Claims by the Saudi government that Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in a physical conflict in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul immediately became skeptical and contradicted earlier duel reports by Saudi and Turkish officials.
The Saudi findings, all but the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, increased the pressure on the Trump administration to initiate an independent investigation into the death of Khashoggi.
CIA officials have heard a sound recording that Turkish officials say the journalist was killed and dismembered by a team of Saudi agents at the consulate, according to the people who are familiar with the matter. If verified, the recording would make it harder for the White House to accept the Saudi version that Khashoggi's death was actually an accident. A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment.
In a statement released Saturday morning in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, the Saudis claimed that some unnamed "suspects" had traveled to the consulate to meet with Khashoggi, "as there was evidence of his return" to Saudi -Arabia. The journalist, a frequent critic of the Saudi government's policy, lived in exile in Virginia.
"The discussions that took place … did not go as needed and evolved in a negative way," the statement went on, leading to a "fight and a quarrel" and a "brawl" leading to Khashoggi's death resulted. The nameless suspects then tried "to hide and hide what happened," the Saudi government claimed, without elaborating it.
Current and former US intelligence officials, foreign policy experts and lawmakers quickly accused the Saudi government of whitewashing] "They buy time and they buy cover," said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) "They are actually trying to have a group to accuse detainees and limit the investigation to the Saudi government. "
Khashoggi had gone to the Saudi Consulate on October 2 to get the documents he needed to marry his fiancé, a Turkish citizen. There was no indication that he would meet with Saudis because he might return to his homeland.
The Saudi government had previously said that Khashoggi left the consulate that day and officials did not know where he was. Soon after, surveillance camera footage from Khashoggi appeared, which went into the building, but there were no shots of him as he left.
The White House did not immediately accept the Saudi findings, which led to the first official confirmation that Khashoggi is dead.
President Trump expressed his skepticism privately that the operation could have taken place without Mohammed's knowledge, and the president was advised by a number of advisers that the Saudis would try to write a cover story accusing the Crown Prince, Trumps said Consultant. 19659012] But Trump is not afraid to overreact to Khashoggi's death. Its aim is to avoid aggravating the international crisis and to destroy American-Saudi relations.
US officials knew what the Saudis were planning hours before the release of their statement, a Trump consultant said.
"Trump's inclination is not to ruin the relationship," said the adviser.
But the counselor said officials like Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.) have warned Trump and his advisors that the Saudis will see it as a weakness if they do not respond.
"If they would respect you, they would not do that and they might think so," the counselor said, reflecting on a conversation with the president.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders made a cautious statement.
"The United States confirms the announcement by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that the investigation of the fate of Jamal Khashoggi is progressing and it has taken action against the previously identified suspects," it says in its statement.
The Saudi government has announced that it has arrested 18 unnamed individuals and fired two top officials. It is suspected of involvement in the operation.
"We will continue to follow closely the international investigation into this tragic incident, advocating for justice that is timely, transparent and in line with all available procedures." We are saddened by the affirmation of the death of Mr. Khashoggi and we speak to him Our deepest condolences to family, fiancee and friends, "Sanders said.
The Saudi government said it would take another month to perform a full investigation by Mohammed. This decision also sparked intense skepticism as the Crown Prince was bound to the operation that led to Khashoggi's death, including through US intelligence reports.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (California), the Supreme Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee, said the announcement "Khashoggi" had been killed while beating up on more than a dozen Saudi Arabian-posted teams is unbelievable battling within the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he fought for his life with people sent to capture or kill him.
Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the Saudi version of events is changing "With each passing day, we should not assume that their latest story contains water.
The official Saudi report did not explain what happened to Khashoggi's body and was not supported by evidence.
"This is the worst cover-up I've ever seen," said Bruce Riedel, a Saudi Arabia expert served for more than 30 years in the CIA. "Where is the body? Why did it take seventeen days for this report to appear?
Khashoggi had recently told his friends that Saudi officials close to the Crown Prince had tried to lure him back into the kingdom, but he said he would never guarantee his safety.
US intelligence agencies also had Communications intercepted by Saudi officials discussing plans to retrieve Khasghoggi, an effort personally chaired by Mohammed, a frequent topic of Khashoggi's journalistic criticism, according to people who saw the intelligence reports.
One of the two Senior officials whom the Saudis said had been removed from their posts, Saud al-Qahtani, a media consultant to the Crown Prince, personally tried to persuade Khashoggi to return, assured him that he was safe and even had a chance Job had According to the journalist's friends, he works for Mohammed.
"He said," Are you doing W I do not trust them a bit, "said Khaled Saffuri, an Arab-political activist, talking about a conversation with Khashoggi the day Khashoggi received a phone call from Qahtani in May.
It was not clear that The Saudis, who Turkish officials claimed to have participated in the operation in Istanbul, were among those detained by the Saudi authorities.
The Washington Post has reviewed the passport information and photos of 15 men Turkish officials said were part of the team. Some of them have ties to Mohammed, the daily ruler of the Saudi kingdom.
Five members of the team have traveled in recent years, overlapping with visits from Muhammad, three more than they were previously aware of, showing travel records and photographs
The proximity of their flights to Mohammed's movements suggests that the men are members of his security mission, experts said, which may complicate the government's ability to claim that the killing was carried out without Mohammed's approval.
"They are security officers, almost certainly," said Riedel. "According to what I have seen in the photos of them with the prince, they are security and bodyguards."
The Post received pictures of the passports of seven of the 15 Saudis on Tuesday and used this information to confirm it, Khalid Aedh Alotaibi, arrived in Washington three days before the Crown Prince in March.
The Post received passport information for the remaining eight Saudis identified by Turkish officials on Friday, and found that three more had traveled to the United States traveling with Saudi leaders.
Mustafa Mohammed M. Almadani, 57, landed in New York three days after the launch of Mohammed's nationwide tour just before the Crown Prince's arrival in New York City.
A year ago, a similar scenario took place. In February 2017, Alotaibi and Fahad Shabib A. Albalawi, also a suspected member of the team, arrived in Washington on the same day. Three weeks later, Mohammed Trump met in the White House. Both Shabib and Albalawi left the United States in May.
In 2015, Alotaibi and a fourth Saudi from the alleged Thar Ghaleb T. Alharbi team arrived at a summit in Camp David attended by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Mohammed, then Deputy Crown Prince.
The New York Times reported this week that photos showed a fifth man, Maher Abdulaziz M. Mutreb, with Mohammed during visits to France, Spain and the United States last year. The entry and exit dates for Mutreb show no arrival or departure in the United States during Muhammad's visit to the United States.
Riedel said that the lack of an entry report for Mutreb could mean that he used a second passport. "Many security services provide their officers with multiple passports."
Passports show that Mutreb visited the United States in July 2016, coinciding with a visit by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will accept that Saudi Arabia is investigating, analysts predicted, given the record of arrested Saudi officials.
"Erdogan will accept this," said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish scientist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Erdogan is smart, he knows that Trump will not break with the Saudis, he knows the limits that the US can set against the Saudis, he gets enough face-saving measures that he has not one, but two big fish Bus throws. "
Joby Warrick, Aaron Davis, Souad Mekhennet, John Hudson, Josh Dawsey, Karoun Demirjian, Andrew Ba Tran and Julie Tate contributed to this report.