WASHINGTON — CIA Director Gina Haspel appeared on Capitol Hill Tuesday to brief key senators on the agency’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Haspel had faced mounting pressure to speak to lawmakers and more fully explain the CIA’s findings, which President Donald Trump has said don’t conclusively show that Mohammed was involved in the assassination.
Haspel was noticeably absent last week from an all-senators briefing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Lawmakers complained that the Trump administration was depriving Congress of key information about the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, by refusing to order Haspel to go to the Hill and explain the CIA’s assessment.
The CIA has concluded that Mohammed likely ordered the killing, based in part on intercepted communications involving him and a key aid, who is alleged to have overseen the team that killed the journalist inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, according to people familiar with the matter.
The spy agency also analyzed other intercepted communications, listened to audio provided by Turkey from inside the consulate, and assessed that an audacious operation that involved killing a Saudi citizen in a foreign country could not have been executed without the crown prince’s knowledge, people familiar with the CIA’s conclusions said.
Haspel provided the closed briefing just days before the Senate is expected to begin debating a resolution to withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi military campaign in Yemen.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, a confidant of President Trump, said he would refuse to support “any key vote” until Haspel spoke to lawmakers. Graham will be part of Tuesday’s briefing. Some senators had accused the White House of barring Haspel’s participation in last week’s briefing with Pompeo and Mattis. But CIA spokesman Timothy Barrett said nobody told Haspel not to appear.
Haspel will speak only to Senate leaders and the heads of national security committees with an interest in Saudi policy regarding Yemen and the intelligence surrounding Khashoggi’s killing, according to multiple people familiar with the plans.
Bipartisan leaders from the Foreign Relations Committee, the Armed Services Committee, the Intelligence Committee and the Appropriations subcommittees that fund the State and Defense departments are expected to be included.
Some rank-and-file senators were furious they were excluded from the briefing.
“I can’t even ask to be included in it because I didn’t know it was going to happen, except for reading about it in the media. That’s not the way it should be. She should have come and testified in front of all senators,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. “If you have some senators who are more equal than others, that is not democratic representation.”
Last week, the Senate took the historic step of voting to take up a resolution, spearheaded by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, to end American support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, where thousands of civilians have been killed and, according to the United Nations, millions are at risk of starvation.
For some of the 14 Republicans who supported the procedural step last week, the vote was intended as a warning shot to Trump, to inspire him to start openly condemning Mohammed or withholding military support from the Saudis.
Haspel’s briefing may placate some of those senators. But it is not expected to deter Senate Democrats — or the handful of Republicans who believe Saudi Arabia should be rebuked — from supporting the Yemen resolution beyond its next step, a vote expected to take place in the next few days.