NYT: ‘Tell Your Boss’ recording links bin Salman to Khashoggi killing

New York Times, Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt report from Washington, and David D. Kirkpatrick from London.

— Shortly after the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated last month, a member of the kill team instructed a superior over the phone to “tell your boss,” believed to be Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, that the operatives had carried out their mission, according to three people familiar with a recording of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing collected by Turkish intelligence.

The recording, shared last month with the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel, is seen by intelligence officials as some of the strongest evidence linking Prince Mohammed to the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist whose death prompted an international outcry.

While the prince was not mentioned by name, American intelligence officials believe “your boss” was a reference to Prince Mohammed. Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, one of 15 Saudis dispatched to Istanbul to confront Mr. Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate there, made the phone call and spoke in Arabic, the people said.

Turkish intelligence officers have told American officials they believe that Mr. Mutreb, a security officer who frequently traveled with Prince Mohammed, was speaking to one of the prince’s aides. While translations of the Arabic may differ, the people briefed on the call said Mr. Mutreb also said to the aide words to the effect of “the deed was done.”

“A phone call like that is about as close to a smoking gun as you are going to get,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer now at the Brookings Institution. “It is pretty incriminating evidence.”

Turkish officials have said that the audio does not conclusively implicate Prince Mohammed, and American intelligence and other government officials have cautioned that however compelling the recording may be, it is still not irrefutable evidence of his involvement in the death of Mr. Khashoggi.

Even if Mr. Mutreb believed the killing was ordered by the crown prince, for example, he may have had an inaccurate understanding of the origins of the order. Prince Mohammed is not specifically named on the recording, and intelligence officials do not have ironclad certainty that Mr. Mutreb was referring to him.

In a statement on Monday, Saudi officials denied that the crown prince “had any knowledge whatsoever” of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. Referring to Mr. Mutreb’s instructions to “tell your boss,” the Saudi statement said that Turkey had “allowed our intelligence services to hear recordings, and at no moment was there any reference to the mentioned phrase in the recordings.”

The Turks may possess multiple recordings, including surveillance of telephone calls, and the Turkish authorities may have shared the audio only selectively. The call was part of a recording that Turkish officials played for Ms. Haspel during her visit in October to Ankara, Turkey’s capital, but they did not allow her to bring it back to the United States. On Saturday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey announced that his government had shared the audio with Saudi Arabia, the United States and other Western allies.

But while Turkish officials have played the recording for American and other intelligence agencies and provided transcripts, the Turks have not handed over the recording for independent analysis, according to Turkish officials.

Turkey shared evidence from the case with “a large number of friendly nations,” a spokesman for Mr. Erdogan, Fahrettin Altun, said on Monday. Reacting to French criticism of Turkey’s handling of the case, Mr. Altun said that the Turkish government had played an audio recording for French intelligence officials and given them transcripts.

“Let us not forget that this case would have been already covered up had it not been for Turkey’s determined efforts,” Mr. Altun said.

The growing evidence that Prince Mohammed was involved in the killing of Mr. Khashoggi is certain to intensify pressure on the White House, which appeared intent on relying on a lack of concrete proof of his involvement to preserve its relationship with the crown prince. Prince Mohammed has fostered a close relationship with the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and the Trump administration has turned Saudi Arabia into Washington’s most crucial Arab partner.

Some Trump advisers have argued that they would need indisputable evidence of Prince Mohammed’s involvement in Mr. Khashoggi’s killing before they would punish him or the kingdom more harshly. Turkish officials have said the recording contains evidence of a premeditated killing, in which Saudi agents quickly strangled Mr. Khashoggi and methodically dismembered his body with a bone saw.

The administration, according to current and former officials, is hoping that making some modest moves on sanctions and curtailing support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen will satisfy critics, including those on Capitol Hill.

But the shift in power in Congress, where Democrats take control of the House in January, is also increasing pressure on the administration to take more punitive action. The C.I.A. and other intelligence officials were set to brief Congress this week, and congressional leaders will press Ms. Haspel for her assessment of Prince Mohammed’s culpability.

Mr. Trump himself has suggested more information would be coming out. “I’ll have a much stronger opinion on that subject over the next week,” he told reporters on Wednesday at the White House. “I am forming a very strong opinion.”

Signs of a hardening stance within the administration are emerging. The State Department issued a tough statement on Sunday saying that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had told Prince Mohammed in a phone call that “the United States will hold all of those involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi accountable.”

Saudi officials planned to release their own inquiry in the coming days, but Turkey’s revelation that they and Western officials also have the transcripts of the recordings could force the Saudis to scramble before any presentation they planned to make.

Even without definitive proof, intelligence agencies had already concluded that only Prince Mohammed could have ordered the operation to kill Mr. Khashoggi, given the personal character of his governance and the depth of his control over the kingdom. Evidence from the tape also showed that Mr. Khashoggi was killed soon after he entered the room of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul where the security team was waiting for him, further proof that the killing was planned, according to people briefed on the intelligence.

Current and former intelligence officials insisted that it is rare that all of the pieces of a complex puzzle like Mr. Khashoggi’s killing would ever be available. Intelligence, according to a former official, simply does not work like a spy thriller or television cop show where a case turns on a crystal-clear recording.

