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As Trump defies Congress, senator pushes for information on Khashoggi's murder

US administration has refused to release unclassified report on who killed Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi's fiance Hatice Cengiz (L), Senator Ron Wyden (C) and Congressman Tom Malinowski (R) (AFP)
By Ali Harb in Washington

Democrats in the US Congress are accusing President Donald Trump of refusing to release information about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in defiance of the administration's legal obligations.

At a press conference in Washington on Tuesday, Senator Ron Wyden and Congressman Tom Malinowski accused Trump of violating a law that requires the administration to publicly share its findings about the murder. 

'If our country and our friends and our partners do nothing in the face of this barbaric act, it sends a message around the world that it's open season on journalists'

- Senator Ron Wyden

"The Trump administration's silence on all of this has just been deafening, particularly because the administration is ignoring a law duly passed by the Congress and signed into law by the president of the United States," Wyden said.

Late last year, Congress overwhelmingly passed a Trump-approved defence budget that included a provision ordering the US intelligence chief to submit an unclassified report that would outline the role of any Saudi officials in "the directing, ordering, or tampering of evidence in the killing of Khashoggi".

The report was supposed to be submitted to Congress before the end of January. Instead, the administration quietly sent legislators a fully classified document on 20 February accompanied by a single unclassified page saying it will not release the information publicly to protect "sources and methods".

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After the latest refusal by the US administration to comply with lawmakers' legally binding demands for answers, Wyden is looking to trigger 1976 legislation that would allow the release of secret intelligence findings deemed to be in "national or public interest".

"I realise that the Trump administration frequently considers laws pesky inconveniences," the senator said on Tuesday. "But we're going to tell you this morning that will not be acceptable here. This was a total complete cover-up. We have received absolutely nothing."

'Barbaric act'

Khashoggi, a US resident and columnist with the Washington Post and Middle East Eye, was murdered by Saudi government agents at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018.

His murder sent shockwaves through Washington sparking the strong rebuke of Riyadh in Congress.

But Trump has been reluctant to criticise his Saudi allies, constantly defending Riyadh by citing its geopolitical role against Tehran and lucrative arms deals with Washington.

After the murder, it was widely reported - including by Congress members - that the CIA determined that Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination. 

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Riyadh characterises the killing as an unauthorised operation of which top officials had no knowledge.

Wyden said the failure to ensure accountability for Khashoggi would endanger journalists globally.

"If our country and our friends and our partners do nothing in the face of this barbaric act, it sends a message around the world that it's open season on journalists," he said.

He is looking to trigger a complicated process based on a law known as S. Res. 400 to declassify the report. 

It starts with the Senate Intelligence Committee that would vote to disclose the information. Then the president gets a chance to respond and argue that releasing the information would pose a threat to national security that outweighs public interests. 

The committee would again consider declassification in conjunction with Senate leaders, and a final vote may take place by the committee or the full chamber, Wyden said.

518 days

Both Malinowski and Wyden dismissed the assertion that assigning responsibility for Khashoggi's murder by the Office of Director of National Intelligence would compromise sources, calling it a "boilerplate" justification.

"What the office said can be summed up in one word: nothing, zero, zip. They basically said: 'We're just not interested in this federal law'," Wyden said.

The senator, in fact, argued that holding the information would be more detrimental to national security because of the message it would send about targeting journalists.

"Not only is there not anything that will compromise sources and methods, we think the threat is burying information. We think the threat is non-disclosure. We think the threat is a cover-up," Wyden said.

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For his part, Malinowski, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights, explained that Washington regularly imposes sanctions on foreign officials for abuses based on information obtained through sensitive methods without exposing the source of the intelligence.

"You can name somebody. You can say: 'You are responsible for this crime' without revealing the methods that you may have used to determine that responsibility," the congressman said. "So that's not an excuse, and they know it."

The slain journalist's Turkish fiancee Hatice Cengiz also spoke at the press conference, thanking the legislators for continuing the efforts in seeking justice for Khashoggi.

"I have recently learned an American saying: Justice delayed is justice denied," Cengiz said on Tuesday.

"It has been 518 days since my future husband, Jamal, walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never came out. It has been 518 days, we have been denied the truth. It has been 518 days, we have been denied justice."

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