The Washington Post reports the CIA has reached the conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the execution of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. There is no direct link, such as a written order, connecting the murder to the crown prince but a string of phone calls suggest he was involved.
The CIA’s assessment, in which officials have said they have high confidence, is the most definitive to date linking Mohammed to the operation and complicates the Trump administration’s efforts to preserve its relationship with a close ally. A team of 15 Saudi agents flew to Istanbul on government aircraft in October and killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate, where he had come to pick up documents that he needed for his planned marriage to a Turkish woman.
In reaching its conclusions, the CIA examined multiple sources of intelligence, including a phone call that the prince’s brother Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, had with Khashoggi, according to the people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the intelligence. Khalid told Khashoggi, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post, that he should go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to retrieve the documents and gave him assurances that it would be safe to do so.
It is not clear if Khalid knew that Khashoggi would be killed, but he made the call at his brother’s direction, according to the people familiar with the call, which was intercepted by U.S. intelligence.
The Saudi Embassy has denied that Khalid bin Salman ever spoke to Khashoggi about a trip to Turkey. In fact, Khalid denied it himself on Twitter after the story was published:
As we told the Washington Post the last contact I had with Mr. Khashoggi was via text on Oct 26 2017. I never talked to him by phone and certainly never suggested he go to Turkey for any reason. I ask the US government to release any information regarding this claim.
— Khalid bin Salman خالد بن سلمان (@kbsalsaud) November 16, 2018
Unfortunately the @washingtonpost did not print our full response. This is a serious accusation and should not be left to anonymous sources. Our full response was the following: pic.twitter.com/vo1JcNAswx
— Khalid bin Salman خالد بن سلمان (@kbsalsaud) November 17, 2018
The denial offered here (they never spoke, check our phone records!) doesn’t seem terribly convincing given that the Post story all but says the NSA intercepted a call which the CIA has heard. I’m guessing there’s a full audio recording of that call somewhere but it’s not the sort of thing the U.S. is in the habit of releasing to the public. And let’s face it, even if they did release it, the Saudis would still deny it was real.
But the broader issue isn’t whether this one call happened, it’s whether Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered this murder. On that point, there is still no direct proof but the NY Times adds that there is circumstantial evidence:
The C.I.A. has made the assessment based on the crown prince’s control of the Saudi Arabia, which is such that the killing would not have taken place without his approval, and has buttressed its conclusion with two sets of crucial communications: intercepts of the crown prince’s calls in the days before the killing, and calls by the kill team to a senior aide to the crown prince.
…the intercepts show that Prince Mohammed was trying to find ways to lure Mr. Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia, according to people briefed on the intelligence findings. But he did not say in the phone calls that he wanted to have Mr. Khashoggi killed, the people said.
So the two alternative stories being offered are as follows:
- The crown prince and his brother were talking about getting Khashoggi out of the U.S. A 15-man team met him in Turkey with plans to interrogate him, but the interrogators got carried away and accidentally killed him. They then dressed up one of their own in his clothes and sent him out the back door wearing a fake beard they happened to have on hand to fool the cameras and create a story that he had simply disappeared on his own.
- The crown prince wanted to lure Khashoggi out of the U.S., asked his brother to assure his safety by phone, and then sent a 15-man team to kill him and to create a semi-plausible alibi video showing someone in his clothes leaving the premises.
I’m pretty sure which explanation makes more sense to me. Here’s CNN’s report on the Saudi body double: