A demonstrator holds a photograph of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia’s king, while marching in Washington. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Saudis Come Close to Admitting Khashoggi Murder Was Planned

(Bloomberg) -- Saudi authorities came close to acknowledging that the murder of insider-turned-critic Jamal Khashoggi was premeditated as pressure mounted on the kingdom to provide a credible explanation to the killing that roiled its ties with the West and spooked investors.

The Saudi prosecution has received information from Turkish investigators suggesting that the suspects intended to kill the Washington Post columnist, and will continue its probe in light of those findings, the official Saudi Press Agency said on Thursday.

Saudis Come Close to Admitting Khashoggi Murder Was Planned

Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel briefed U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday following a quick trip to Turkey this week. The Washington Post reported that Haspel heard an audio tape allegedly made of Khashoggi’s interrogation and killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

The CIA declined to comment when asked whether Haspel heard any such recording. A Turkish official said the Washington Post report was accurate. The White House would only say Haspel “briefed the President on their findings and her discussions.”

Saudi Arabia’s shifting narrative over what happened to Khashoggi has prompted an international outcry and left its main allies demanding answers. The Trump administration is facing rising pressure to act against its Arab ally and the president has appeared to be stepping back from giving Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman his full support. The U.S. has long been Saudi Arabia’s most important partner and Trump has made the kingdom the centerpiece of his efforts to isolate Iran.

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After denying his death for nearly three weeks, the kingdom last week said the 59-year-old was accidentally killed after a discussion at the consulate turned into an altercation. Officials and the crown prince’s supporters said the suspects tried to cover up their crime and provided the leadership with misleading accounts of the murder.

Authorities, however, haven’t explained why his body is still missing or how a meeting in a diplomatic compound grew violent. Turkish police took a water sample from a well at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, Hurriyet newspaper reported.

One of Khashoggi’s sons, Salah, who was pictured shaking hands with the Saudi king and crown prince this week, has left the kingdom, according to two people close to the family. They spoke on condition of anonymity and declined to disclose the destination.

On Tuesday, Trump called the evolving stories over Khashoggi’s fate -- the crown prince initially said the columnist left the consulate on his own -- “one of the worst in the history of cover-ups.”

Changing Stories

Saudi Arabia has said that 18 people have been arrested in connection with the case. A senior intelligence official and an adviser to Prince Mohammed were also removed from their jobs.

The prince on Wednesday made his first public comments since his government admitted Khashoggi had been killed. Speaking at an investment forum he was hosting in Riyadh, he called the killing a “heinous crime” and vowed to punish the culprits and overhaul the security services. He offered no new information on what happened.

Saudis Come Close to Admitting Khashoggi Murder Was Planned

Damping speculation he could be pushed aside, the prince appeared relaxed, ebullient and conciliatory toward Turkey, which has stopped just short of blaming him for the killing.

“Saudi Arabia is carrying out all of the legal procedures to investigate and present the guilty to trial,” the crown prince told his audience. “Many are trying to take advantage of this painful incident to divide the two [Turkey and Saudi Arabia], but they won’t be able to do so.”

In a speech timed to coincide with the start of the three-day international business conference, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejected the Saudi narrative and said Khashoggi’s murder was planned in Riyadh. He demanded the culprits be punished no matter how senior.