Washington: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said there was no hard evidence that the powerful Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman was behind the killing, seemingly contradicting an assessment by the CIA about journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“We have no smoking gun the crown prince was involved, not the intelligence community or anyone else. There is no smoking gun,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.
Mattis said he had read all the US intelligence reports about the incident and a transcript of what is believed to be an audio recording of the killing.
After repeated calls from members of Congress for a strong US response to Khashoggi’s death, both Mattis and Pompeo briefed the Senate behind closed doors about Saudi Arabia, the Oct. 2 murder of Khashoggi and the war in Yemen.
Echoing similar comments from President Donald Trump, they said downgrading US ties with ally Saudi Arabia would harm national security.
Pompeo acknowledged to the lawmakers that the Yemen conflict - in which Saudi Arabia is deeply involved - has taken a terrible toll on civilians, but he argued that the Saudis provide an important counterweight to Iran in the region.
“More broadly, degrading ties with Saudi Arabia would be a grave mistake for US national security, and that of our allies,” Pompeo said in his prepared remarks to the Senate.
“The Kingdom is a powerful force for stability in an otherwise fraught Middle East.”
Pompeo told reporters after the briefing that there was no direct evidence connecting Crown Prince Mohammad to Khashoggi’s murder.
However, Pompeo and Mattis did not seem to sway leading Senate foreign policy voices, including some of Trump’s fellow Republicans, who said they believed taking no action would send a more dangerous message to the world.
Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after the briefing it was apparent to everyone in the room that the crown prince was responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
“We have a problem here. We understand that Saudi Arabia is an ally, of sorts, and a semi-important country,” Corker said.
“We also have a crown prince that’s out of control.”
Corker warned that Congress would act if the administration does not. Defying the White House, the Senate voted on Wednesday to advance a resolution to end US military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war, setting the stage for a possible final vote on the measure within days.
Trump has dismissed a CIA assessment that the crown prince likely ordered Khashoggi’s killing.
He vowed last week to remain a “steadfast partner” of Saudi Arabia and said it was not clear whether the prince knew about the plan to kill Khashoggi.