Pompeo doubles down on US support for Saudi Arabia

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doubled down Saturday on the United States’ support for Saudi Arabia and declined to comment on a CIA assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was involved in journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

In an exclusive interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on the sidelines of the G20 summit, Pompeo again noted a lack of direct evidence linking bin Salman to Khashoggi’s murder.

“I have read every piece of intelligence that’s in the possession of the United States government,” Pompeo said. “And when it is done, when you complete that analysis, there’s no direct evidence linking him to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. That is a accurate statement, it is an important statement, and it is a statement that we are making publicly today.”

When asked if the CIA has a high confidence of the de facto Saudi leader’s involvement, Pompeo told CNN, “I can’t comment on intelligence matters.”

The secretary of state’s comments come as a new report details some intercepts underpinning the CIA’s assessment. The Wall Street Journal reports that the intelligence agency’s assessment includes electronic communications the crown prince sent to a close adviser who oversaw the 15-man team that killed Khashoggi.

The crown prince sent 11 electronic messages to his communications chief, Saud al-Qahtani, in the hours before and after Khashoggi’s death in October, the Journal reported, citing excerpts of the CIA’s assessment it had reviewed.

The CIA’s assessment says the content of the messages between bin Salman and Qahtani is unknown, and it does not specify the form in which the messages were sent, according to the Journal.

The assessment also says that bin Salman had told associates in August 2017 that if his attempts to persuade Khashoggi to return to his country were unsuccessful, “we could possibly lure him outside Saudi Arabia and make arrangements,” noting that the communication “seems to foreshadow the Saudi operation launched against Khashoggi,” according to the Journal.

The Journal said it is unclear from the excerpts whether the quote is directly from bin Salman or another individual describing his remarks.

Khashoggi, a Saudi royal insider before becoming an outspoken critic of the government, was killed in October by Saudi operatives during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to obtain papers for his upcoming marriage.

The CIA said it has “medium-to-high confidence” that the crown prince “personally targeted” Khashoggi and “probably ordered his death,” the Journal reported, citing the agency’s assessment.

“To be clear, we lack direct reporting of the Crown Prince issuing a kill order,” the assessment read, according to the Journal.

“We assess it is highly unlikely this team of operators … carried out the operation without Muhammed bin Salman’s authorization,” the assessment said, according to the newspaper.

The CIA’s assessment, which was first reported by The Washington Post, was compiled last month and concluded that bin Salman had personally ordered Khashoggi’s death.

Sources told CNN that the US intelligence agency had based its assessment on available intelligence, as opposed to any specific smoking gun-type of evidence.

The Saudi government continues to deny any involvement from the crown prince in Khashoggi’s death.

“(His Royal Highness) the Crown Prince communicates regularly with various senior officials within the Royal Court on different matters,” a Saudi official told the Journal. “At no time did HRH correspond with any Saudi officials in any government entity on harming Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen. We continue to categorically reject any accusations based on speculations.”

A CIA spokesman declined to comment to the Journal. A White House official told the newspaper on Friday that the White House doesn’t comment on intelligence matters.

The President and the White House have continued to say that there is no final conclusion and that US intelligence agencies “continue to assess all information.”

“It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” President Donald Trump said in a statement about two weeks ago after receiving a briefing on the CIA’s assessment.

The murder of Khashoggi, who worked for the Washington Post, has caused a foreign policy problem for the Trump administration and has drawn attention to both Trump’s business ties to the country and the relationship between bin Salman and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

The Trump administration has imposed penalties on 17 individuals over their alleged roles in the killing of Khashoggi. The Saudi government has charged 11 people with involvement in the journalist’s death.

Asked on Saturday if the United States would continue the same level of strategic cooperation with Saudi Arabia, Pompeo said the US was working with Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan as well as against Iran.

“They’re an enormous support to us,” Pompeo said. “They are a relationship that has mattered for 70 years across Republican and Democrat administrations alike, and remain an important relationship. We’re aiming to keep that relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”