The Early Edition: November 19, 2018

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

 The C.I.A. concluded Friday that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, according to U.S. officials. The agency based its assessment on bin Salman’s wider control of the kingdom, such that the murder could not have taken place without his approval, and reinforced its assessments with various communications, including intercepts of the crown prince’s calls in the days ahead of the killing, and telephone calls by the kill team to one of his senior aides, Shane Harris, Greg Miller and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

The C.I.A. also allegedly used a phone call between the prince’s brother Khalid bin Salman and Khashoggi to reach its conclusion. Khalid bin Salaman denied his involvement Friday, sending a message on Twitter claiming that “the last contact I had with Mr. Khashoggi was via text on Oct 26 2017 … I never talked to him by phone and certainly never suggested he go to Turkey for any reason … I ask the U.S. government to release any information regarding this claim,” Gabriela Saldivia, Sasha Ingber and Dina Kesbeh report at NPR.

The agency has apparently held the belief for weeks that the crown prince was culpable for Khashoggi’s killing but had been hesitant to “definitively conclude” that he directly ordered it. Julian E. Barnes reports at the New York Times.

The State Department on Saturday pushed back against the suggestion that the U.S. had made a final conclusion on who was involved in the killing, with Department spokesperson Heather Nauert saying in a statement: “recent reports indicating that the U.S. government has made a final conclusion are inaccurate,” Reuters reports.

“They haven’t assessed anything yet … it’s too early … that was a very a premature report,” President Trump commented Saturday when asked about the Washington Post report that broke the news of the C.I.A.’s findings. “We’re going to have a report on Tuesday … and it’ll be very complete … in the meantime we’re doing things to some people that we know for a fact were involved and we’re being very tough on a lot of people,” Trump added, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Trump asserted that the crown had told him as many as five times that he had not been involved in the killing, telling Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace during an interview that “many people” had supported the view that bin Salaman had no knowledge of the killing. “Will anybody really know?” Trump asked, Courtney Weaver and Andrew England report at the Financial Times.

“We have the tape … I don’t want to hear the tape … no reason for me to hear the tape,” Trump added, regarding the audio that allegedly depicts Khashoggi’s murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2. “It’s a suffering tape … it’s a terrible tape. I’ve been fully briefed on it … there’s no reason for me to hear it. … it was very violent, very vicious, and terrible,” Trump continued, Andrew Desiderio reports at The Daily Beast.

“The fact that [Mohammed bin Salman] didn’t know about it is impossible for me to believe,” Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on Sunday’s “Meet The Press,” adding that he although he has not been given an official briefing on the matter, the conclusion that the crown prince was involved in the killing would be plain to anyone with knowledge of the kingdom. Graham commented further: “if he is going to be the face of Saudi Arabia going forward … I think the kingdom will have a hard time on the world stage … they are an important ally, but when it comes to the crown prince, he is irrational, he is unhinged, and I think he has done a lot of damage to the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia and I have no intention of working with him ever again,” Kailani Koenig reports at NBC.

Vice President Pence on Saturday vowed to hold those responsible for Khashoggi’s killing accountable, following the C.I.A.’s assessment of the crown prince’s culpability. Pence told reporters while traveling in Papua New Guinea that he “can’t comment on classified information” but described Khashoggi’s death as an “atrocity,” adding: “it was also an affront to a free and independent press,” Morgan Gstalter reports at the Hill.

“I think the ‘high confidence’ doesn’t mean that you actually have what you need … if that’s the term that the C.I.A. is using,” Senate Intelligence Committee and G.O.P. leadership team member Roy Blunt (Miss.) said on ABC’s “This Week,” although he could not detail what was disclosed to him and other lawmakers in a confidential intelligence briefing last week. Blunt added, however, that “I think a smoking gun would certainly help, if you actually did have that specific thing that is unlikely to be out there or unlikely to be found, where someone gave a specific direction and you know that happened,” Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

Khashoggi’s killers may have transported his dismembered body out of Turkey in luggage, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar was quoted as saying by broadcaster CNN Turk on Sunday. “One probability is that they left the country three to four hours after committing the murder … they may have taken out Khashoggi’s dismembered corpse inside luggage without facing problems due to their diplomatic immunity,” Akar commented, Reuters reports.

Director for the Persian Gulf region on the National Security Council – Kirsten Fontenrose – reportedly resigned Friday evening. Fontenrose, responsible for U.S.-Saudi policy, had allegedly pushed for tough punishment for the Saudi government following Khashoggi’s murder; it is “not clear” why she is leaving the administration, Megan Keller reports at the Hill.

