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US Republican senator will withhold vote until CIA briefs lawmakers on Khashoggi

Lindsey Graham says he wants CIA briefing on whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in Jamal Khashoggi's murder
CIA has concluded that Saudi crown prince ordered Khashoggi's killing (AFP/File photo)

US Senator Lindsey Graham said he would withhold his vote on any key issue until the CIA briefs US lawmakers about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

Graham, a leading voice within US President Donald Trump’s Republican party, said on Wednesday that he would not “be denied the ability to be briefed by the CIA” on the Khashoggi case.

His comments come a day after a report in the Guardian that said the White House had blocked CIA Director Gina Haspel from briefing US senators on Wednesday morning about Khashoggi’s murder.

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That briefing was given instead by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, with the aim of urging the senators to vote down a resolution to end Washington's support for a Saudi-led coalition currently bombing Yemen.

"I am not going to be denied the ability to be briefed by the CIA, that we have oversight of, about whether or not their assessment supports my belief that this could not have happened without [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] knowing," Graham told reporters.

On Wednesday, after the briefing with senators, Pompeo once again defended Saudi leaders against accusations they knew about Khashoggi's murder. "There is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi," Pompeo told reporters.

That was echoed by Mattis, who said the US has "no smoking gun the crown prince was involved" in the murder.

Still, Graham said the briefing on Wednesday was "inadequate" because no CIA representative was there.

“So the question for me is whether or not the CIA supports the conclusion with a high degree of confidence that the crown prince was complicit in the murder of Mr Khashoggi," Graham told reporters.

“I understand the strategic relationship between us and Saudi Arabia, but I am not going to blow past this."

If the briefing supports his view the crown prince knew about Khashoggi's murder, Graham said "there will be no more business as usual with Saudi Arabia”.

Rift between CIA and Trump administration

The senator’s comments highlight an ongoing and deepening rift between the Trump administration and US intelligence officials over Khashoggi's murder.

Earlier this month, the CIA concluded that the Saudi crown prince, also known as MBS, had ordered the Saudi journalist's killing.

A Saudi government critic and Washington Post columnist, Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. He had been living in self-imposed exile in the US at the time of his death.

I am not going to be denied the ability to be briefed by the CIA ... about whether or not their assessment supports my belief that this could not have happened without MBS knowing

- US Senator Lindsey Graham

While Saudi officials have repeatedly denied the crown prince knew anything about Khashoggi's murder and its subsequent cover-up, human rights groups, journalists, UN experts and others have pointed the finger at bin Salman, saying it's impossible he was not involved.

Earlier this week, Senator Bob Corker, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pressed for Haspel to attend Wednesday's briefing - but to no avail.

Haspel's absence at the briefing on Wednesday morning was described as uncommon, with a Senate staffer telling the Guardian that the decision to exclude a US intelligence official "is totally unprecedented and should be interpreted as nothing less than the Trump administration trying to silence the intelligence community".

It also raises deeper questions as Haspel travelled to Istanbul last month to hear audio recordings of the murder of Khashoggi.

Turkish media also reported last week that the CIA is in possession of a recording of a phone call in which bin Salman gave instructions to "silence Jamal Khashoggi as soon as possible".

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