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US court orders CIA to explain withholding of Khashoggi report

Court ruling follows lawsuit by Open Society Justice Initiative regarding CIA report on Jamal Khashoggi and tape recording of murder
The CIA reportedly concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing.
CIA reportedly concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered killing (AFP/FIle photo)
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A US judge ordered the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to explain why they are withholding a written report on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, after a rights group requested the documents be made public.

A federal judge in the southern district of New York issued an order on Tuesday in favour of the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), a law centre within the Open Society Foundations, which sued the ODNI and CIA over its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain the latter's written report regarding Khashoggi's murder, along with a tape recording of the killing.

"The burden is now on the Trump administration to acknowledge that it is withholding the tape and the CIA report, and to explain why it is withholding these records from the public," the Open Society Justice Initiative said in a news release.

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The judge ordered both agencies to produce a Vaughn index - a government explanation for withholding the records under FOIA - within two weeks.

After first filing a suit last year against the CIA, the OSJI in August filed a lawsuit against the ODNI, which oversees all US intelligence agencies and answers to the White House.

The suit sought disclosure regarding ODNI's reports determining who was responsible for the Khashoggi murder.

Under FOIA, the government is obliged to release unclassified records and publications and advocacy groups often end up suing to challenge the classification of documents. 

"This judgment is an important step towards ending the Trump administration's cover-up of who is responsible for the Khashoggi murder," Amrit Singh, the OSJI's lead lawyer in the case, told Middle East Eye.

"To date, the Trump administration has not released a single meaningful record about who was responsible for the Khashoggi murder.

"We believe that the public has the right to evaluate the US government's efforts to hold accountable those responsible for Khashoggi's killing."

Biden says he will reassess Saudi ties

Khashoggi, an American resident and columnist for the Washington Post and Middle East Eye, was killed by Saudi agents on 2 October 2018 after entering the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.

The CIA reportedly concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, ordered the killing, a charge the Saudi royal and government denies.

Yet the intelligence agency's report has been kept classified by the Trump administration, which has defended MBS in the matter.

"There is no national strategic interest at stake in protecting the American public, in shielding the American public from knowing the CIA's factfinding of Jamal Khashoggi's murder," Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), said during a virtual webinar for the Project on Middle East Democracy on Wednesday.

US lawmakers and rights groups have repeatedly called for the administration to release the report, and some hope that the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden will work to release the report.

Earlier this year, on the second anniversary of Khashoggi's murder, Biden pledged to reassess the US relationship with Saudi Arabia and hinted that MBS was responsible for the killing.

"Jamal's death will not be in vain, and we owe it to his memory to fight for a more just and free world," Biden said.

Singh said one of the ways the president-elect can follow up on this statement would be to release the intelligence community's reports regarding the murder.

"We want to see President-elect Joe Biden demonstrate his administration's commitment to democratic values and human rights by quickly releasing these and other records that shed light on who is responsible for the Khashoggi murder," Singh added.