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For the U.S.-Saudi relationship to thaw, MBS needs to answer on Khashoggi

David Ignatius on

WASHINGTON -- It has been nearly six months since Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered inside Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, but the aftershocks continue. The U.S.-Saudi defense and intelligence partnership has been rocked. The future of the relationship is on hold, pending answers from Riyadh.

This case is personal for us at The Washington Post. Khashoggi was our colleague, and my friend for 15 years. To understand how his murder happened and whether it's possible to rebuild the U.S.-Saudi relationship, I've interviewed more than a dozen knowledgeable American and Saudi sources, who revealed some previously secret details because they hope to establish new rules and accountability that might preserve the relationship.

The bottom line is that unless the crown prince takes ownership of this issue and accepts blame for murderous deeds done in his name, his relationship with the United States will remain broken. Saudi officials claim that Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is known, has made changes, firing Saud al-Qahtani, his former covert-operations coordinator. But the Saudi machine of repression remains intact, run by many of the same people who worked for Qahtani.

MBS took a small step toward placating critics Thursday when the kingdom released three female human-rights activists from prison, while they await trial. Eight other women who campaigned for women to drive and other issues remain in detention.

Among the previously undisclosed findings:

-- Some members of the Saudi strike team that was sent to Istanbul received training in the United States, according to U.S. and Saudi sources. The CIA has cautioned other government agencies that some of this special-operations training might have been conducted by Tier 1 Group, an Arkansas-based company, under a State Department license.

 

-- A U.S. plan to train and modernize the Saudi intelligence service is also on hold, pending State Department approval of a license. This project was developed by Culpeper National Security Solutions, a unit of DynCorp, with help from some prominent former CIA officials. No work on the project has been done.

-- Michael Morell, former acting director of the CIA, was publicly identified as Culpeper's chairman of the board in 2017, but he no longer holds that position. A source said Morell withdrew within days of Khashoggi's murder because of his concern about the direction Saudi Arabia was heading. Morell declined to comment.

Tier 1 Group and DynCorp are both owned by affiliates of Cerberus Capital Management, based in New York. The company wouldn't confirm or deny whether any of the 17 perpetrators of the Khashoggi killing who were sanctioned by the Treasury Department had been trained under the Tier 1 contract.

-- NSO Group, an Israeli-founded company that provides sophisticated tools for hacking cellphones, has reviewed and modified its relationship with Saudi Arabia, according to a Saudi source, because of concerns that its technology might have been misused. The company wouldn't confirm or deny this account.

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