Six weeks after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the CIA says it has concluded that responsibility for ordering the hit goes to the very top—Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Washington Post reports the American intelligence agency had received new information that bolstered its hypothesis that the crown prince likely signed off on the operation that saw a team of 15 Saudi agents fly to Turkey ahead of the murder.
In addition to audio recordings from inside the Saudi consulate during the murder of Khashoggi, the Post reports the CIA included in its assessment a phone call made by the crown prince’s brother, Khalid bin Salman, who is also the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Khalid called Khashoggi, and during the exchange, he reportedly assured the Washington Post columnist that he would be safe to go to the Saudi consulate to pick up documents he needed for his upcoming marriage to a Turkish woman. The Post notes it’s not clear if Khalid knew that Khashoggi would be murdered once there, but he made the call at the crown prince’s direction. A recording of a phone call made from inside the consulate immediately after the killing by a security official often seen by the crown prince’s side to one of his top aides in Riyadh saying “tell your boss … the deed is done” further bolstered the working assumption that Crown Prince Mohammed was aware of the operation.
The Trump administration, which imposed sanctions Thursday on 17 Saudis involved in the Khashoggi assassination, has struggled to come up with a coherent response to the Saudi regime’s awkwardly evolving story about what happened and why. This week, the Saudi government announced charges against 11 alleged participants in the murder; the state prosecutor said he would seek the death penalty in five of those cases. The move seems more aimed at creating the appearance of punishment, an institutional deflection of responsibility from the very top, than an actual attempt to get to the bottom of what happened, which doesn’t seem to be much of a mystery in Riyadh. Trump, who sees the crown prince as an ally and a trading partner and a like-minded chum somehow, very clearly wants to help inoculate him from fallout from the murder. The general belief across the Trump administration, including the CIA, is that it’s better to have Crown Prince Mohammed in charge in Saudi Arabia than the alternative. “The CIA sees Mohammed as a ‘good technocrat,’ the U.S. official said, but also as volatile and arrogant, someone who ‘goes from zero to 60, doesn’t seem to understand that there are some things you can’t do,’ ” the Post reports. “CIA analysts believe he has a firm grip on power and is not in danger of losing his status as heir to the throne despite the Khashoggi scandal.”
On Saturday morning, despite mounting evidence, Trump continued to run interference for the crown prince. “We haven’t been briefed yet. The CIA is going to be speaking to me today,” Trump told reporters Saturday morning at the White House before departing for California. “As of this moment we were told that he did not play a role. We’re going to have to find out what they have to say.”