Trump says he hasn’t seen or heard anything. So does Mike Pompeo. Which raises the question: Did the Turks refuse to provide a copy of the recording to the U.S., possibly not wanting to share their big leverage point against Saudi Arabia?
Or are Trump and Pompeo deliberately quarantining themselves from the evidence, so that they can go before the public and say with a semi-straight face that the Saudis’ story of a fight gone wrong is “credible”? That’s the whole U.S.-Saudi relationship in microcosm, really: Without a blind eye it’s morally untenable.
Interestingly, although “credible” was the word Trump chose on Friday to describe the Saudi account, his tune had changed by the time he spoke to the Washington Post for an interview.
President Trump strongly criticized Saudi Arabia’s explanation for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi late Saturday, saying that “obviously there’s been deception, and there’s been lies.”…
CIA officials have listened to an audio recording that Turkish officials say proves the journalist was killed and dismembered by the Saudi team, according to people familiar with the matter. If verified, the recording would make it difficult for the United States to accept the Saudi version that Khashoggi’s death was effectively an accident. Officials agreed to speak for this article on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic…
“If Secretary Pompeo was offered to listen to the audio recording, he was smart to say no,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “You can’t unlisten to it, and once you listen to it, you can’t say certain things.”
It’s not just the CIA that’s heard the audio. Two sources tell the WSJ that the Saudis sent Prince Khalid al Faisal to Turkey this month to handle the Khashoggi fallout and that while there he “had access to a short audio recording that offers evidence that Mr. Khashoggi was drugged, killed and dismembered minutes after walking into the consulate.” There’s nothing on the tape about a brawl that led to an accidental death or whatever, allegedly, and al-Faisal told the king and other members of the regime as much. The “fight” storyline is pure fiction, not an interpretation of the audio.
This Reuters report delving in depth into the Saudis’ account of events is worth your time. Supposedly the orders given to the Saudi team that confronted Khashoggi at the consulate were to merely convince him that he should come back with them to the Kingdom. But they misunderstood and thought their mandate was to bring him back whether he wanted to go or not:
According to the latest version of the death, the government wanted to convince Khashoggi, who moved to Washington a year ago fearing reprisals for his views, to return to the kingdom as part of a campaign to prevent Saudi dissidents from being recruited by the country’s enemies, the official said…
According to the plan, the team could hold Khashoggi in a safe house outside Istanbul for “a period of time” but then release him if he ultimately refused to return to Saudi Arabia, the official said…
[Inside the consulate Maher] Mutreb [told Khashoggi], “Yes, we will drug you and kidnap you,” in what the official said was an attempt at intimidation that violated the mission’s objective.
When Khashoggi raised his voice, the team panicked. They moved to restrain him, placing him in a chokehold and covering his mouth, according to the government’s account.
Allegedly, in their zeal to quiet him down, they suffocated him. My understanding is that it takes several minutes of applied pressure to cause death by strangulation; if they had drugs onhand to sedate him for a kidnapping, as Mutreb supposedly claimed, it’s inexplicable that they wouldn’t have used those to knock him out quickly instead of choking him. (It’s even more inexplicable that they wouldn’t have anticipated some resistance from Khashoggi in the first place and had a plan ready to deal with it.) One shot of ketamine would have done the trick. It’s also odd, if the plan was to abduct him and his death was completely unforeseen, that they had a forensic expert present who happens to specialize in mobile autopsies.
My favorite part, though, the part where this cover story turns into dark comedy gold, is the idea of sending a team of people abroad to abduct someone and hold him in a “safe house” until he complied with their wishes, and then to have them … just give up and let him go if he refused. That might be the first case in recorded history where an abductee survived despite his captors getting nothing whatsoever out of the kidnapping. Worse, letting him go would have cost them a bunch in international relations given that Khashoggi was a writer for the most prominent newspaper in America’s capital city. He would have written about his abduction for WaPo, outrage would have followed, the Saudi royals would have been humiliated. Any abduction scenario had to end in death, logically. But this is the sort of nonsense that must be contrived to protect Mohammed bin Salman’s “good name”: Whatever his henchmen might have understood their mandate to be, surely the fair prince never would have condoned the forcible rendition and ultimate killing of a prominent critic.
Reuters’s source also claims, by the way, that Khashoggi’s body wasn’t dismembered but was rolled up in a rug and handed over to a “local cooperator” to dispose of. The condition of the body, if and when it’s recovered, would be one easy way to disprove that Saudi narrative. Is it intact, as Reuters’s source claims, or was it hacked up, as the Turks allege the audio proves? Although even if they do recover Khashoggi’s remains in pieces, I suppose the answer from Khashoggi truthers will be that the Turks dismembered the remains themselves to make the Saudis look even worse.
Exit question: Why did Trump go from saying he thought the Saudi account was “credible” to complaining to WaPo about “deception” and “lies”? Was he briefed by the CIA on the audio in the interim? Is he worried that angry Republicans in Congress might do something rash to jeopardize the U.S.-Saudi relationship if he doesn’t show a little more indignation?