- Zach Gibson/Getty Images
- CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed a small group of senators on the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
- Senators left the meeting satisfied with what intelligence officials told them, but furious with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
- Most senators were not allowed to attend the briefing, which made them angry with the process.
WASHINGTON – A group of senators received a briefing from CIA Director Gina Haspel on Tuesday after a bipartisan coalition advanced a rebuke of President Donald Trump’s support for the Saudi-Arabian-led military campaign in Yemen last week.
Upon exiting the closed briefing, senators appeared more furious than they were just one week ago, signaling that US-Saudi relations within the Senate are at an all-time low.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who chairs the powerful Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, added that while he did not listen to the audio recording of Khashoggi’s killing, there is “zero question” that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directed the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“The royal family inside the country looks to what the president says and so do people in the region,” Corker told reporters. “And therefore I think it would appear to them and to people in the region that just based on what has been said, that someone like MBS can murder people and have immunity.”
But Corker noted the difficult path for the working group looking to push back on the White House’s response to Khashoggi’s murder as well as the human rights issues with the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.
“I think temperatures are up by all involved would be my guess,” he said. “So figuring out something that can pass overwhelmingly still is going to be difficult because some people want to tie the Yemen piece in to the Khashoggi piece and so that makes it more complicated.”
Not all senators were allowed into the briefing, frustrating critics of Saudi Arabia
The Haspel briefing came just one week after Defense Sec. Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with all senators on the situation with Saudi Arabia. Only a handful of committee heads and members of leadership were permitted in the briefing. Most senators were not allowed to hear from Haspel and even found out about the briefing’s existence through reporters in the media.
But many members were distraught that Haspel and other representatives from the intelligence community did not make themselves available. The lack of access even prompted Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to vote to advance the War Powers Resolution out of spite.
Graham attended the briefing on Tuesday, after which he said he cannot support arm sales to the Saudis as long as bin Salman is in charge.
“Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally and the relationship is worth saving, but not at all costs,” Graham said. “We’ll do more damage to our standing in the world and our national security by ignoring MBS than dealing with him. MBS, the crown prince, is a wrecking ball. I think he’s complicit in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi in the highest level possible.”
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has been one of the Republicans leading the charge against the effort to stop arm sales to Saudi Arabia, cast the exclusion as unfair and part of the “deep state” to withhold information from senators.
When asked why he was blaming outside forces for not providing a briefing to the full Senate, Paul dismissed the notion that the White House was a primary culprit, noting his opposition to the way the intelligence community compartmentalizes information given to members of Congress.
“It has nothing to do with Trump. Not everything’s about Trump,” Paul said. “There are eight people in Congress who get briefings on intelligence. That is not democracy. That is not democratic representation, nor is it democratic oversight.”
Still, Democrats are likely to hold firm on their position from last week, which included several members flipping their position from a similar vote last March.
“I’ll simply say that I am now more convinced than I was before – and I was pretty convinced – that in fact the United States must have a strong response to both the war in Yemen as well as the killing of a United States permanent resident and journalist in Jamal Khashoggi,” said New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. “And only a strong response by the United States will send a clear and unequivocal message that such actions are not acceptable in the world’s stage.”
But the several Republicans who backed the War Powers Resolution might need more to secure their commitment to the plan. It is still unclear what that kind of response would include.
“How to deal with that without harming our own national interests is the challenge that we have,” Corker said.