Codepink demonstrators hold photographs of journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Congress Won’t Buy the Latest Saudi Story on Khashoggi

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If there were any remaining doubts about the culpability of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, they were removed Friday evening.

That’s when the Saudi government finally acknowledged the grim truth that Khashoggi was dead — and then proceeded to give a ridiculous explanation of how a 59-year-old man of letters died in a fist fight. Fred Ryan, the publisher of the Washington Post, where Khashoggi was a columnist, summed up most of the civilized world’s reaction. “This is not an explanation,” he said. “It is a cover-up.”

It’s unclear so far whether it will be enough for President Donald Trump. Upon hearing the news, he said the arrests of 18 people and the firing of five senior officials was a “great first step.” Later, while acknowledging that the lack of a body was concerning, he stressed the importance of maintaining strong ties with the Saudis. Later still, he decried the Saudis’ “deception” to the Washington Post while praising the kingdom as “an incredible ally.” 

What is clear is that the Saudi explanation and response — arrests, a pending trial, and a bureaucratic reorganization — will not be enough for Congress. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, observed on Friday that “the story the Saudis have told about Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance continues to change with each passing day, so we should not assume their latest story holds water.”

More important, Corker said the U.S. government has an obligation under legislation known as the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to find and sanction those found responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. Last week, all but one member of Corker’s committee requested such an investigation. Under the law, once such a request is made, the president must decide whether to invoke sanctions.

 Curiously enough, Trump may actually be receptive to Magnitsky sanctions. The president has made clear he has no taste for suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But Magnitsky sanctions apply to  state officials, not the state itself. The original version of this legislation targeted the Russian officials responsible for the torture and death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who had uncovered a massive tax corruption scheme.

The main penalty for being on the Magnitsky list, as it’s known, is that you are prevented from traveling to the U.S. and your assets are frozen. It also bars any U.S. citizen from doing business with you. European countries have adopted similar legislation, so a Magnitsky determination in 2018 means one is essentially blacklisted from most Western countries.

It doesn’t sound like much, but the law drives authoritarians nuts. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, banned U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children after the legislation was signed into law in 2012. At the same time, Magnitsky measures would not rattle the foundation of the U.S.-Saudi alliance: military assistance, intelligence sharing and the economic war against Iran.

If Trump opposes Magnitsky sanctions, Congress may consider something more severe. In March a resolution to cut off U.S. refueling of Saudi aircraft in their Yemen war was defeated 55 to 44. It’s unlikely that resolution would be defeated again if a vote was taken today. 

Much now depends on the crown prince. Mohammed bin Salman’s first attempt at coming clean has failed. He should try again — this time with the truth of what actually happened to Jamal Khashoggi.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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