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Intelligence report says Saudi crown prince approved Khashoggi killing

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A newly-released U.S. intelligence report says the Saudi crown prince approved the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The journalist was murdered in 2018 after entering a Saudi consulate in Istanbul. CBS News senior foreign affairs correspondent and "Face the Nation" moderator Margaret Brennan took a look at the report's findings, then joined CBSN's Lana Zak to discuss that and more.

Video Transcript

LANA ZAK: A newly-released US intelligence report says the Saudi Crown Prince approved the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The journalist was murdered in 2018 after entering a Saudi consulate in Istanbul. CBS News Senior Foreign Affairs correspondent and "Face the Nation" moderator Margaret Brennan reports.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Jamal Khashoggi entered this Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018 while his fiancee waited outside. Inside, he was brutally murdered and dismembered by a 15-member hit squad flown in from Saudi Arabia. A US intelligence report tonight said it included members of the "elite personal protective detail" for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom the US assesses personally approved the kill or capture mission.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Did you order the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?

MARGARET BRENNAN: In his only TV interview, when pressed by Norah for "60 Minutes," the Crown Prince denied ordering the killing, but said he took responsibility as leader of the kingdom. But US intelligence said the Crown Prince has absolute control of the security forces, viewed Khashoggi as a threat, and broadly supported using violent measures, if necessary, to silence him.

NORAH O'DONNELL: How did you not know about this operation?


INTERPRETER: Some think that I should know what three million people working for the Saudi government do daily. It's impossible that the three million would send their daily reports to the leader or the second-highest person in the Saudi government.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The Trump administration sanctioned 17 Saudi officials in 2018 but did not punish the Crown Prince for his role.

- Mr. President--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Today, President Biden also avoided action against the heir to the throne of this key US ally. Mr Biden did sanction the operation's ringleader and the Crown Prince's security squad.

Is this justice?

ADAM SCHIFF: It's the beginning of accountability. But I hope the administration goes further with repercussions for all of those involved, including the Crown Prince.

LANA ZAK: And Margaret Brennan joins me now for more. Margaret, what do we know about how the Biden administration plans to hold the Crown Prince accountable while also maintaining its strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia?

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, it's not clear that the Biden administration does plan to hold the Crown Prince accountable beyond this disclosure, putting in black and white terms that the United States has assessed definitively that he did approve the kill or capture mission that ultimately led to the death and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident and Washington Post columnist. Putting this out there is damaging. It is undeniable now that it's in print and the rest of the world can read it.

However, President Biden stopped short of taking any action against the Crown Prince, who is the heir apparent to a very key strategic ally in the Saudi Arabian kingdom. So he will have to, in some ways, continue to deal with Mohammed bin Salman in the future, who is the current defense minister and likely to step into the role as chief monarch soon. This was very disappointing to some Democrats including, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who told me he had hoped and had urged the administration to go after the financial assets of the Crown Prince.

LANA ZAK: So Margaret, we've waited, obviously, for a long time for this report. What are some of the questions that still remain unanswered?

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, this report that was put out there publicly is very sanitized. A lot of the detail, anything that would indicate how the United States really came to this conclusion, was removed to protect sources and methods. But it also gives a little bit of wiggle room here, because in saying that the Crown Prince ordered or approved the kill or capture mission, it doesn't spell out exactly how much he knew about just how brutal this was.

We know from public reporting, from the hard work of journalists, a lot more of the gory details here of what happened inside that consulate. We know, for example, that Turkish intelligence had signals intercepts, audio recordings of the murder as it happened, Arabic language conversations of recordings, including a saw being used to dismember the body. Really gruesome stuff. None of that detail was in this sanitized version, which just drew a clear line saying the Crown Prince had to have known, because of who carried out this operation, the fact they directly report to him, the fact that they don't do anything, the security services, without his approval.

LANA ZAK: Interesting that those details-- which were, as you say, horrific-- were completely left out of it. To change direction just a little bit, Margaret, I want to ask you about Thursday's airstrikes in Syria. President Biden approved a very specific target along the Syria-Iraqi border. What more can you tell us about this and what it means for US relations with Iran?

MARGARET BRENNAN: President Biden said tonight that the message was you cannot act with impunity. Be careful. That's the warning to Iran. And in carrying out the strike in the way that he did overnight, the president is saying, do not put US personnel in the region at risk. That's the line for him. Remember, there were contractors who were injured, Americans who were injured last week when Iranian-backed militias fired Rockets in northern Iraq at a US presence there.

So that is why the strike was carried out. But President Biden chose this kind of middle ground option. He didn't strike inside of Iraq, which would have been uncomfortable for Baghdad, our allies and partners there in the capital. He didn't strike inside Iran, which would have been escalating, something even the Trump administration did not do. And instead, he chose along this border region in war-torn Syria where there are militias that go back and forth across the Syria-Iraq border.

So it was enough to say to Iran, watch it. But also enough to say, I'm leaving you enough wiggle room that, diplomatically, you can still take me up on the offer I made to you last week to start talking about your nuclear program and start talking to the United States about releasing hostages.

LANA ZAK: So switching to COVID-19, on "Face the Nation" this weekend, you're discussing vaccine distribution with Dr. Anthony Fauci. What more do we know about the Biden administration's plans for the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, now that the FDA has, in fact, voted in favor of emergency use authorization?

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, that is definitely a shot in the arm, so to speak, for the efforts of the administration, because they have a lot more supply. That was a bad pun. But they have a lot more supply, but they also can distribute it more quickly to rural areas, given the different refrigeration requirements for the one-shot vaccine. And we look at some of the reporting so far. The CDC is very optimistic about what this means, in terms of hitting a broad swath of the population in the next few weeks.

So we will talk to Dr. Fauci about that. But at the same time, we're also hearing about these new variations of the virus and the fact that, while infection rates are going down, the virus is still swirling. So we're right at that cusp of turning the corner here. But the administration-- I imagine, Dr. Fauci-- are still going to be fairly cautious.

LANA ZAK: Yeah. Well, what else can we expect to see on this weekend's "Face the Nation?

MARGARET BRENNAN: We will also be digging into this identity crisis that the Republican Party in particular is happening-- is having. On Sunday, the conservative grassroots part group called CPAC is hosting a big conference. President Trump will make his return to the main stage. If you thought that Republicans were divorcing themselves from Donald Trump after the violence at the Capitol on January 6, you thought wrong. He is being embraced, at least by the grassroots of his party, by people like Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who will also be my guest on Sunday, who want to capitalize on his popularity and on his sort of anti-establishment message.

And then on the other side of it, you have people like Adam Kinzinger, the Congressman from Illinois, who say that the Republican Party needs to stand up for values that are not held by Donald Trump and in opposition to what he stands for. So we'll talk to both of them.

And then the person straddling the line in between, Ronna McDaniel, head of the RNC. She's trying to keep the Republican Party tent together because she is trying to help Republicans just win seats. Anyone with an R next to their name, essentially, is welcome at present. We're going to talk about whether that's actually a good thing for the country or more damaging.

LANA ZAK: Oh, that'll be a very interesting interview. All right, Margaret, thank you.