MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
How much is the U.S.-Saudi relationship about to change in the wake of the report that U.S. intelligence dropped today on the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the direct role it says the crown prince of Saudi Arabia played? The report is short. It is direct. At the very top, the first words - declassified by DNI Haines. That would be the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines.
This afternoon, at the same hour the report was released, I was sitting down with Haines at her office, both wearing masks, socially distanced. Our interview is her first as DNI. We covered a number of subjects. This represents her only comment today on the report. And I asked Haines, give us the headline.
AVRIL HAINES: We do assess that the operation to capture or kill Jamal Khashoggi was, in fact, approved by Mohammed bin Salman. And we provide our assessment, and then we also identify other individuals that participated in the events.
KELLY: Are you making a distinction with that verb approved as opposed to ordered?
HAINES: Well, I think I'm just using the language, frankly, of the report itself - what it was that was assessed.
KELLY: Does it feel like you just dropped a bomb into U.S./Saudi relations?
HAINES: I mean, obviously it's going to be challenging. And, you know, it's among a number of things that are challenging that the president is managing right now. But I am hopeful. And then certainly, I know the president's view - to keep the channels of communication open and to try to work through these issues.
But it's also - a part of what we do in the intelligence community, I think, is just try to provide what we see and make sure that it is as clear as possible and that we're providing that analysis in an sort of unvarnished way. And I know that's, you know, part of what it is that was hoped for from the Congress, I think, in passing this law and putting it forward.
KELLY: Well, I was going to ask - 'cause Congress passed a law in 2019 saying you had to provide a declassified version of this report.
KELLY: What was the holdup?
HAINES: I couldn't speak to what occurred over the last few years, obviously. You know, I think it's...
KELLY: Was this already written when you came in last month?
HAINES: There was a classified report that had been provided to the Congress. And we looked at that report, and we ultimately considered additional intelligence that had been done since that report had been delivered to the Congress. And we ultimately pulled out what we believed could be put forward while still being protective of sensitive sources and methods. And that's something that the law also calls for, is that we provide an unclassified report, but also that we consider what is necessary to protect sensitive sources and methods.
So that's what we provided. And it does take time. I mean, to be fair, it is a challenging process. In every circumstance, you sort of have to make sure that you're doing it in a deliberate, careful way in order to provide the information that you can publicly.
KELLY: Was there any dissent, any spy agency that disagreed with this conclusion?
HAINES: No, there wasn't. I mean, but I think it's - you know, in terms of the ultimate provision of this information, but there was certainly debate and deliberation over exactly what should be provided and how it should be done and so on. So, you know, that is a natural scheme of things.
KELLY: Did your office come under any political pressure in completing this, in declassifying it? Were you challenged to soften the finding in any way?
HAINES: None whatsoever. And I mean, I think that will be clear by virtue of the report's contents, in a sense.
KELLY: What does it do to your relationship as the head of U.S. intelligence, your relationship with your counterparts in Saudi Arabia, that your office has put out a report fingering their crown prince as a killer?
HAINES: Well, I think, you know, the fact that the crown prince approved that operation and, you know - or that we, rather, have assessed that - is also likely not to be a surprise. And, you know, I am sure it is not going to make things easier, but I think it's also fair to say that it is not unexpected. And I hope we are able to continue to do work where it makes sense for us to do work and to continue to communicate as we have.
KELLY: We know the president reached out to King Salman to give him a heads up and talk through the relationship. Have you been in contact with your counterpart?
HAINES: No, I have not.
KELLY: I mean, I am thinking Mohammed bin Salman is not just the crown prince, he's the defense minister. Your report states that he is in absolute control of the kingdom's security and intelligence organizations, which makes me wonder about the risk of blowback from this. If he decides, you know what? I'm not so interested in sharing intelligence with a country that has just written this really mean thing about me. Are you worried about that?
HAINES: I mean, I think - I hope that we're both able to work together on the issues of mutual interest. And we've obviously indicated over many, many years our commitment to Saudi Arabia's territorial integrity. And our intelligence services have worked closely together over the years. And, you know, we have both had opportunities to have bad news in our presses and, you know, from our different government institutions. And still we've managed to pursue those issues. So I'm hopeful that the relationship will continue to be what the relationship is. And I also hope that we continue to be able to say what we think when we have those opportunities and when it's appropriate to do so.
KELLY: Yeah. Last question on this, which is just again, how you see the risk of damage to the broader relationship. And I'm asking you now as the head of U.S. intelligence, but you've tracked that relationship from perches at the White House and the State Department and the CIA.
HAINES: I think it's too soon to tell in some respects. You know, to be honest, it is not surprising, I suppose, to see a shift in the relationship in some ways with the new administration and a new position and a number of challenging issues that we face together. But it's also - you know, President Biden has been doing this for a very long time and has worked on those relationships and, I think, has built those personal ties. And I think there will be ways to weather the various storms that we have in front of us.
KELLY: And we were told that this was going to drop yesterday. Was there any reason it didn't? Was there any change last minute or anything like that?
HAINES: No change to the report itself.
KELLY: OK. Can you share what the reason for the delay was or...
HAINES: No. I think, frankly, it came today. It came as soon as we could make it happen.
KELLY: Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines talking about the Khashoggi report she declassified. It is out today. Saudi Arabia has responded through the state news agency SPA saying it, quote, "completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment." More of my interview with Haines on Monday. We talk about the state of the intelligence community she now leads after four years of turbulence and turnover under President Trump.
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