Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of Jamal Khashoggi, has called on the US president-elect, Joe Biden, to release the CIA’s classified report into the Washington Post journalist’s murder once he enters the White House, a move she said would “greatly assist” in uncovering the truth.
The classified intelligence assessment has never been released but media outlets have reported, without providing more details, that it concludes with “medium to high confidence” that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the killing.
Publishing a declassified version of the report, Cengiz and other activists say, would prove Biden is committed to making Saudi Arabia “pay a price for the murder”, as he promised to do during the 2020 campaign.
“I am calling on the president-elect to release the CIA’s assessment and evidence. It will greatly assist in uncovering the truth about who is responsible for Jamal’s murder,” Cengiz said.
Asked whether it was under consideration, a source familiar with the transition and the president-elect’s thinking said: “The president-elect stands by what he said on the campaign trail regarding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. We know there remains work to do – including to provide the necessary transparency.”
Khashoggi disappeared while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 to pick up paperwork for his marriage to Cengiz. His remains have never been located or returned. Riyadh eventually admitted the 59-year-old had been killed by Saudi agents in what it says was an extradition operation gone wrong, but Prince Mohammed has always denied any involvement or knowledge of the killing.
During the election, Biden emerged as an outspoken critic of Prince Mohammed, saying during a Democratic debate that he would make Saudi Arabia “the pariah they are” if he was elected. He also said the US would stop selling weapons to the kingdom if he won.
Most analysts and Saudi dissidents who live outside the kingdom agree that the US posture toward Saudi will change once Biden enters the White House, in contrast to Donald Trump’s close ties to the crown prince.
But the question now is how far Biden will go – and what specific issues he could influence. While the US could hasten an end to the war in Yemen, pressing the kingdom on domestic human rights abuses could prove to be more challenging.
“I think [releasing the classified report on Khashoggi’s murder] is an easy one for the president to do. The ramifications will be profound,” said Safa Al Ahmad, a Saudi journalist and human rights campaigner who has lived in exile since 2014.
But there is also scepticism that it will happen. First, because it is not clear that Biden will seek to shake up relations with the Saudis in his first weeks in office. Second, because of alleged practical risks associated with releasing the intelligence.
“I think it is highly unlikely. To protect sources and methods it would need to be highly redacted. Such a document would not be very satisfying. To do otherwise would be to reduce significantly our ability to monitor activities,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Agnès Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, who investigated the Khashoggi murder, said she believed the report could be released without compromising CIA sources or methods.
“I, for one, am sick and tired of intelligence always taking precedence over justice,” she said. “So much information is held by the US about the murder of journalists, including the identity of the masterminds, corrupt officials and people who abuse their power. Surely the search for justice, the fight against impunity demand that this information be made made public,” she said.
While Biden may ultimately backtrack on some of his tough talk against the kingdom, Riedel said there would nevertheless be “big change”, especially on arms sales.
“The Saudis have only belatedly begun to realise that the good old days are coming to an end. I think they are trying to figure out what to do and are particularly concerned about Biden reviving the Iran nuclear deal, which they are completely opposed to,” Riedel said.
Riedel said the change in US administrations comes as Prince Mohammed, known as MBS, seemed to be increasingly worried about his own security and paranoid – perhaps with reason – about his position.
“MBS holds almost all of his meetings in the fantasy city of Neom. Well, there is a reason for that. It is the safest place for him to be in the kingdom and I think it is reflection of his very acute concerns. He has alienated an awful lot of Saudis,” Riedel said.