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White House May Release Reports That Would Test U.S. Alliance With Saudi Arabia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden spoke with Saudi Arabia's King Salman today for the first time since taking office. The call comes as the Biden administration prepares to release an intelligence report about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It could show what the U.S. knows about whether the king's powerful son, the crown prince, was involved. Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is complicated and Jackie Northam is here to talk about how this report might complicate it even more. Hi, Jackie

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First of all, when are we expecting this report? We thought it might come out today. And when it does, any idea what it might reveal?

NORTHAM: We're still waiting for the report to come out. We thought it was going to be today, like you said, but it seems to have been delayed. At this point, we don't know for certain what it's going to say. There's a lot of speculation out there for sure. But the U.S. intelligence community assessed not long ago after Khashoggi was killed that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who's really the power in the kingdom, did play a role. And it's unclear whether he just knew about the killing or whether he ordered it.

Although a couple months after Khashoggi was killed, CIA Chief Gina Haspel briefed some members of Congress about the crown prince's role. And afterwards, then-Senator Bob Corker said there was zero question the crown prince ordered the killing and that if the royal was in front of a jury, he'd be convicted in 30 minutes. And Lindsey Graham also agreed the crown prince was complicit. Now, the senators probably got a lot more information in that briefing than we'll see when this report is made public.

SHAPIRO: OK, so lots of reason to believe that the report is going to point a finger at Mohammed bin Salman. If it's clear that he approved or ordered Khashoggi's killing, what kind of impact is that going to have on the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia?

NORTHAM: Well, it's probably going to go through a pretty rocky period for some time. Having said that, it's likely the Saudis, as they've said all along, will deny that the crown prince had anything to do with Khashoggi's death. And they'll say those responsible have been tried and are now in prison. But, you know, Ari, Khashoggi's death and really how he was killed - you know, he was dismembered with a bone saw by Saudi operatives - this created a lot of outrage here in the U.S. and around the world. And State Department spokesman Ned Price said today that the Biden administration will take action after the intelligence report is released. Have a listen here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NED PRICE: I expect that we will be in a position before long to speak to steps to promote accountability going forward for this horrific crime.

SHAPIRO: Jackie, if you could take a step back for a moment, the U.S. has had this long relationship with Saudi Arabia through huge challenges from 9/11 to Jamal Khashoggi. Why has this alliance endured?

NORTHAM: Well, there's a number of reasons. Certainly they - the kingdom has been a relatively stable friend in an unstable region, which is really valuable to the U.S. It's been helpful on Iran and Syria, and at times, American troops have been based in the kingdom. There's oil. The U.S. is now self-sufficient, but certainly Saudi can still control prices. President Trump had a very, very close relationship with the crown prince and was actually widely seen as giving him a pass for Khashoggi's death. You're right, there was the 9/11 terror attacks and, you know, 19 of the hijackers were Saudi. There was also the oil embargo in '73. So there have been a lot of challenges.

SHAPIRO: And now that Trump, who, as you say, was so close to the royal family, has left, what approach has the Biden administration taken?

NORTHAM: Well, the Biden administration has said it's going to be tough, but it does seem at the same time to be intent on maintaining the relationship, even as it deals with these issues now. Administration officials have said they've let the Saudis know before it was announced that it was canceling some arms sales recently, so they're trying to be reasonable about what they're telling them. And as you mentioned, Biden has now called King Salman. The White House says they discussed ties between the two countries, regional security, human rights. But the statement did not mention anything about the report on Kashoggi's killing that so many people are waiting for.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Jackie Northam covering this story for us. Thank you, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thanks so much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.