President Trump has announced that Washington has no plans to extradite Turkish religious leader Fethullah Gulen, accused by Ankara of orchestrating a coup attempt over two years ago. NBC News had reported that the Trump had looked at the possibly of extraditing Gulen in an attempt to ease Ankara’s pressure on the kingdom following Khashoggi’s murder; “no, it’s not under consideration,” Trump said on Saturday, when asked whether such move was being in contemplation, Al Jazeera reports.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An analysis of why Trump is remaining loyal to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman despite mounting evidence linking him to Khashoggi’s killing is provided by Mark Landler at the New York Times.

“A key question will be whether the White House maintains its unqualified alliance with the Saudi leadership or adjusts its foreign policy,” Michael R. Gordon comments at the Wall Street Journal, suggesting that the C.I.A. report and Saudi policy in Yemen could precipitate a change in approach.

“Why bring a bonesaw to a kidnapping?” is the question that the crown prince and President Trump should be repeatedly asked regarding Khashoggi’s killing, Fred Hiatt suggests at the Washington Post, asking: “are we really okay, as a country, with an ally luring a journalist living in Northern Virginia into what should be a diplomatic sanctuary for the purpose of assassination and dismemberment — and then baldly, brazenly, ludicrously lying about it?”

The nomination of retired four-star general John Abizaid to be U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia may provide a much-needed “adult in the room” amidst the Khashoggi fallout, Peter Bergen reports at CNN.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump has said that he probably would not agree to a sit-down interview with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators looking into Russian election interference, claiming that his written responses to Mueller’s questions would likely be “the end.” Asked in a Fox interview if his refusal to submit to a sit-down interview represented his final stance, Trump responded: “probably … I mean, I can change my mind, but probably,” adding that he has completed his written answers and these will be provided to Mueller “very soon,” Gabriel T. Rubin and Ryan Tracy report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump added that he would not intervene if acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker were to act to curtail Mueller’s probe. Trump said that “it’s going to be up to him … I would not get involved” when asked whether he would be content with any attempt by Whitaker to limit the investigation, also defending Whitaker’s past criticism of Mueller’s probe, Zachary Warmbrodt reports at POLITICO.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

President Trump is planning to make several important staffing changes as he prepares to deal with newly empowered Democrats in the wake of the midterms in addition to the “looming” outcome of the Mueller probe. “I have three or four or five positions that I’m thinking about,” Trump said in an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” adding that “I need flexibility;” also refusing to rule out the possibility that chief of staff John Kelly might be leaving, AFP reports

National security adviser John Bolton’s influence is growing within the White House. An analysis of his “consolidation of authority” is provided by Dion Nissenbaum at the Wall Street Journal.

YEMEN

Senior leader of Yemen’s Shi’ite Iran-aligned Houthi rebels – Mohammed Ali al-Houthi – has announced that the group will halt all rocket and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and is ready to implement a ceasefire, if the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led pro-government alliance fighting his movement is prepared to do the same. “We are willing to freeze and stop military operations on all fronts to reach a just and honourable peace if they really want peace for the Yemeni people,” Houthi commented in a message on Twitter, Al Jazeera reports.

U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths has announced that the Yemeni Government and the Houthi rebels are both committed to working on a political solution, and that he has received firm assurances from both sides of a renewed commitment to attend talks. Griffiths added that the U.N. is about to conclude an agreement between the parties on the exchange of prisoners and detainees, which he characterized as an important humanitarian gesture and “a timely message of hope to the Yemeni people,” the U.N. News Centre reports.

SYRIA

Russia will hold the next round of talks on Syria with Iran and Turkey on Nov. 28-29 in Kazakhstan, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov announced today, also telling reporters that delegations of the Damascus government and the Syrian rebels are also set to attend, Reuters reports.

At least forty people – mostly women and children – were killed on Saturday in the latest bout of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against the final remaining Islamic State group-held pocket in Syria near the Iraqi border, according to Islamic State group militants and some local residents. Coalition spokesperson Col. Sean Ryan confirmed the strikes but denied the civilian casualties, adding that: “the coalition takes great measures to identify and strike appropriate I.S.I.S. targets in order to avoid non-combatant casualties,” Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 150 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Nov. 4. and Nov. 10. [Central Command]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Congress is heading toward a “collision” with President Trump over next year’s defense budget, following the findings of a recent Congressional report suggesting that the U.S. military is facing a “grave” erosion in superiority. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Israel’s government appears to have survived a potential collapse after lawmaker Naftali Bennett today withdrew a previous threat to leave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition – a move that would have forced snap elections. The BBC reports.

“We will not survive a world war fought with nuclear weapons …we need to eliminate them before they eliminate us.” Ira Helfand comments at CNN, arguing: “rather than destroying agreements such as the I.N.F. [1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty] we should be working with the other eight nuclear-armed states to negotiate a verifiable … enforceable … time-bound framework for dismantling the 14,500 nuclear weapons that remain in the world.” 

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About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).