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Incoming US intelligence chief vows to release report on who killed Khashoggi

Avril Haines, Biden's nominee for director of national intelligence, says she will 'follow the law' and share findings on who ordered murder
Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident, was murdered by Saudi government agents in Istanbul (AFP/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

US President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for director of national intelligence (DNI) has vowed to release an unclassified report on who directed the murder of Jamal Khashoggi - a legally binding congressional request that the Trump administration has defied for the past year.

During a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Avril Haines, who would serve as the Biden administration's intelligence chief if confirmed by lawmakers, pledged that her office would follow the law when it comes to handing the Khashoggi report to Congress.

Senator Ron Wyden, a key Democrat who has been pushing for the release of the US intelligence community's findings on the killing of Khashoggi, called on Haines to reverse the Trump administration's "excessive secrecy and lawlessness".

Wyden then asked: "Congress, as you know, passed a law requiring the DNI to submit to the Congress an unclassified report on who was responsible for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. If you are confirmed, will you submit to the Congress the unclassified report required by the law?"

Haines answered: "Yes, senator, absolutely we'll follow the law."

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The incoming intelligence chief also answered affirmatively in written testimony - with a simple "Yes" when asked a similar question about releasing the report.

'Unequivocal pledge'

Khashoggi, a US resident and columnist for both the Washington Post and Middle East Eye, was killed by Saudi government agents at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul in 2018. 

The slain Saudi journalist had been critical of the direction the kingdom was taking under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

For 17 days after the murder, Riyadh insisted that Khashoggi had left its Istanbul consulate safely. The Saudi government eventually acknowledged that he was killed but stressed that the assassination was a rogue operation that occurred without the approval of top officials.

In Washington, outgoing President Donald Trump has been pushing to shield his Saudi allies from criticism, highlighting the kingdom's arms purchases from the US and America's geopolitical alliance with Saudi Arabia against Iran.

In Congress, however, legislators have been pushing to penalise Riyadh over the killing, as well as the war in Yemen and other human rights abuses.

Late in 2019, US lawmakers included a provision in the Pentagon budget, ordering the DNI to submit to Congress within 30 days an unclassified report outlining "the advance knowledge and role" of any Saudi official in "the directing, ordering, or tampering of evidence in the killing of Khashoggi". 

'The DNI report will confirm... what the whole world knows already: MBS ordered the murder of Khashoggi'

- Sarah Leah Whitson, DAWN

More than a year after the passage of the legislation, all that Congress has received is a single unclassified page saying it will not release the information publicly to protect "sources and methods".

According to numerous US media reports late in 2018, the CIA concluded that bin Salman, known as MBS, was responsible for the murder - an assessment shared by lawmakers who received classified intelligence briefings on the assassination.

Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a think tank and rights group envisioned by Khashoggi and relaunched last year, lauded Haines's "unequivocal pledge" to release the report.

She said releasing the intelligence community's findings "will go a long way to providing a measure of accountability for the heinous crime".

"The Crown Prince and other tyrants around the world should be on notice that the US government will no longer provide cover for their atrocities. Haines should move to release the report as soon as she’s confirmed," Whitson told MEE.

"The DNI report will confirm, with further evidence, what the whole world knows already: MBS ordered the murder of Khashoggi because he hated being criticized by him. 

"The public release of this report will make it impossible for any government or business to justify any substantive relationship with the crown prince, and will make MBS an even greater liability to the Kingdom than he already is."

'Transparency and accountability'

Agnes Callamard, the UN rapporteur on extrajudicial killings who found in 2019 that the killing of Khashoggi was a state-sanctioned crime, has been calling on Washington to share what it knows about the murder with the rest of the world.

"From an international legal standpoint and an international political standpoint, the public release of a document with the CIA assessment - a document that could be probed by others - will make it far more difficult for the rest of the world, particularly governments, to ignore Mohammed bin Salman's personal involvement in the operation that led to the killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi," Callamard told MEE last year. 

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"It's all about making it more difficult - if not impossible - for countries, governments, the UN decision-making bodies, to turn the page."

On Tuesday, Wyden welcomed Haines's commitment to releasing the report.

"This is huge: Incoming DNI, Avril Haines, just committed to releasing an unclassified report on the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi," the senator wrote on Twitter.

"For two years, I've been fighting for transparency and accountability for those responsible. We are closer than ever to getting #JusticeForJamal."

With Democrats set to control the Senate by the end of the month with the swearing-in of two new members who won races in Georgia earlier this year, Haines and other Biden appointees are likely to be confirmed with ease, barring the emergence of any major controversy.

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