A U.S. intelligence report that was unlawfully suppressed by the Trump administration but released Friday afternoon concludes that Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman likely ordered the capture or killing of Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. Now the world must ensure that the Saudi regime, and the crown prince in particular, are held accountable. This is a watershed moment, and how the Biden administration responds to this monstrous crime will tell us a great deal about the depth of its commitment to press freedom and human rights. It’s also a test for Congress and for American business and civic leaders.
Many of the details of the plot against Khashoggi came to light in the days immediately after the murder. Khashoggi had once been close to the Saudi ruling family but had fallen out of favor after writing articles criticizing the regime for, among other things, its refusal to tolerate dissent. After he went into exile in 2017, the regime monitored his activities closely—including with surveillance software installed clandestinely on other Saudi dissidents’ phones. In late 2018, senior Saudi officials—including the ambassador to the United States, the brother to the crown prince—lured Khashoggi to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, telling him they would provide him with a certificate he needed to marry his fiancée, a Turkish citizen. When he arrived, he was met by a fifteen-member special operations team that included a forensic doctor equipped with a bone saw. He was drugged, strangled to death, and dismembered—all of this captured on audio tape by Turkish intelligence.
After first claiming that Khashoggi had left the embassy safely and of his own volition, Saudi officials—aided by President Donald Trump—then laid the blame for the killing on rogue agents. But this story was totally implausible. The operation was meticulously planned and relied on resources that only the senior-most Saudi officials would have been able to supply. The crown prince’s covert-operations advisor, Saud al-Qahtani, met with the special operations team in advance of their mission. Many of the members of the team had previously worked closely with the crown prince. The CIA reportedly concluded just weeks after the killing that the crown prince could not have been unaware of the plot, and that he may well have authorized it personally. After an exhaustive investigation, Agnès Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur for extrajudicial killing, reached essentially the same conclusion. Every expert she consulted found it “inconceivable that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the crown prince” being aware of it.
Now we can read in black and white how the U.S. intelligence community—not just the CIA—reached this conclusion, too. The unclassified report does not add significant new facts to the public record. But by putting the U.S. intelligence community firmly behind the conclusion that the crown prince likely authorized the plot, it should force a reckoning. It is a reckoning in which the Biden administration, Congress, and American business and civic leaders all have a role to play.
First, the Biden administration should disclose other key documents relating to Khashoggi’s murder. It should publish other intelligence reports about the case, including a report that was written by the CIA just a few weeks after the killing was carried out. (The Open Society Justice Initiative has sued for release of these documents.) It should also disclose whether U.S. intelligence agencies knew that the Saudi regime was planning to abduct or kill Khashoggi, and, if so, whether they made any effort to warn him of the threat, as U.S. law would have required them to do. (Our organizations sued for the release of these documents, and the Committee to Protect Journalists argued the case before the D.C. Circuit earlier this year.) If necessary, the documents could be redacted to protect sources and methods, but the intelligence agencies should not be permitted to rely on vague allusions to national security interests to withhold these documents categorically, given the singular brutality of this crime and its implications for press freedom. This is an instance in which the public interest in disclosure should be given decisive weight.
Second, the administration should ban the crown prince from the United States under laws including the Global Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the president to deny entry to, and block the assets of, foreign nationals determined to be “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” (The Treasury Department has already sanctioned 17 Saudi nationals under the Act in connection with Khashoggi’s murder, and the State Department sanctioned most of these people, too, but the crown prince was conspicuously omitted from the lists.) Targeted sanctions would ensure that the Crown prince pays a personal price—which is important not simply as a matter of accountability but as a deterrent to other authoritarian leaders who might be tempted to try to eliminate their critics in the same way. [Update, Feb. 26, 2021: Just after this article was published, the State Department announced that it would impose visa restrictions on 76 Saudi nationals “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing,” but it declined to sanction the Crown Prince.]
Third, given the personal responsibility of the crown prince for the crime, the administration should extend and expand the freeze it has already instituted on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. It must send an unequivocal message that the United States will not supply weapons to military and security services whose leadership persecutes journalists and activists.
Fourth, Congress should hold hearings to consider what legal reforms are necessary to ensure that American courts can hold accountable those who persecute U.S.-based journalists and human rights activists. It should also consider what reforms are necessary to ensure that American courts can hold accountable the companies that supply persecutors with surveillance technology. A day before Khashoggi’s fateful visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto reported “with a high degree of confidence” that Saudi agents had used spyware supplied by an Israeli company, NSO Group, to infect the phone of Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident based in Canada who had been in regular contact with Khashoggi. The effect was to allow Saudi agents to control the phone’s cameras and microphones. Spyware manufacturers should be held responsible when their products are designed to be used, or foreseeably used, in these ways.
Finally, American civic and business leaders must do their part. In the weeks after Khashoggi’s murder, many American business leaders withdrew from “Davos in the Desert,” the Saudi regime’s signature annual conference. Most of those who stayed away in the weeks after the killing, however, returned to the conference this year. Indeed, the roster of American guests at this year’s event included not only some of the biggest names in finance but a prominent CNN journalist as well. The release of the intelligence report should prompt some soul-searching on the part of these and other business and civic leaders tempted to engage with the Saudi Arabia, and with the crown prince, as if the Khashoggi murder had never taken place. Engagement on these terms normalizes the grotesque and increases the likelihood that other journalists and dissidents will find themselves similarly targeted in the future.
The administration, Congress, and American business and civic leaders all have a role to play in holding the regime accountable. The Biden administration deserves credit for releasing the DNI’s report, but press freedom will be an empty slogan unless the Saudi regime and the crown prince are made to pay a price for their lawless conduct.
Jameel Jaffer is executive director of the Knight Institute.
Joel Simon is a senior visiting fellow at the Knight Institute, 2022-2023.