudi succession, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said it was for Saudi Arabia to “determine the path forward on their future leadership”.

“I will say that the president has been clear, and we’ve been clear by our actions that we’re going to recalibrate the relationship,” she said.

The partially-redacted assessment, which was released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and relied heavily on information gathered by the CIA, said the agencies assessed that “Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

It based the assessment on the prince’s “control of decisionmaking in the kingdom, the direct involvment of a key adviser and members of [the prince’s] protective detail in the operation, and [his] support for the using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi”.

The US intelligence agencies’ assessment – which was released around 9pm Saudi time – also found that the prince’s “absolute control” of the kingdom’s security and intelligence organisations made it “highly unlikely” that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation like Khashoggi’s murder without the prince’s approval.

Included in the assessment were several bullet points that contributed to the agencies’ final assessment, including that Prince Mohammed had “probably” fostered an environment in which aides were afraid that they might be fired or arrested if they failed to complete assigned tasks, suggesting they were “unlikely to question” the prince’s orders or undertake sensitive tasks without his approval.

The report pointed to the fact that the 15-member hit squad that arrived in Istanbul worked for or were associated with the Saudi Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Royal Court – which at the time was led by Saud al-Qahtani, a close adviser to the prince who claimed publicly in 2018 that he did not make decisions without the prince’s approval.

The team also included a subset of the Saudi royal guard, known as the Rapid Intervention Force, which reported only to Prince Mohammed.

“Although Saudi officials had pre-planned an unspecified operation against Khashoggi we do not know how far in advance Saudi officials decided to harm him,” the report concluded.

While Prince Mohammed has previously denied ordering the killing or having any knowledge of it, the damning picture portrayed by the new report raises serious new questions about how the newly publicised information will affect the future heir’s relationship with the Biden administration and other foreign and business leaders.

The revelation comes more than two years after Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on a mission to retrieve papers that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancee, Hadice Cengiz, who has since emerged as a fierce advocate for justice for her late partner.

Cengiz did not immediately comment on the report but tweeted a photo of Khashoggi.

While Khashoggi had been assured by Saudi officials that he would be safe inside the consulate’s walls, grisly details later emerged – pieced together through recording and other evidence gathered by Turkish authorities – that described how a team of Saudi agents, who had arrived in Istanbul on state-owned planes for the intended purpose of killing the journalist – subdued, killed and then dismembered Khashoggi using a bone saw. In one recording, a close ally of Prince Mohammed referred to the journalist as a “sacrificial lamb”.

The decision to release the report and expected move to issue further actions represents the first major foreign policy decision of Joe Biden’s presidency, months after he vowed on the presidential campaign trail to make a “pariah” out of the kingdom. The White House has said it is seeking to “recalibrate” its relationship with the oil-rich nation, in a major departure from the close relationship the crown prince, who is known as MBS, had with Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, and Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

The former president defended and brushed aside the findings of his own intelligence agencies even after it became widely known through media reports that the CIA had concluded with a medium- to high-degree of confidence that Prince Mohammed had approved the murder. Trump was reported to have bragged to the Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that he had protected the crown prince from congressional scrutiny, telling Woodward: “I saved his ass.”

The declassified US intelligence assessment was released after it was mandated by Congress. The Trump administration had ignored the law but the Biden administration signalled early on that it would be willing to release the document.

“By naming Mohammed bin Salman as the amoral murderer responsible for this heinous crime, the Biden-Harris administration is beginning to finally reassess America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and make clear that oil won’t wash away blood,” Wyden said.

Its publication follows years of lobbying by Cengiz and other human rights advocates who have said that Saudi Arabia was never held accountable for the murder.

Saudi officials initially denied that Khashoggi had been harmed in the consulate, and had tried to create the impression using a body double wearing Khashoggi’s clothes that the 59-year-old had left the building. Eventually, officials in the kingdom acknowledged Khashoggi had been killed but blamed the murder on a “rogue operation”.

Trump’s staunch support of the Saudi heir, even in the wake of the wake of the murder and media reports that said US intelligence officials believed “MBS” had a hand in the killing, ultimately helped to rehabilitate the crown prince’s image, including with business leaders and politicians and heads of state across Europe.

Saudi prosecutors put 11 unnamed officials on trial in what was largely seen as a sham proceeding, and later reduced the death sentences of five of the men who were convicted of killing the dissident to 20-year prison terms.