- Alex Wong/Getty
- President Donald Trump has been accused of engaging in a “cover-up” after reportedly preventing CIA Director Gina Haspel from attending a Wednesday Senate briefing on Jamal Khashoggi’s killing.
- Former intelligence officials described the apparent move as “very unusual” as both Republican and Democratic senators complained about Haspel’s absence.
- Jeff Prescott, who served as a senior director for the Middle East on the National Security Council in the Obama administration, told INSIDER, “The reaction you see from members shows how unusual it is.”
- Glenn Carle, a former CIA covert operative, described the situation as “another step in Trump’s erosion of our system of government.”
The White House reportedly refused to allow CIA Director Gina Haspel to attend a Wednesday Senate briefing on Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, a move that has prompted confusion from former intelligence officials and accusations of a “cover-up” from the president’s critics. The CIA director traveled to Istanbul to learn more about the killing, and listened to audio of the incident during her visit. The CIA and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment from INSIDER.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had requested Haspel’s presence.
Accordingly, Haspel’s absence from Wednesday’s briefing, which was attended by Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, did not go unnoticed.
‘Nobody was happy that she wasn’t there, put it that way’
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake said Haspel’s absence from the briefing was noted “several times.”
“A lot of us were frustrated that she wasn’t there…Nobody was happy that she wasn’t there, put it that way,” Flake said.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) on CIA Dir. Gina Haspel's absence from closed-door Khashoggi briefing: "A lot of us were frustrated that she wasn't there…Nobody was happy that she wasn't there, put it that way." https://t.co/1xXMLtTgOs pic.twitter.com/mQBIWTF5SK
— CBS Evening News (@CBSEveningNews) November 28, 2018
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner expressed similar sentiments. “It would be nice if the CIA director addressed the Congress,” Gardner told reporters after the briefing. Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez took things a step further, accusing the Trump administration of engaging in a “cover-up” on the “critical question” of Khashoggi’s “murder.”
Read more: ‘Saudi Arabia First, not America First’: Even top GOP allies of Trump are railing against his defense of Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s killing The CIA has reportedly concluded with “high confidence” that Khashoggi’s killing was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, with whom President Donald Trump has developed a strong relationship.
After the briefing, Pompeo, who previously served as CIA director under Trump, dodged questions on why Haspel didn’t attend. “I was asked to be here, and I’m here,” Pompeo said on the matter, also claiming there is no “direct reporting” linking the crown prince to Khashoggi’s killing.
Corker, however, said, “I don’t think there’s anybody in the room that doesn’t believe [Salman] was responsible for it.”
- Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images
‘It’s not the White House’s role to determine what intelligence Congress receives’
Multiple former intelligence officials and foreign policy experts portrayed Haspel’s absence as highly unusual. Caroline Tess, who served as special assistant to the president and senior director for legislative affairs on the National Security Council under the Obama administration, told INSIDER, “It’s not the White House’s role to determine what intelligence Congress receives or what briefings Congress receives from the intelligence community.”
Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer at the CIA and National Security Agency, echoed these sentiments.
Deitz told INSIDER it was “very unusual” for senior intelligence officials to not participate in briefing lawmakers on a high-profile matter like Khashoggi’s death. But, he added, “the Trump White House is a bit thin on trust.”
Glenn Carle, a former CIA covert operative, also said it’s “highly unusual” for the White House to bar senior intelligence officials from briefing the Senate. “Another step in Trump’s erosion of our system of government,” he said, and added that it’s possible Trump may not even have the authority to determine who briefs the oversight committees.
‘The reaction you see from members shows how unusual it is’
Jeff Prescott, who served as special assistant to the president and senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf States on the National Security Council in the Obama administration, also said it was “very unusual” Haspel did not attend. “The reaction you see from members shows how unusual it is,” Prescott said. Prescott, adding to Menendez’s characterization of the move as a “cover-up,” said in some ways you could argue it’s “even worse than a cover-up” because the administration is seemingly offering a different story on Khashoggi’s killing than what the US intelligence community has reportedly concluded. “I don’t know exactly what’s going on in terms of how the administration is thinking about this, but they appear to have made the conclusion providing the intelligence [to Congress] would be more damaging to their case than the anger from not having the intelligence community represented,” Prescott said.
This appears to be a ‘delay tactic’
Michael S. Smith II, a terrorism analyst and national security expert, told INSIDER that if it’s true the Trump administration “discouraged” Haspel from accepting requests to brief the Senate, then it would be an “extraordinary move” and “one that demands a congressional investigation.”
After the initial reports on the White House’s move to bar Haspel from the briefing, Smith said he contacted intelligence historians and former CIA officials – including a former CIA director – to see if there was any precedent for an administration “testing the bounds” of its authority in such a way. “No one could come up with one,” said Smith, who’s offered expert testimony on intelligence matters before the Senate.
“Director Haspel has served as the de facto case officer managing CIA’s evaluation of who may be responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Smith said, adding her absence from the briefing made it a “giant waste of time.” Smith also added that this appears to be a “delay tactic” from the White House to shield Salman and decrease the likelihood Congress will take actions against him.
The Senate is set to vote on a resolution to end US support for Saudi Arabia in the Yemen conflict, which Trump opposes
Wednesday’s briefing on Khashoggi’s killing came before a vote on a resolution from Sen. Bernie Sanders to end US support for Saudi Arabia in the Yemen conflict.
After the briefing, Pompeo said the vote was “poorly timed” and claimed the resolution would serve the interests of Iran.
The resolution is being cosponsored by Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy and Republican Sen. Mike Lee. “[Sanders] and I disagree on many things, but we agree on this,” Lee said to reporters following the briefing. “Our chief executive can not enter war unilaterally.” Khashoggi’s killing has made other senators reevaluate why the US has so “blindly” entered into an alliance with the kingdom, particularly in terms of the Yemen conflict, Lee said.