With Turkey's graphic recording of Khashoggi's final moments finally in the hands of US intelligence agencies, the Washington Post just confirmed what the New York Times first hinted at more than one month ago: That US intelligence agencies believe that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in what is just the latest example of the Trump administration and its intelligence agencies working at cross purposes (the first being, of course, the investigations that eventually coalesced into the Mueller probe).
But instead of focusing on the recording of Khashoggi's murder, the CIA is reportedly in possession of another piece of evidence that it believes incriminates the Crown Prince: A phone call made by Khalid bin Salman, MbS's brother and the kingdom's ambassador to the US, to Khashoggi, during which he promised the journalist that he wouldn't be harmed if he visited the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to pick up the paper needed to marry his Turkish fiance.
Even if MbS didn't plan Khashoggi's murder, Khalid's call to Khashoggi, which the CIA believes was made at the behest of his powerful brother, suggests that the prince was aware of the plot.
In reaching its conclusions, the CIA examined multiple sources of intelligence, including a phone call that the prince’s brother Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, had with Khashoggi, according to the people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the intelligence. Khalid told Khashoggi, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post, that 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.
It is not clear if Khalid knew that Khashoggi would be killed, but he made the call at his brother’s direction, according to the people familiar with the call, which was intercepted by U.S. intelligence.
Fatimah Baeshen, a spokeswoman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said the ambassador and Khashoggi never discussed “anything related to going to Turkey.” She added 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.”
The CIA’s conclusion about Mohammed’s role was also based on the agency’s assessment of the prince as the country’s de facto ruler who oversees even minor affairs in the kingdom. “The accepted position is that there is no way this happened without him being aware or involved,” said a U.S. official familiar with the CIA’s conclusions.
Aside from Turkey's infamous recording, the CIA also has a recording of a call that was placed from inside the consulate shortly after Khashoggi's killing. The call was made to Saud al-Qahtani, a close confidant of the Crown Prince who was one of 17 people sanctioned by the Treasury Department earlier this week in connection with the murder.
The CIA also examined a call placed from inside the consulate after the killing by an alleged member of the Saudi hit team, Maher Mutreb, a security official who has often been seen at the crown prince’s side and who was photographed entering and leaving the consulate on the day of the killing.
Mutreb called Saud al-Qahtani, then one of the top aides to Mohammed, and informed him that the operation had been completed, according to people familiar with the call.
Though the international outrage that Khashoggi's murder provoked has rattled the kingdom and its ruler, the CIA's "general assessment" is that MbS will likely hold on to power.
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.”
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. “The general agreement is that he is likely to survive,” the official said, adding that Mohammed’s role as the future Saudi king is “taken for granted.”
A spokesman for the CIA declined to comment.
And while the US was in possession of intelligence which suggested that Khashoggi was in danger, it wasn't until after the journalist disappeared that the intelligence agencies searched their archives and found the intercepted communications.
The U.S. had also obtained intelligence before Khashoggi’s death that indicated he might be in danger. But it wasn’t until after he disappeared, on Oct. 2, that U.S. intelligence agencies began searching archives of intercepted communications and discovered material indicating that the Saudi royal family had been seeking to lure Khashoggi back to Riyadh.
One of the biggest unresolved questions, though, has to do with the Crown Prince's motive for the killing. While Khashoggi was critical of MbS's policies, he didn't directly call for the Crown Prince's removal. However, the agency has a theory.
A theory the CIA has developed is that Mohammed believed Khashoggi was a dangerous Islamist who was too sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, according to people familiar with the assessment. Days after Khashoggi disappeared, Mohammed relayed that view in a phone call with Kushner and John Bolton, the national security adviser, who has long opposed the Brotherhood and seen it as a regional security threat.
But the CIA can leak whatever it wants to leak: The fact remains that senior administration officials like John Bolton are still denying that MbS ordered the killing. Because the fact remains that, after months of Trump pestering the Saudis to pump more oil, the Saudis have finally obliged. We suspect that wasn't a coincidence.