America’s Spies Won’t Let Trump Shield MBS

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- To contextualize the Central Intelligence Agency’s claim that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, it’s worth remembering the last time the CIA blamed the leader of a U.S. ally for personally ordering the assassination of a critic.

On Sept. 21, 1976, Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean minister then working at a Washington think tank, was blown up in his car, along with an American colleague. A group of right-wing Cuban extremists had planted the bomb, but on whose instruction? The first investigation assigned the responsibility to Chilean intelligence agents, including a close ally of the dictator Augusto Pinochet. Since the general was regarded as an important bulwark against the spread of communism in Latin America, senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, were eager that no blame be placed on him.

The CIA, which had supported the dictatorship, eventually did conclude Pinochet gave the order — a full 11 years after the assassination, by which time the dictator was already in the closing stages of his long rule.

There are some parallels with the Khashoggi murder. Officials, including President Donald Trump himself, seem keen to shield Prince Mohammed, better known as MBS, on the grounds that he is crucial to the administration’s ambitions in the Middle East, and especially to the confrontation with Iran. An investigation in Riyadh has pointed to senior Saudi officials, including a close MBS aide. But on this occasion, the CIA has taken a few weeks to finger the prince himself for the killing of the Washington Post columnist.

This tells us a few things. First, the CIA must be sure it has powerful evidence of the prince’s alleged responsibility — tapes and phone intercepts included. Second, the agency must believe that MBS isn’t essential to American security interests in the region. Had the spies agreed with the president’s assessment, it is unlikely they would have leaked their conclusion of MBS’s guilt. This is significant because the CIA works closely with its Saudi counterparts, and would not have made such a determination lightly. And third, the CIA is determined not to be involved in a shabby cover-up.

What now? Despite Trump’s efforts to equivocate about the CIA’s conclusion (“Who can really know?” he said in a Fox News interview) MBS’s name is now firmly in the frame. In Congress, there is a growing bipartisan clamor for action against the prince. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, long a vocal supporter of Saudi Arabia and a leading candidate to lead the Senate judiciary committee, has declared MBS “unhinged,” and has promised punitive measures. If the congressmen take their outrage to its natural conclusion, they could demand that the Trump administration’s sanctions on 17 Saudi nationals over the Khashoggi murder be extended to MBS himself.

With the CIA and Congress now of one mind on MBS, other governments might feel emboldened to take action as well. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia and made her opinion known directly to MBS’s father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Germany has also said it will bar 18 Saudis from entry, citing their alleged links to the Khashoggi murder. Expect more sanctions from Europe.

More empowered still are Saudi Arabia’s rivals. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has kept up pressure on MBS without naming him, will now feel vindicated. The Turks have already signaled that they have even more damaging evidence, including a second tape. Iran, too, benefits from the continued international opprobrium being heaped on a sworn enemy.

There will undoubtedly be other, more unpredictable consequences of the CIA’s assessment of MBS’s responsibility. Unlike General Pinochet, the prince doesn’t have America’s spies in his corner.

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

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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