Investigators were unlikely to collect a piece of evidence that incontrovertibly links the crown prince to the killing, said Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, who is set to lead the House Intelligence Committee next year.

“You are not going to have any of the people who carried out the murder speak openly about who they got their orders from or who is in the loop on it,” Mr. Schiff said in an interview. “That is not realistic to expect.”

The absence of direct evidence does not prevent the intelligence community from laying responsibility at Prince Mohammed’s feet. An intelligence assessment includes an agency’s best judgment on what happened based on the available facts and experience of officials.

Mr. Schiff promised that when he takes charge of the Intelligence Committee, he will investigate Mr. Khashoggi’s killing and examine Saudi Arabia’s actions more broadly in the Middle East, including its military campaign in Yemen, which has prompted a humanitarian crisis.

“We need to do our own due diligence, we need to make sure we are getting good intelligence, and we need to make sure the administration doesn’t misrepresent to the country what foreign actors are doing,” Mr. Schiff said.

Nonetheless, current and former officials said they do not expect Mr. Trump to drop his support for Prince Mohammed.

“The Trump family and the president have built up such an overwhelming reliance on the crown prince that the relationship is now, in their view, too big to fail,” Mr. Schiff said.

Policymakers — not Ms. Haspel or Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence — will decide what sort of relationship to have with Prince Mohammed and what punishment Saudi Arabia should face for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, current and former officials said.

 

Absentee Prayer -صلاة الغائب – for Jamal Khashoggi Friday 16th November

Bin Salman was the future once: desperate efforts by Netanhayu and the Christian Right cannot save him

Under pressure, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner,  Netanyahu, and Saudi and UAE paid lobbyists in Washington are arguing vehemently that unseating Mohamed bin Salman would destabilise the Saudi Kingdom as a whole. A delegation of right-wing Christian Evangelicals visited bin Salman to give him their political backing and positive coverage in their media outlets in the US, to try to tip the balance in the fraught atmosphere surrounding the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

The arguments put forward acknowledge what are now called bin Salman’s proven “missteps”: the arrests of women activists, diplomatic crises with Germany and Canada, the “imbroglio” surrounding thye kidnap of Saad Hariri, the Qatar boycott, and the “misfiring” war on Yemen. But then it is maintained that to remove bin Salman as crown prince is “neither realistic nor prudent”, and that he must remain for the Saudi state to endure and for the sake of stability in the Middle East region.

In the Al-Jazeera documentary above Mohammed Mukhtar al-Shanqiti disagrees that the Saudi state needs him to survive, and that any support from the Christian Right can tip the scales on the extreme pressures Trump now faces to let go of him. Furthermore, if bin Salman had one iota of credibility left on the Arab Street, that is now shot to pieces after the airing of the video of his meeting with the delegation of Christian right-wingers.

Al-Shanqiti takes special exception to the concept of stability as it is being pushed by Kushner et al which, he maintains, reeks of racism and hypocrisy. It is clear from the discourse that stability for Arab countries is only understood in the context of the imposition of tyrannical régimes and reckless despots, such that stability becomes synonymous with tyranny. In the American and European contexts, of course, stability is only ever understood as being based on democracy.

In his recent article David Hearst concurs that Mohammed bin Salman’s political future is narrowing quickly: ‘After a prolonged absence in London, his uncle and nemesis, Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, returned home to a hero’s welcome. Senior princes have flocked to greet him, at the airport and receptions held afterwards. The welcome includes heavyweights like former intelligence chief Khaled bin Bandar, former deputy defence minister Khaled bin Sultan, and former crown prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz.’

Hearst goes on: ‘It is telling that no photographs have emerged so far of Prince Ahmad with Mohammed bin Salman, although there are reports that bin Salman and his brother, Khaled bin Salman, greeted him at the airport.

Bin Salman, in less than a week, has gone from strutting the world stage to circling the wagons. His initial arrogance is well documented. Just reread the interview he gave to Bloomberg a few days after Khashoggi’s murder. It took a while for reality to dawn on him about the scale of the problems he faced.

There are two scenarios now for Ahmad to pursue. The first is to get bin Salman to strike a deal. He abandons his position as crown prince along with his security portfolio, defence ministry, interior ministry and security services. In exchange, he retains his role as an economic reformer.

The second is to go for his defenestration. The chairmanship of the Allegiance Council, which nominally at least vets and approves royal appointments, is vacant after the death of Meshaal bin Abdulaziz. If Ahmad were nominated chairman of the body, he would play the role of kingmaker.’

The US and the UK are taking over from bin Salman

The US is calling for a Yemen ceasefire within the next 30 days – not later, says Mattis. The Pentagon will ground the Saudi Air Force. The State Department (Pompeo) has made the formal US call for the ceasefire.

Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, King Salman’s brother has returned to Saudi Arabia from London with MI6/SAS protection. Bin Salman (MBS)’s Blackwater bodyguard has been told to stand down.

You admit Jamal Khashoggi was killed in your consulate… so where’s the body?

