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CIA Director Briefs Senators On Killing Of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi


The Trump administration got an earful from senators of both political parties last week when it did not make CIA Director Gina Haspel available for a briefing. The lawmakers wanted to hear directly from her about the U.S. government's intelligence on the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. And while the Trump administration says there is no direct link to the Saudi crown prince, others find that hard to believe.

Well, today Haspel did go to Capitol Hill to brief a small group of senators on key committees, and NPR's Tim Mak now joins us from Capitol Hill. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: So how have lawmakers been responding to the briefing by Haspel today?

MAK: Well, in some ways, it served only to inflame senators already upset with the Saudi government. The lawmakers briefed included leaders from the Senate Intelligence, Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees. And those who attended today's meeting appeared pretty convinced that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia also known as MBS was responsible for the killing. Here's Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


BOB CORKER: I think if he was in front of a jury, he would have a unanimous verdict in about 30 minutes.

MAK: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who also pointed a finger at MBS, referred to Khashoggi's reported dismemberment inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: There's not a smoking gun. There's a smoking saw. You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organized by people in - under the command of MBS and that he was intricately involved in the demise of Mr. Khashoggi.

CHANG: A smoking saw...

MAK: That's right. Graham also said that due to this intelligence, he had come to the conclusion that he can no longer support the U.S. working with the crown prince.

CHANG: OK, those were two Republicans we just heard from right there. And we should point out that what they're saying is kind of at odds with what we've been hearing from the Trump administration, from President Trump himself, right?

MAK: Absolutely. This is a sharp departure from President Donald Trump, who has cast doubt on the crown prince's involvement and stressed Saudi Arabia's role as a U.S. ally. The memorable quote we heard from Graham about a saw was actually in response to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who said there was no smoking gun...

CHANG: Right.

MAK: ...Connecting MBS to the killing. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has backed up the Trump administration, saying there was no direct evidence. So what are we hearing? Essentially based on what they're hearing in private, Senators aren't buying the public Trump administration line. Today's session with Haspel really appears to underscore to senators that MBS was involved.

CHANG: OK, so what happens next?

MAK: Last week, senators procedurally advanced a vote to withdraw the United States from military involvement in the ongoing civil war in Yemen. Now, Saudi Arabia is currently fighting there. They're fighting Iranian-backed rebels. And the Trump administration believes that the war is necessary for America's strategic interests in the Middle East. The Trump administration does not want any further progress on this legislation, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reiterated that there needs to be a congressional response of some kind.

Here's one example. Senator Graham said he wanted the Senate to pass a symbolic resolution directly blaming the crown prince for the killing, which the Trump administration has thus far been unwilling to do. The bottom line is there's a lot of frustration but no clear roadmap on the way forward. There's disagreement about whether the United States should tie the war in Yemen, which some Republicans view as necessary to push back against Iranian influence, to the Khashoggi.

CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Tim Mak. Thank you, Tim.

MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.