CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed Senate leaders on the slaying of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi Tuesday as senators weighed punishing the longtime Middle East ally over the killing.
The CIA director met with a small group of senators, including the chairmen and ranking senators on the key national security committees.
Senators from both parties were angry last week that Haspel didn’t attend a closed-door session with top administration officials about Khashoggi’s killing and the U.S. response, which many senators have said is lacking.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis led the earlier briefing and tried to dissuade senators from punishing Saudi Arabia with a resolution to curtail U.S. backing for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Human rights groups say the war is wreaking havoc on the country and subjecting civilians to indiscriminate bombing.
After that briefing, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham threatened to withhold his vote on key legislation until he heard from Haspel. “I’m not going to blow past this,” he said. That afternoon, senators frustrated with the briefing and the lack of response to Khashoggi’s killing overwhelmingly voted to move forward with consideration of the Yemen resolution, 63-37.
The CIA said Haspel didn’t attend because she had already briefed congressional leaders on Khashoggi. In another explanation, a White House official said Haspel decided not to participate in part because of frustration with lawmakers leaking classified intelligence from such settings. The White House official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official wasn’t authorized to discuss internal matters publicly.
Still, the agency later agreed to do an additional briefing with a select group of senators. Graham was expected to attend Tuesday’s meeting, along with the top Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Armed Services, Foreign Relations and intelligence panels and a few others.
Some senators were frustrated that they were not invited to the briefing with Haspel. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a critic of Saudi Arabia, said that excluding some lawmakers is “the very definition of the deep state” and that he suspected that the Trump administration is attempting to get some lawmakers to switch their votes on the resolution by giving them information.
Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two months ago. The journalist, who had lived for a time in the U.S. and wrote for The Washington Post, had been critical of the Saudi regime. He was killed in what U.S. officials have described as an elaborate plot as he visited the consulate for marriage paperwork.
U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, must have at least known of the plot, but President Donald Trump has equivocated over who was to blame. Trump has touted Saudi arms deals worth billions of dollars to the U.S. and recently thanked Saudi Arabia for plunging oil prices.
Echoing Trump’s public comments on the killing, Pompeo said after last week’s briefing with senators that there was “no direct reporting” connecting the crown prince to the murder.
That reluctance to blame the crown prince has enraged some Republicans. In a column for the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Graham wrote that the killing and other moves by the Saudi regime showed “astounding arrogance entitlement” and disregard for international norms.
“We are a coequal branch of government exercising leadership to safeguard the country’s long-term interests, values and reputation,” wrote Graham, a frequent ally of the president. “After all, someone’s got to do it.”
Last week’s vote set up debate on Senate passage of the Yemen resolution, which could happen next week. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said there are still ongoing negotiations over amendments to the resolution.
“We’re not quite there yet,” Corker said ahead of the briefing.
Even if the Yemen resolution passes the Senate, it appears unlikely to advance in the House. Speaker Paul Ryan last week said the Yemen resolution “isn’t the way to go.”