On February 26, the Office of the Director of Intelligence (ODNI), at the President’s request released, “Assessing the Saudi Government’s Role in the Killing of Jamal Khashoggi” (four-page pdf) to Congress. The February 11 memo had been declassified by ODNI Haines on February 25. The original audience for this memorandum was the President.

The report holds Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salam (MBS) responsible.

The bilateral relationship of the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is steeped in historical engagement ranging from energy to tempering Iran’s regional influence. The ODNI’s assessment carries significant geopolitical ramifications to this relationship, which will reorient/recalibrate in the weeks and months ahead.

U.S. Administration’s Response

The sequence of events involving the Biden administration in response to Khashoggi’s murder and Saudi Arabia is telling. As the President made his initial calls to global leadership, Saudi Arabia was notably absent. One may surmise, the aforementioned report from the ODNI was desired prior to making such a call. When the President did not call MBS, who many consider the de facto head of state, and called King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, it served to send both a message to MBS and to the rest of the world. The message, being, the relationship with the KSA is important, but not as important as MBS thinks it may be to the United States.

The readout of the President’s call with the King makes no mention of Khashoggi, which many assumed that it meant that there is no intent to hold the KSA accountable. Experience dictates readouts rarely contain all facets or content of a call between heads of state, and the timing of the call on February 25 provides assurance that the topic of Khashoggi was discussed with the King and the cataloging of actions to follow were highlighted. Two important points within the readout are human rights and transparency.

Pointing the finger for Khashoggi at the Crown Prince

The next day, on February 26, the ODNI’s report minces no words in attributing blame for the horrific murder of Khashoggi to the KSA. While many were disappointed with the lack of raw details, the report was designed to answer one question: Assess the Saudi government’s role. The report names and identifies 21 individuals who the ODNI believe, with high confidence, “participated in, ordered or were otherwise complicit in or responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi on behalf of Muhammad bin Salman (MBS).” Interestingly, 17 of those identified appear to be sourced to classified information based on redactions.

U.S. Treasury Sanctions for Saudi persons and entities

The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) within the Department of Treasury designated “Ahmad Hassan Mohammed al Asiri, Saudi Arabia’s former Deputy Head of General Intelligence Presidency, and Saudi Arabia’s Rapid Intervention Force in connection with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. These persons are designated pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13818.” The designation in effect places sanctions on the individual and the entity in accordance with the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.”

Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen commented, “Those involved in the abhorrent killing of Jamal Khashoggi must be held accountable. With this action, Treasury is sanctioning Saudi Arabia’s Rapid Intervention Force and a senior Saudi official who was directly involved in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.”

The immediate effect will be felt by any U.S. entities who have contractual engagements with the “Rapid Intervention Force.”

Khashoggi Ban – U.S. Department of State

Secretary of State Blinken reiterated how abhorrent the murder of Khashoggi is and announced additional steps “to reinforce the world’s condemnation of that crime, and to push back against governments that reach beyond their borders to threaten and attack journalists and perceived dissidents for exercising their fundamental freedoms.”

Blinken announced the creation of the “Khashoggi Ban,” a new visa restriction policy on individuals who act on behalf of a foreign government engaged in counter-dissident activities. The Khashoggi Ban will have far reaching ramifications beyond KSA, yet will have immediate effect on “76 Saudi individuals believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing (State Department did not release the names of the 76 individuals).

Furthermore, Blinken ordered that “extraterritorial activities by any government be included in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in an effort to shine light on such activities.

Future Saudi-U.S. relations

Many members of Congress, and media are calling for more specific actions by the Biden administration to hold MBS specifically accountable for Khashoggi’s murder, now. However, more shoes need to fall.

  • Saudi Arabia: King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and the KSA administration arrived to work on Sunday morning to the reality of post-ODNI report, sanctions, and the Khashoggi Ban. The King and the rest of the KSA administration now has the opportunity to revisit Khashoggi’s murder under a much brighter light and take their own steps with respect to MBS.
  • Congress: The way is clear for Congress to pass their own sanctions and put the kibosh on arms sales to the KSA. Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE) told CNN on February 28, “We are not yet done with recalibrating the relationship between the United States and the Saudi Kingdom.” The actions of congress, should they block arms deals may have a deleterious effect on the U.S. defense sector.

The only certainty at this time is the relationship is fluid, is of strategic importance, will be forever complex, and the administration intends for it to be transparent.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of securelytravel.com