Yesterday, Saudi prosecutors said Jamal Khashoggi’s killing was premeditated, citing Turkish evidence and changing the country’s account once again to try to ease international outrage over the slaying of the journalist. But, speaking at a meeting of the provincial leaders of the Justice and Development (AK) Party in Ankara today, Erdoğan responds quizzically: “So, where is Khashoggi’s body then? And who ordered the Khashoggi’s killing?

Erdoğan adds cryptically that Turkey has other “information and evidence” about the killing by Saudi officials after Khashoggi entered the consulate on Oct. 2, and it will eventually reveal that information. This comes after bin Salman seemed to turn his foreign policy on its head, in order presumably to please Erdoğan, after having talked with him in a phone call he had insisted on making.

The process of “death by a thousand cuts” continues unrelentingly, as the Turks seek to accumulate legally obtained evidence to match the intelligence data inadmissible in a court of law that they had from the start. The policy of gradually leaking the intelligence data to the press has so far been successful in pushing Saudi Arabia along in its multiple contradictory denials and admissions in the past 3 weeks. More to come as bin Salman writhes.

Bin Salman denounces ‘heinous’ murder he (allegedly) ordered: changes foreign policy on a pin

After phoning Erdoğan today, bin Salman called the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi a “heinous crime”. Speaking publicly for the first time since Khashoggi’s killing, he insisted the kingdom was cooperating with Turkish authorities and “justice will prevail”.

After presumably committing to deliver the 18 accused of the Khashoggi murder to Turkey to face justice, he committed in public to ‘restructure the entire security administration of the kingdom’ to meet the required standards of modernisation that he says he is expecting of all other government departments under the 2030 Vision.

While he didn’t bring up the name of his (ex-) mentor Mohamed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi explicitly, he nevertheless declared that no-one in future will divide between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, so long as Salman is King of Saudi Arabia, he is Crown Prince, and Erdoğan is President of Turkey. Bin Salman also found something nice to say about Qatar.

 

Gina Haspel’s visit to Ankara has confirmed Trump administration’s worst fears

Trump tells reporters at the White House that the “Saudis”…  ‘had a very bad original concept. It was carried out poorly, and the cover up was one of the worst in the history of coverups.’ Trump hits the nail on the head about the Khashoggi case and why it is so damaging for Saudi Arabia and, by association for Trump: its planning reeks of hubris and sheer stupidity, while the cover-up is even worse. ‘Whoever thought of that idea is in big trouble, should be in big trouble’, he says. The language is ominous.

As usual Trump, having all facts, says he wants to get all the facts on Khashoggi’s killing before agreeing with Erdoğan’s assessment that the whole thing was premeditated murder. The idea is that CIA Director Gina Haspel has to report back, although she has already communicated that there is evidence on tape that bin Salman was micromanaging the murder as it took place.

This is why Pompeo is revoking the visas and imposing sanctions on those identified as the killers that, in his words, ‘ work for ministries and at the royal court. These penalties will not be the last word on the matter from the United States. We’re making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of ruthless action to silence Mr. Khashoggi, a journalist, through violence.’

Pompeo echoes Trump’s position that Washington is still awaiting all the facts, promising further response. But Trump and Pompeo are not waiting on information from Erdoğan. They are addressing King Salman and his new advisers, putting pressure on them to distance themselves from MBS and choose a new Crown Prince. That’s who they are really waiting on.

Meanwhile, MBS’s planned speech at the (fake) investor conference (Davos in the desert) is summarily cancelled. Instead various other speakers allude to the ‘tragedy’ in Istanbul and the fact that actions such as Khashoggi’s murder ‘are not in the Saudi DNA.’ Sorry, but they are: the Saudi state in its three historical manifestations since the 18th century have been extremely violent affairs.

Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, having forged a close personal relationship with MBS to pursue their aggressive policies in the Middle East, especially towards Palestinians and against Iran, would be the last to want to see him go. However, MBS is now tainted goods, and the longer he stays the worse it will be for Trump. Trump’s Middle East policy is essentially dead. It is unlikely that any other Saudi Royal will follow MBS’s soiled path, crafted over some years by Mohamed bin Zayed (MbZ) through Otaiba, his Ambassador in Washington.

Bin Salman: death by a thousand cuts

Erdoğan promised the “naked truth” in today’s speech at the AKP party conference, but what he did was to tighten the noose without giving anything away. Saudi has admitted that Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the consulate, so now he wants to know from them who ordered the killing.

The Saudis have arrested 18 people in Saudi Arabia in connection with the killing, so he wants them to come and stand trial in Turkey. They said they don’t know where the body and that it was given to a local Turkish citizen to dispose of, so in his speech Erdoğan asked for the name of that person. Since the speech some of Jamal Khashoggi’s body parts have been found at the Saudi consul’s residence, which tells us that – yet again – the Saudis were lying.

Erdoğan is too wily a politician to rush and deliver the coup de grâce – reveal the video and audio evidence of the murder at the consulate, which is said to include a Skype call to bin Salman (MBS) – to nail a Saudi régime that none of the Western states are prepared to let go of despite their shock and horror at recent events. Better let it die on the vine… die by a thousand cuts.