The CIA has concluded that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to US officials.
The CIA has made the assessment based on the crown prince’s control of Saudi Arabia, which is such that the killing would not have taken place without his approval. It has buttressed its conclusion with two sets of crucial communications: intercepts of the crown prince’s calls in the days before the killing, and calls by the kill team to a senior aide to the crown prince.
Officials cautioned, however, that US and Turkish intelligence agencies still do not have direct evidence linking Crown Prince Mohammed to the assassination in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
The intercepts do show that Crown Prince Mohammed was trying to find ways to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia, although the crown prince did not say in the phone calls that he wanted to have Khashoggi killed, according to people briefed on the intelligence findings.
One former official said intelligence agencies were also examining communications between Khashoggi and the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Khalid bin Salman, the brother of the crown prince.
Khashoggi’s friends have been skeptical that those conversations led to the trip to the consulate in Istanbul because, the friends said, Khashoggi did not decide to go to there until he traveled to Turkey.
Prince Khalid’s denial came unusually swiftly. In a Twitter post on Friday, he said he texted with Khashoggi on October 26, but never suggested Khashoggi go to Turkey.
Prince Khalid denied he made any phone calls, and challenged officials to produce records.
“I never talked to him by phone and certainly never suggested he go to Turkey for any reason,” he tweeted. “I ask the US government to release any information regarding this claim.”
The CIA’s assessment was first reported by The Washington Post on Friday. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
The increasingly definitive assessment from the spy agency creates a problem for President Donald Trump, who has tied his administration to Crown Prince Mohammed and proclaimed him the future of Saudi Arabia, a longtime US ally.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has been particularly close to Crown Prince Mohammed.
That position was reflected in the Trump administration’s reaction to the Post story, which elicited a highly qualified response.
“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.”
Mr Kushner has long advocated that a strong relationship with the Saudis is in the United States’ interest, and has pushed to maintain support for the crown prince despite the death of Khashoggi, who Saudi officials now say was killed with a lethal dose of tranquillisers and dismembered.
Previously, Saudi officials said Khashoggi had been strangled.
Both administration officials and intelligence officers do not believe the controversy over Khashoggi will drive Crown Prince Mohammed from power, which is one reason White House officials believe cutting ties with the prince would not be in the interest of the United States.
But the new assessment by the CIA is sure to harden the resolve of lawmakers on Capitol Hill to continue to investigate the killing of Khashoggi and punish Saudi Arabia.
“It is one of those acts that must cause us to re-examine the relationship and how much dependence we place on it,” said representative Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., who is set to lead the House Intelligence Committee next year.
Senate Republicans, according to people briefed on their deliberations, want to see more decisive steps from Saudi Arabia to try to defuse the crisis.
One move that could blunt tougher congressional action, they said, would be for Riyadh to release some dissidents, including the leaders of the effort to allow women to drive.
Lawmakers are hoping to use the controversy over the assassination to try and force an end to the Saudi war in Yemen, or at least the US military support for it.
The United States has announced that it would end air refuelling flights for the Saudi air force over Yemen, and has sanctioned 17 Saudis for their alleged involvement in the killing of Khashoggi.
Congressman Schiff said the administration’s move to cut off refuelling for Saudi planes conducting airstrikes is more significant than the sanctions.
“If we truly want to affect Saudi behaviour it is going to be more important to focus on bringing an end to the campaign in Yemen than these announcements of sanctions on these individuals we are unlikely to be able to reach,” he said.
Congressman Schiff said he was pushing for a classified briefing for the entire House on the war in Yemen and U.S. support for the Saudi campaign. Republicans on the Hill have also said they would support such a briefing.
Skepticism about the Saudis in Congress has grown as Saudi officials have given multiple and conflicting accounts of what happened in the consulate in Istanbul.
This week they announced they would seek the death penalty against some of the perpetrators.
CIA officials have long been unsure about Crown Prince Mohammed and his abilities to lead the kingdom.
The agency, and former Director John Brennan, had a close relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed’s rival, Mohammed bin Nayef. The young crown prince out manoeuvred his rival in 2017 to consolidate his position.
Turkish officials made tape recordings of the killing of Khashoggi in the consulate, and the Turkish government was the first to say it had definitive proof Khashoggi was assassinated.
But Turkish official have stopped short of saying there is definitive evidence of Crown Prince Mohammed’s role in the death on the recordings they have.
-The New York Times
Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting.