The Trump administration has said it had not reached a final conclusion on who was involved in the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi despite a US Central Intelligence Agency assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing.
“Recent reports indicating that the US government has made a final conclusion are inaccurate,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
“There remain numerous unanswered questions with respect to the murder of Mr Khashoggi.” Nauert said the State Department will continue to seek facts and work with other countries to hold those involved in the journalist’s killing accountable “while maintaining the important strategic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”
Trump, while flying to California on Saturday, discussed the CIA assessment by phone with the agency’s director, Gina Haspel, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. The CIA had briefed other parts of the US government, including Congress, on its assessment, a development that complicates Trump’s efforts to preserve ties with the key US ally.
A source familiar with the CIA’s assessment said it was based largely on circumstantial evidence relating to the prince’s central role in running the Saudi government.
According to a US official, speaking under the condition of anonymity to the Washington Post, the CIA had reportedly concluded: “The accepted position is that there is no way this happened without him being aware or involved.”
Intelligence agents looked at multiple sources of evidence when coming to their assessment, according to the newspaper, whom Khashoggi worked for as a columnist.
This included an alleged phone call made by the prince’s brother, Khalid bin Salman — Saudi ambassador to the United States — to Khashoggi sometime before his assassination, as well as an audio recording provided by Turkish officials.
Sources told the Post that Khalid urged Khashoggi to go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was murdered, to retrieve documents related to his forthcoming marriage. He allegedly assured him that he’d be safe, though it’s unclear if Khalid knew at the time whether Khashoggi would be killed.
Saudi embassy spokeswoman Fatimah Baeshen confirmed that the conversation took place, but insisted that nothing was said about “going to Turkey” and that the claims in the CIA’s “purported assessment are false.”
“We have and continue to hear various theories without seeing the primary basis for these speculations,” Ms Baeshen said in a statement to the Post.
Another call was allegedly made from inside the consulate by a member of the 15-person hit team, but Ms Baeshen didn’t comment on it. CIA analysts believe it was placed by Saudi security official Maher Mutreb, who is considered to be one of the crown prince’s right-hand men.
The US was reportedly aware that Khashoggi could be in danger before his October 2 disappearance, however, intelligence agents didn’t discover the calls and recordings — revealing the Saudi royal family’s alleged connection — until days later, according to the Post.
Passport records obtained by the paper also helped reveal the alleged link, with documents showing an apparent tie between the crown prince and the assassins themselves, some of whom allegedly served on his security team.
One US official, who also spoke under the condition of anonymity, suggested that Mohammed’s personality played a role in the killing. They said that while he’s considered a “good technocrat,” the prince has been known to have a short fuse.
“[Mohammed] goes from zero to 60,” the official explained. “[He] doesn’t seem to understand that there are some things you can’t do.”
Saudi officials spent weeks offering up different stories about what happened to Khashoggi in the wake of his disappearance. Their most recent claim was that a “rogue” group of Saudi operatives took out the 59-year-old journalist following a “physical altercation” inside the consulate.
An investigation by the Saudi prosecutor’s office reportedly determined that his murder was an accident, with officials alleging that Khashoggi “was forcibly restrained and injected with a large amount of a drug resulting in an overdose that led to his death.”
His body has never been found, though, therefore an autopsy cannot be performed to prove this. The Saudi consul general can be heard on the Turkish recording discussing his “displeasure” with having to dispose of it, according to the Post.
Officials who listened to the audio clip said Khashoggi was murdered within moments of entering the consulate.
US President Donald Trump and other US officials have urged Saudi Arabia to do something about the missing remains. CIA analysts believe the crown prince ultimately had Khashoggi killed because he considered him a “dangerous Islamist” who sympathised too much with Muslims, the Post reports.
The Saudi government has charged 17 people with his death, all of whom are slated for execution. But US officials don’t expect them to be punished any time soon.
“It could happen overnight or take 20 years,” said one source.