The CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, US media reported on Friday, a finding that contradicts Saudi government assertions that he was not involved.
According to the Washington Post, who first reported the CIA conclusion, US officials expressed high confidence in the CIA assessment, which is the most definitive to date linking MBS to the killing and complicates President Donald Trump‘s efforts to preserve ties with one of the closest US allies in the region.
Both the Washington Post and the Associated Press cited unnamed officials familiar with the CIA conclusion.
The accuracy of the reports could not be immediately verified.
US Vice President Mike Pence, on a visit to Papua New Guinea, told reporters travelling with him that he could not comment on classified information.
“The murder of Jamal Khashoggi was an atrocity. It was also an affront to a free and independent press and the United States is determined to hold all of those accountable who are responsible for that murder,” he said.
“We are going to follow the facts,” the vice president said, also adding that the US wanted to find a way of preserving a “strong and historic partnership” with Saudi Arabia.
The State Department and the CIA declined to comment.
Khashoggi, a contributing columnist for the Washington Post, was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 when he went there to pick up documents he needed for his planned marriage.
A critic of the Saudi government, Khashoggi had resisted pressure from Riyadh for him to return home.
Saudi Arabia initially rejected its officials were behind the killing, but as Turkish authorities continued to leak evidence of high-level involvement, Riyadh eventually admitted its agents carried out the killing with a series of contradictory explanations.
Turkish officials have said the killing was intentional and have been pressuring Saudi Arabia to extradite those responsible to stand trial. An adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday accused Saudi Arabia of trying to cover up the murder.
His remarks came after Shaalan al-Shaalan, Saudi Arabia’s deputy public prosecutor, said he was seeking the death penalty for five suspects charged in Khashoggi’s killing. Al-Shaalan told reporters the Saudi crown prince knew nothing of the operation, in which Khashoggi’s body was dismembered and removed from the consulate.
‘Assurances given to Khashoggi’
In Friday’s report, the Washington Post, citing people familiar with the matter, said the CIA reached its conclusions after examining multiple sources of intelligence, including a phone call that the prince’s brother, Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the US, had with Khashoggi.
Khalid told Khashoggi 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, the Post said.
The newspaper, citing individuals familiar with the call, said it was not clear if Khalid knew Khashoggi would be killed but that he made the call at his brother’s direction.
Ambassador Khalid bin Salman said in a Twitter post on Friday the last contact he had with Khashoggi was via text on October 26, 2017, nearly a year before the journalist’s death.
“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,” he tweeted.
The ambassador posted a second tweet, which he said included the embassy’s full response to the Washington Post report.
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
In it, an embassy spokesperson said the “claims in this purported assessment are false”.
“We have and continue to hear various theories without seeing the primary basis for these speculations,” the spokesperson added.
Glenn Carle, former CIA deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats
The CIA would have been certain in its conclusion of bin Salman’s involvement before it was leaked to the media.
There are two parts to how the CIA would have made its assessment:
First, it would have asked “What happened? Who did this? Who’s responsible?” It would have then canvassed all of its sources – human sources, technical sources, open sources, and each report would have been assessed for reliability. They would have then said, for example, “The source has been repeatedly substantiated and corroborated.”
Then, you will have the same assessment made for each report, whether it’s telephone intercept or not. Then, those reports will be brought together with the assessment report to say they concord, that there is no dissonance.
Second, they would assess the next part: What is the likely consequence of this? That gets into tealeaf or crystal ball reading, and that is based on the experts’ understanding of how power is wielded in Saudi Arabia.
In this instance, the report is overwhelmingly, uniformly from what one can sense, in agreement that MBS was responsible. Until it had overwhelming assessments by multiple sources, the agency would have not reached that conclusion.
The reports on the CIA assessment come a day after the US sanctioned 17 Saudi nationals allegedly involved in Khashoggi’s murder, including bin Salman’s top aide, Saud al-Qahtani.
Many US politicians welcomed the sanctions, but said they did not go far enough and that MBS should be included.
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from Istanbul, said the consequences of the reports on the CIA assessment is adding to the pressure on US President Donald Trump to take action.
“We’re waiting to see what he will do after his stated reluctance to hold Saudi’s leadership responsible for the killing. Congress is putting pressure on him now. The CIA is evidently briefing people, possibly against Trump’s wishes,” Simmons said.
“So, what is next? There may be an international investigation, or a joint US-Turkey investigation. However, the bottom line is; this case has escalated so dramatically now. The news about the CIA assessment is a thunderbolt, seemingly confirming the suspicions of so many people,” he added.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Singapore, Evan Resnick of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies said the reports of the CIA assessment “are highly credible”.
“This basically reconfirms what most of us already suspected, that the plot of the assassination goes right to the top of the Saudi regime and the crown prince,” Resnick said.
“It is explosive but the question is; how credible will the president of the United States see this evidence? It is an open question as to how seriously he will take this intelligence, even as most of us take it quite seriously. Clearly, he has many reasons to want to whitewash this case, the foremost being his policy to contain Iran, for which Saudi Arabia is acting as his lynchpin,” Resnick added.