WASHINGTON – The Central Intelligence Agency has concluded that the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was carried out under the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a close ally of President Donald Trump, United States officials familiar with the matter said.
One of the officials said on Friday that the spy agency’s assessment isn’t based on “smoking gun” evidence of the crown prince’s involvement, but rather “an understanding of how Saudi Arabia works.”
“This would not and could not have happened” without Prince Mohammed’s involvement, the official said.
Saudi Arabia has denied that Prince Mohammed had any prior knowledge of the killing. On Thursday, the country’s public prosecutor said there was no top-down order to kill Khashoggi, and said he would seek the death penalty against five suspects in the case.
A spokeswoman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington said in a statement on Friday: “The claims in this purported assessment are false. We have and continue to hear various theories without seeing the primary basis for these speculations.”
A CIA spokesman declined to comment. The CIA assessment was first reported Friday by the Washington Post. White House officials didn’t respond to a request for comment about the CIA assessment.
The determination by the top US spy agency that Prince Mohammed had prior knowledge of Khashoggi’s Oct. 2 murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, could endanger President Trump’s efforts to protect relations with the crown prince and Saudi Arabia more generally.
Trump and aides have denounced the killing, but the US president has avoided personally blaming Prince Mohammed, who runs Saudi Arabia on a day-to-day basis. The president has sought to safeguard important aspects of Washington’s ties with the kingdom – including American arms sales to Riyadh.
The CIA disclosure also came after Turkish officials on Friday said they have more audio evidence proving that Khashoggi’s death was the result of a planned execution.
Turkish officials said that, in addition to an audio recording that captured Khashoggi’s dying moments, Turkish investigators have other audio evidence and phone intercepts that contradict the Saudi version of events.
One recording captured the Saudi operatives rehearsing how they would proceed with the killing minutes before Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, according to a senior Turkish official.
“The assessment that the Crown Prince ordered the murder is not surprising but it significantly undermines the administration’s effort to whitewash the Saudi prince,” said Bruce Riedel, a former top CIA and White House official now at the Brookings Institution think tank.
“It raises the question why MbS has not been sanctioned by the Treasury Department,” Riedel said in an email, using the crown prince’s initials.
The Trump administration imposed sanctions on Thursday on 17 Saudis allegedly involved in the case. Prince Mohammed wasn’t among them.
Congressional leaders were briefed on Thursday about US intelligence on Khashoggi’s killing, said people familiar with the matter.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, confirmed the briefing in remarks to The Wall Street Journal following a speaking engagement in Washington on Thursday evening.
Asked whether Prince Mohammed knew in advance of the killing, Warner said, referring to the Saudi government: “All evidence is that it’s a fairly tightly controlled command and control system.”
The Turkish government has steadily released evidence in Khashoggi’s death, including recordings Turkish officials have said have been shared with CIA Director Gina Haspel. US officials so far haven’t confirmed that they have reviewed the Turkish evidence.
Earlier this week, White House national security adviser John Bolton said US officials don’t believe the evidence released so far connects the crown prince to Khashoggi’s killing. “That’s not the conclusion that I think the people who heard it have come to,” he said at a media briefing in Singapore on Tuesday.
Questions also have arisen over the role played by the Saudi ambassador to the US, Prince Khalid bin Salman, brother of the crown prince.
Before he went to the consulate in Istanbul, Khashoggi had been in regular contact with Prince Khalid, communicating via the WhatsApp online messaging service, according to people familiar with the communications.
In those exchanges, Prince Khalid assured Khashoggi that it would be safe to go the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and would be safe traveling to Saudi Arabia, the people familiar with the communications said. They said the communications between the two lasted over a period of months.
Saudi officials said there was nothing in the communications that would implicate the ambassador in Khashoggi’s death.
“The ambassador met Jamal once in late September 2017 in person for a cordial discussion, and they communicated via text after the meeting, the last message sent by the Ambassador to him was on 26 of October 2017,” the Saudi spokeswoman said. “At no time did Prince Khalid discuss anything related to going to Turkey with Jamal.”
Prince Khalid left the US in the midst of the furor over Khashoggi’s killing. Current and former US officials say his family has left as well, and they don’t expect him to return.