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Report Tying Saudi Crown Prince To Jamal Khashoggi Killing Tests U.S. Alliance

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A summary of findings issued by U.S. intelligence agencies that's just about two pages long holds that Saudi Arabia's crown prince approved the 2018 killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. While not proven, it has long been suspected that Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi's de facto leader, ordered that murder. The release of the summary findings is a signal that the Biden administration will choose to take a tougher stance against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia than its predecessor, the Trump administration.

NPR's Jackie Northam has been following developments and joins us now. Good morning, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott. Hi.

SIMON: Please give us an overview of the main findings.

NORTHAM: Right. Well, just to be clear, there's no smoking gun, but, you know, there's a lot of circumstantial evidence in this two-page report. And let me just read you a line from it if I could. Quote, "the crown prince has had absolute control of the kingdom's security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the crown prince's authorization," unquote. And one other thing to keep in mind - you know, this report is a summary, and there's a lot more evidence that the CIA has about Khashoggi's death that remains classified.

SIMON: This report's a summary, as you note, but it does seem to say pretty bluntly that the Saudi crown prince has blood on his hands. What kind of potential impact could this have on relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which, after all, has been a very close ally for decades?

NORTHAM: That's right. Yeah, well, it's definitely bound to have an impact. You know, the crown prince is likely to become king of Saudi Arabia and will be around for a very long time. And it'll be interesting to see how the U.S. will deal with him both in the short-term after this report and certainly in the long-term once he becomes king. We don't know how that's going to shake out yet. You know, in an interview with NPR yesterday, Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, said it was just too soon to tell if the relationship has been damaged by this. Let's have a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AVRIL HAINES: It is not surprising, I suppose, to see a shift in the relationship in some ways with the new administration and a new position and a number of challenging issues that we face together. But I think there will be ways to weather the various storms that we have in front of us.

NORTHAM: And, Scott, one other thing, the Saudi foreign ministry said on Friday that the kingdom has already jailed those responsible for Khashoggi's killing and that while it completely rejects the report's findings, it called U.S.-Saudi relationships robust and enduring.

SIMON: Jackie, there are calls from many quarters, including members of Congress, human rights organizations, calling on President Biden to punish or sanction the crown prince for his role in Khashoggi's death. How likely does that seem to be?

NORTHAM: Well, you're right. Biden stopped short of severely punishing the crown prince, but he said on Friday evening that from now on, the kingdom is going to be held responsible for human rights abuses. And he said that there would be more significant changes announced on Monday. He didn't indicate what those might be.

But, you know, the administration did take some other steps yesterday. It announced something called the Khashoggi ban, which allows the State Department to impose visa restrictions on anyone acting on behalf of a foreign government who is threatening dissidents overseas. And it's already imposed this Khashoggi ban on 76 Saudis and their families. But apparently, this travel ban doesn't include the crown prince himself. And an administration official said on background yesterday that as a matter of practice, the U.S. doesn't apply sanctions on the highest leadership of countries with which it has diplomatic relations. And, you know, already, there are increasing calls for tougher action against the Saudi crown prince.

SIMON: NPR's Jackie Northam, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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