WASHINGTON – The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered an operation to lure Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia and then detain him, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts of Saudi officials discussing the plan.
The intelligence, described by U.S. officials familiar with it, is another piece of evidence implicating the Saudi regime in Khashoggi's disappearance last week after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials say that a Saudi security team lay in wait for the journalist and killed him.
Khashoggi was a prominent critic of the Saudi government and Mohammed in particular. Several of Khashoggi's friends said that over the past four months, senior Saudi officials close to the crown prince had called Khashoggi to offer him protection, and even a high-level job working for the government, if he returned to his home country.
Khashoggi, however, was skeptical of the offers. He told one friend that the Saudi government would never make good on its promises not to harm him.
“He said: 'Are you kidding? I don't trust them one bit,'” said Khaled Saffuri, an Arab American political activist, recounting a conversation he had with Khashoggi in May, moments after Khashoggi had received a call from Saud al-Qahtani, an adviser to the royal court.
The intelligence pointing to a plan to detain Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia has fueled speculation by officials and analysts in multiple countries that what transpired at the consulate was a plan to capture Khashoggi that may have gone wrong.
A former U.S. intelligence official – who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter – noted that the details of the operation, which involved sending two teams totaling 15 men, in two private aircraft arriving and departing Turkey at different times, bore the hallmarks of a “rendition,” in which someone is extralegally removed from one country and deposited for interrogation in another.
But Turkish officials have concluded that whatever the intent of the operation, Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate. Investigators have not found his body, but Turkish officials have released video surveillance footage of Khashoggi entering the consulate on the afternoon of Oct. 2. There is no footage that shows him leaving, they said.
Turkey has put in a request to enter the consulate, but Saudi Arabia is delaying and does not want an investigative team to enter, one senior Turkish official said Wednesday.
The intelligence about Saudi Arabia's earlier plans to detain Khashoggi have raised questions about whether the Trump administration should have warned the journalist that he might be in danger.
Intelligence agencies have a “duty to warn” people who might be kidnapped, seriously injured or killed, according to a directive signed in 2015. The obligation applies regardless of whether the person is a U.S. citizen. Khashoggi was a U.S. resident.
“Though I cannot comment on intelligence matters, I can say definitively the United States had no advance knowledge of his disappearance,” deputy State Department spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters Wednesday.
Also, the intelligence poses a political problem for the Trump administration because it implicates Mohammed, who is particularly close to Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser. Kushner and Mohammed have had private, one-on-one phone calls that were not always set up through normal channels so the conversations could be memorialized and Kushner could be properly briefed.
On Wednesday, Kushner and national security adviser John Bolton spoke by phone with the crown prince, but White House officials said the Saudis provided little information.
Trump has grown frustrated, two officials said, after initially reacting slowly to Khashoggi's disappearance. Earlier this week, he said he had no information about what had happened. Trump told questioning reporters Wednesday that he was “not happy” about what he called “a bad situation.”
White House officials have begun discussing how to force Saudi Arabia to provide answers and what punishment could be meted out if the government there is found responsible.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have reacted harshly to the disappearance. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators asked Trump to impose sanctions on anyone found responsible for Khashoggi's disappearance, including Saudi leaders. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., predicated a “bipartisan tsunami” of action if the Saudis were involved and said Khashoggi's death could alter relations between the two countries.
For all his criticism of the Saudi regime, Khashoggi credited Mohammed for what he saw as positive changes, including loosening Saudi cultural restrictions. Khashoggi often expressed affection for his homeland, even while saying he did not believe it was safe for him.