Intercepts Solidify C.I.A. Assessment That Saudi Prince Ordered Khashoggi Killing
The C.I.A. has evidence that Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, communicated repeatedly with a key aide around the time that a team believed to have been under the aide’s command assassinated Jamal Khashoggi, according to former officials familiar with the intelligence.
The adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, topped the list of Saudis who were targeted by American sanctions last month over their suspected involvement in the killing of Mr. Khashoggi. American intelligence agencies have evidence that Prince Salman and Mr. Qahtani had 11 exchanges that roughly coincided with the hit team’s advance into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where Mr. Khashoggi was murdered.
The exchanges are a key piece of information that helped solidify the C.I.A.’s assessment that the crown prince ordered the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Virginia resident who had been critical of the Saudi government.
“This is the smoking gun, or at least the smoking phone call,” said Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. official now at the Brookings Institution. “There is only one thing they could possibly be talking about. This shows that the crown prince was witting of premeditated murder.”
The existence of the intercepts was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, which reviewed a highly classified document on the C.I.A. assessment of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. The leak of the secret report, according to officials, infuriated Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director. It has also intensified calls by members of Congress to have Ms. Haspel go to Capitol Hill to brief them.
People briefed on the intelligence said they believed that the 11 exchanges between Prince Mohammed and Mr. Qahtani could very well have been the time when the aide shared the news.
Current and former officials insisted that while the communications are suggestive and reinforce the intelligence agency’s conclusions about the culpability of the crown prince, they are not the kind of definitive, direct evidence that President Trump has suggested would be needed to convince him that Prince Mohammed ordered the killing.
Such evidence, the current and former officials said, is rarely collected, and the C.I.A. and other agencies often make their conclusions based on imperfect information. The C.I.A. has told lawmakers that it has medium to high confidence that Prince Mohammed ordered the killing. Medium to high certainty is a level short of high confidence, and demonstrates that the agency lacks a recording in which the crown prince orders the killing.
The White House and Mr. Trump have shown little willingness to shift from their policy of continued support for Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed. Privately, even some Republicans on Capitol Hill who believe that Prince Mohammed ordered the killing have said they support the administration’s decision not to impose significant costs on Saudi Arabia, arguing that the kingdom’s support is needed to confront threats from Iran.
“Will the White House give up the cover-up of the cover-up? I don’t see any sign they are willing to change their tune,” Mr. Riedel said. “But this will certainly increase the pressure to get Gina Haspel to testify on the Hill.”
A photograph taken from surveillance footage showing Mr. Khashoggi arriving at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October.CreditTRT World, via Reuters