Biden response to Khashoggi investigation ‘shocking,’ says UN official

The UN official who investigated the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi sharply criticized U.S. President Biden’s response to the killing, saying his administration’s failure to sanction Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent a “dangerous” message to world leaders that they could kill dissidents and journalists with impunity.

“I found it to be shocking,” Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial killings, said in a Wednesday interview. “I thought Joe Biden had made a commitment during his campaign regarding truth telling and accountability, so I was expecting certainly more. I also felt this kind of message is actually dangerous. It gave the impression to would-be killers of journalists that as long as they have a friendly relationship with the United States they can proceed with killing dissidents. Yes, maybe they will be named [and] a little bit shamed. But nothing else. That to me is an extraordinary source of disappointment and frustration.”

After an exhaustive investigation, during which she was granted access to secret audiotapes made by Turkish intelligence, Callamard released a blistering and highly detailed report in June 2019 concluding that the murder of Khashoggi was an “international crime” that was being covered up by the Saudi government through a sham and highly secretive legal process that failed to explore the role of high-level officials responsible for the murder.

Her comments came in response to the release last week of a long-awaited declassified report by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines that found that Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) approved the operation that killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. In response, the administration sanctioned former Saudi deputy intelligence chief Ahmed Hassan Asiri, adding him to a list of 17 other Saudi operatives who had been previously sanctioned by the Trump administration. It also imposed what it called a “Khashoggi ban” that would deny U.S. visas for 76 unnamed Saudis who administration officials say were involved in extraterritorial operations to suppress or intimidate dissidents and journalists.

But the administration left untouched the crown prince — the de facto leader of the country who is in line to succeed his father, King Salman, as the country’s absolute monarch — apparently because further action could have disrupted the U.S. relationship with a longtime ally in the Mideast.

Callamard was sharply critical of that political calculus.

“His assets should be frozen, his bank accounts, of course, should be frozen,” she said, referring to MBS. “That’s what has been done to the others [involved in the Khashoggi killing]. I do not see why they are not doing it to him, particularly because he is not even the head of state yet. So if there were any questions about immunity, it does not appear to be applicable just now.”

Callamard added that she was especially appalled at the greeting the crown prince received when he flew to the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, in June 2019 just days after her damning report on Khashoggi’s murder — and MBS’s complicity — was released.

The crown prince was “welcomed with open arms and almost anointed at the G-20 meeting in Osaka,” she said. “Mohammed bin Salman should be banished from a number of those international gatherings. We should not have to confront the kind of images and behavior we saw in Osaka, with every G-20 leader being forced to smile and welcome somebody who is a known killer now. I am not naive. But in that particular case, he used his position of power to order the killing of somebody he did not like.”

The summit took place less than two weeks after Callamard released her report, which challenged the claims of Saudi officials that Khashoggi’s murder was a tragic accident. In fact, she concluded, Turkish intelligence audiotapes from inside the Saudi Consulate showed that, while the operation against Khashoggi may have originally been planned as a kidnapping or rendition aimed at flying him back to Saudi Arabia, it had turned into a plot to assassinate him by the day of the murder. Even before Khashoggi entered the consulate that day — to pick up divorce records that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancée — the Saudi operatives were discussing plans to dismember his joints and cut his body into pieces, with one intelligence official referring to him as a “sacrificial animal.”

Callamard said that while she was pleased that the Biden administration report on the murder pinned the blame on the crown prince, she was disappointed that it included none of the details in her own report about what happened in the consulate. According to multiple media reports at the time, the CIA had access to the same Turkish audiotapes as well as other intelligence about how the Saudis murdered Khashoggi — none of which was included in the report released by Haines.

“I was disappointed,” Callamard said, by the lack of details in the administration’s release about the murder. Officials apparently made a “political judgment,” she added, not to rile up the Saudis by issuing a complete report about what the U.S. government knew. U.S. officials have said such details are usually omitted from public disclosures for fear of compromising sources and methods of U.S. intelligence gathering.

“Very little has been put in the public domain, and most of what they had in their hands remains confidential,” Callamard said.

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