WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Bob Corker has renewed demands for CIA Director Gina Haspel to brief senators this week about the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, warning that the administration has not yet secured his vote against a resolution to end U.S. involvement in Yemen.
Corker, who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and retiring at the end of his term in January, suggested Monday that Haspel must join Wednesday’s briefing alongside Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo so she can explain the CIA’s findings into Khashoggi’s alleged murder at the hands of Saudi agents.
Khashoggi’s death has energized efforts in Congress to shake up the U.S. relationship with the kingdom and to punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his alleged involvement. Before Corker decides his next move on the matter, he wants to know how the administration is dealing with the question of Salman’s role and what’s happening in U.S. negotiations to end the Yemeni civil war.
“I want to hear where they see this going, what kind of pressure they plan on placing on the situation and how we plan to deal with the issue of what MbS, in my opinion, has done. You can’t just let it stand,” Corker said, using an acronym for Salman.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., is also demanding intelligence community representation at the briefings, and he put it in blunter terms.
“The briefings are lacking because there’s no one from the intelligence community there. That says to me that you are specifically trying not to have the key question asked,” Menendez said in a brief hallway interview Monday.
Though President Donald Trump said Thursday a CIA report on the matter had “feelings certain ways” but no clear conclusion about Salman’s involvement, House Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff — who was briefed on the classified report — told CNN on Sunday: “I think the president is being dishonest.”
Earlier this month, the U.S. Treasury Department added economic sanctions to the travel bans already in place against 17 Saudis accused of taking part in Khashoggi’s murder inside their country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2.
Trump has repeatedly expressed reluctance to go further, citing the threat from Iran and the economic benefits of the U.S.-Saudi alliance, particularly from U.S. arms sales — a line of thinking that’s resonated with some lawmakers.
For his part, Corker said he previously “laid in the railroad tracks” to defend the U.S.-Saudi alliance in votes to reject U.S. weapons sales to Riyadh and legislation allowing families of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to sue the government of Saudi Arabia. But perhaps no more, he hinted.
“I’m at a very different place now,” Corker said. “I don’t plan on laying in the railroad tracks, for sure. And depending on what happens Wednesday, I could be in a different place than I have been in the past.”
The comments come as the Senate is expected to vote this week on a privileged resolution from Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Mike Lee, R-Utah; and Chris Murphy, D-Conn. to force an end to U.S. military involvement with the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.
Though the measure was tabled 55-44 in March, Corker and others have said Congress cooled on the U.S.-Saudi alliance since Khashoggi’s murder.
Corker noted his objections to the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar and Riyadh’s arrest of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri last year.
“Here in the Senate, people look for ways to express themselves, and this is the vehicle that’s coming,” Corker said of the Sanders-Lee-Murphy resolution. “We need to keep a relationship with [Saudi Arabia] because they are a country that’s semi-important. At the same time we don’t need to condone multiple bad acts by them.”
Not only are arms sales to Saudi Arabia frozen, but Corker said he is discussing with lawmakers on and off of his committee more sanctions on the kingdom.
On Monday, Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, who serves on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, said civilian casualties in Yemen have been “terrible,” but the conflict must be understood as a proxy war with Iran, through Houthi rebels. He planned to attend Wednesday’s briefing before deciding his next move.
“I’ve supported our involvement in the past because I thought it gave [the Saudis] the technology they needed to avoid hitting civilians,” Rubio said. “Unfortunately it hasn’t played out that way.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., on Monday called on the Senate to pass the Sanders-Lee-Murphy resolution this week. He also supports freezing arms sales to Riyadh and Global Magnitsky Act sanctions — which lawmakers triggered last month.
“The U.S. inserted itself into a civil war that’s killed thousands of civilians and forced millions more to the brink of famine,” Kaine said in a statement. “As President Trump doubles down on his support for Saudi Arabia in the wake of the state-sponsored murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the burden falls on Congress to stand up for American values across the globe and stop our engagement in this conflict.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.