U.S. intelligence officials frustrated by White House response to Khashoggi killing

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a news conference at the State Department on Dec. 14. (Photo: Jim Young/Reuters)

In the eyes of U.S. intelligence officials, the evidence of the Saudi crown prince’s role in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi is clear and compelling. Yet, much to their frustration, top administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and even President Trump, have continued to drag their feet on making clear statements condemning Mohammed bin Salman — known as MBS.

“They’re definitely misrepresenting the analysis,” said one former official who remains in touch with colleagues. As in the past, many intelligence officers are trying to “ignore” the political fray and “put their nose to the grindstone,” the former official said.

Others “wonder what they are doing all this for … if policymakers are going to, at best ignore” the information and “at worst deny it or lie about it,” the former official added.

Intelligence officials also believe that by focusing on purported ambiguities in the intelligence on the Khashoggi killing, administration figures are unfairly passing the buck. “The onus should be put back on the policymakers,” one U.S. intelligence official told Yahoo. “They’re the decision makers.”

Another former intelligence official argued that, at this point, Pompeo’s and Kushner’s remarks aren’t surprising to the intelligence community, and the people who “collect the information” are less affected by the public battles. “Pompeo is a tea party politician; nobody is shocked he’s waving the banner,” the former official said. “They stay for the institution and the work — politicians can accept or reject the findings.”

While Trump has refused to condemn MBS for his alleged role in the killing, he has pointed to measures taken against those Saudi officials involved in Khashoggi’s death and dismemberment. “We have already sanctioned 17 Saudis known to have been involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, and the disposal of his body,” Trump said in a statement last month

The White House has also disputed the notion that Trump is ignoring the intelligence community’s conclusions, even if Trump has so far refused to directly criticize the crown prince.

“The President receives regular briefings and takes counsel from his national security advisors, including the CIA Director, and makes decisions based on a full spectrum of information,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

The CIA declined to comment.  

Mohammed bin Nayef, then the Saudi crown prince and interior minister, at a military parade in 2016. (Photo: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

It’s not just the White House that may make it difficult to act on the intelligence community’s findings — the long-standing ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia complicate efforts to hold the Gulf country accountable. Saudi Arabia is a major customer for U.S. arms and has extensive military and intelligence cooperation with the United States.

The United States has also been providing military and intelligence assistance to the kingdom in its war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. But the nearly three-year war, which has resulted in thousands of deaths of Yemeni civilians and pushed the country to the brink of famine, has frayed the patience of U.S. officials and lawmakers.

Yet when Pentagon officials complained to their Saudi counterparts about civilian deaths from airstrikes, Saudi officials said that if the United States increased its support and provided Riyadh with better targeting capabilities, fewer innocent people would be killed, said a former intelligence official. The Pentagon refused to share its advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities with the Saudis, said this person, who was familiar with Saudi activities in Yemen.

Saudi pilots “were literally looking out the window of planes” as they were dropping bombs, said this former official. “Saudi intelligence [in Yemen] was horrible. Their ops were s***ty.”

One of the unknowns is what impact the Khashoggi killing will have on U.S.-Saudi intelligence cooperation. Another former U.S. intelligence official said the Khashoggi killing followed an effort by the crown prince to create a “shadow security service” — circumventing the main Saudi intelligence agency and the Mabahith, the kingdom’s main internal security organization.

“To a lot of them, it’s perplexing to see that MBS and his team would do something that is that stupid,” said this person, who stays in touch with contacts in Saudi intelligence. “Saudi intel tries to be professional, and they’re thinking, ‘We’re going to take the fall for this?’”

Mohammed bin Salman began to assemble this “shadow security organ” even before he had been named as the crown prince, said this former official. “Royals were worried even then that he was going to be setting up parallel security services and tapping their phones,” said the same former official.

The current heads of the Saudi intelligence agencies are closely associated with Mohammed bin Nayef, the former interior minister and heir to the Saudi throne until the crown prince successfully purged him and other Saudi royals in 2017.

The catastrophic decision to kill Khashoggi was driven, in part, by continuing attempts by this shadow clique to curry favor with Crown Prince Mohammed, said this person. “Some people want to impress MBS so bad, to show that Saudi is so strong. They’re not really intel pros — they just want to impress him.”

As Trump and his Cabinet waffle over the crown prince and his connection to the killing, Congress has increasingly taken the lead in confronting the kingdom. On Thursday, the Senate passed a resolution calling for an end to U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen. The Senate also passed a resolution, proposed by Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, formally condemning the crown prince for the killing of Khashoggi.

“The House and Senate can put the screws to MBS and the Saudis — they need to threaten the purse strings,” said one of the former intel officials. “They can do it without the White House.”

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