CIA chief to brief House on Khashoggi as pressure mounts on Trump

The Trump administration faces growing pressure to defend its continuing close relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed.
Image: Gina Haspel, Jamal Khashoggi
Gina Haspel, Jamal KhashoggiGetty Images/AP

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By Josh Lederman and Alex Moe

WASHINGTON — CIA Director Gina Haspel will brief House leaders Wednesday about what U.S. intelligence knows about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, three people familiar with the briefing tell NBC News, amid growing questions about the Trump administration's response to the killing and Jared Kushner's relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Haspel's trip to Capitol Hill comes the week after her briefing about the intelligence with key senators, who emerged incensed and accused the Trump administration of downplaying the crown prince's involvement. Despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo having told lawmakers there was no "direct evidence" linking Prince Mohammed to the murder, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., said after hearing from Haspel that one would have to be "wilfully blind" to deny that he was "intimately involved."

But Trump's aides aren't the only ones working to influence the view in Congress about the crown prince's role in Khashoggi's murder in October in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Three Senate aides tell NBC News that the head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan, came to Washington last week and briefed a group of senators about Turkey's Khashoggi investigation and other issues. The group included both Democrats and Republicans.

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It's unclear whether the Turkish intelligence chief shared with senators the audiotape from inside the consulate or other raw intelligence. But since the Khashoggi killing, Turkey has strategically released its own information about what occurred in the consulate bit by bit -- undercutting public assertions from Saudi Arabia, which claimed for weeks that Khashoggi left the consulate alive before being forced to admit he was killed there by a hit team sent from Riyadh.

Ahead of Haspel's trip, the House Intelligence Committee was briefed by members of the U.S. intelligence community on the Khashoggi killing, the first such briefing for all members of the committee, a congressional source with knowledge of the briefing said. House members will also hear from Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Thursday about Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Saudi-led war in Yemen, as lawmakers consider various legislation condemning Crown Prince Mohammed or limiting U.S. support for the Yemen war.

Strong bipartisan support for congressional moves to criticize Saudi Arabia comes as the Trump administration faces growing pressure to defend its continuing close relationship with the kingdom. In another indication of continued global outrage over the killing, Khashoggi is now being honored by Time Magazine as one of its People of the Year, the first time the magazine has chosen someone no longer alive.

Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, has faced particular scrutiny for his close ties and frequent contact with Crown Prince Mohammed. Those private interactions have taken place outside the typical, formal channels of communication between the U.S. government and foreign leaders, illustrating Saudi Arabia's persistent efforts to forge direct lines to President Donald Trump that began even before Trump was inaugurated.

Kushner has maintained contact with Crown Prince Mohammed in the weeks since Khashoggi's killing, a White House official tells NBC News, though the official declined to say how frequently they communicated or what they discussed. The New York Times has reported that the two communicate via WhatsApp, a messaging app popular in the Middle East.

Kushner hasn't been panicked or overly concerned about the Khashoggi situation, officials said, and has argued to Trump that while the murder was bad, it would be impractical to let it jeopardize the White House's broader goals in the region. The U.S. is looking for support for Saudi Arabia for the ambitious Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that Kushner has developed and plans to roll out in the coming months. Saudi Arabia is also closely aligned with Trump's campaign to increase pressure on Iran, a mutual foe.

Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks on his cellphone at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 29, 2011.Virginia Mayo / AP file

Suspicions on Capitol Hill that the White House is concealing Crown Prince Mohammed's role in the killing stem in part from comments from Trump himself, who has repeatedly said the U.S. has no final conclusion about his involvement. Instead, Trump has emphasized that the prince has personally denied any knowledge or role.

That characterization is at odds with the views of the CIA, who have determined that Crown Prince Mohammed was complicit in the killing, NBC News has reported. But Kushner has argued that all the facts are not yet in, echoing Saudi Arabia's calls for the international community to wait for the results of its own internal investigation.

"I think that our intelligence agencies are making their assessments and we are hoping to make sure that there is justice brought where that should be," Kushner said Monday in an interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity.

Unsatisfied with letting Saudi Arabia's government investigate itself, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been calling for an independent, international investigation of Khashoggi's killing. Erdogan and the Saudis are also locked in a dispute over Saudi Arabia's refusal to extradite the suspects in Khashoggi's killing to Turkey to face justice.