WASHINGTON • The Central Intelligence Agency has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last month, contradicting the Saudi government's claims that he was not involved in the killing, according to people familiar with the matter.
The CIA's assessment, in which officials have said they have high confidence, is the most definitive to date linking Prince Mohammed to the operation and complicates the Trump administration's efforts to preserve its relationship with a close ally.
A team of 15 Saudi agents flew to Istanbul on government aircraft last month and killed Mr Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate, where he had gone to pick up documents for his planned marriage to a Turkish woman.
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 Mr Khashoggi, according to the people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Prince Khalid told Mr Khashoggi, a contributing columnist for 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 Prince Khalid knew that Mr Khashoggi would be killed, but he made the call at his brother's direction, said people familiar with the call, which was intercepted by US intelligence.
How the CIA reached its conclusion
The US Central Intelligence Agency assessed multiple sources of intelligence before concluding that Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
INTERCEPTED PHONE CALL
The prince's brother Khalid bin Salman, who is the Saudi ambassador to the US, had told Mr Khashoggi in a phone call intercepted by US intelligence that he should go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to retrieve documents for his upcoming marriage, and assured him it would be safe to do so. It was unclear if Prince Khalid knew that Mr Khashoggi would be killed, although he was apparently acting on his brother's orders.
Among the intelligence assembled by the CIA is an audio recording from a listening device that the Turks placed inside the Saudi consulate, people familiar with the matter said. The Turks gave the CIA a copy of that audio, which shows that Mr Khashoggi was killed within moments of entering the consulate and died in the office of the Saudi consul-general. The consul-general could be heard expressing his displeasure that Mr Khashoggi's body now needed to be disposed of and the facility cleaned of evidence.
CONSULATE PHONE CALL
The CIA examined a call placed from inside the consulate after the killing by an alleged member of the Saudi hit team, Mr 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.
Mr Mutreb called Mr Saud al-Qahtani, then one of Prince Mohammed's top aides, informing him the operation had been completed.
CROWN PRINCE'S LINKS
CIA analysts linked some members of the Saudi hit team directly to Prince Mohammed. Some of the team's 15 members served on his security team and travelled in the United States during visits by senior Saudi officials, passport records reviewed by The Washington Post showed.
The US had also obtained intelligence before Mr Khashoggi's death that indicated he might be in danger. But it was not until after he disappeared, on Oct 2, that US intelligence agencies began searching archives of intercepted communications.
Ms Fatimah Baeshen, a spokes-man for the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC, said the ambassador and Mr 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 Prince 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 US official familiar with the CIA's conclusions.
The CIA sees Prince Mohammed as a "good technocrat", the US official said, but 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 scandal.
A spokesman for the CIA declined to comment.
President Donald Trump said yesterday he had not yet been briefed on the CIA's conclusions, but that he would later speak with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the CIA about the issue.
Speaking to reporters at the White House before flying to California, he also reiterated that he had been told the crown prince had not played a role in the journalist's death.
Over the past several weeks, the Saudis have offered multiple, contradictory explanations for what happened at the consulate.
Last week, the Saudi public prosecutor blamed the operation on a rogue band of operatives who were sent to Istanbul to return Mr Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia, in an operation that veered off course when the journalist "was forcibly restrained and injected with a large amount of a drug, resulting in an overdose that led to his death", according to a report by the prosecutor.
WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS