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 last 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 backup 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.
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.
"Duty to warn applies if harm is intended toward an individual," said a former senior intelligence official. But that duty also depends on whether the intelligence clearly indicated Khashoggi was in danger, the former official said.
"Capturing him, which could have been interpreted as arresting him, would not have triggered a duty-to-warn obligation," the former official said. "If something in the reported intercept indicated that violence was planned, then, yes, he should have been warned."
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the warning process, declined to comment on whether Khashoggi had been contacted. Administration officials have not commented on the intelligence reports that showed a Saudi plan to lure Khashoggi.
"Though I cannot comment on intelligence matters, I can say definitively the United States had no advance knowledge of [Khashoggi's] disappearance," deputy State Department spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters Wednesday. Asked whether the U.S. government would have had a duty to warn Khashoggi if it possessed information that he was in jeopardy, Palladino declined to answer what he called a "hypothetical question."
It was not clear to officials with knowledge of the intelligence whether the Saudis discussed harming Khashoggi as part of the plan to detain him in Saudi Arabia. But the intelligence had been disseminated throughout the U.S. government and contained in reports that are routinely available to people working on U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia or related issues, one U.S. official said.
The intelligence poses a political problem for the Trump administration because it implicates Mohammed, who is particularly close to Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser.
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 to the journalist.
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.) perhaps the president's closest ally in the Senate, predicated a "bipartisan tsunami" of action if the Saudis were involved and said that Khashoggi's death could alter the nature of relations between the two countries.
Kushner's relationship with Mohammed, known within national security agencies by the initials MBS, has long been the subject of suspicion by some American intelligence officials. 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.
For all his criticism of the Saudi regime, Khashoggi was not always opposed to Mohammed's policies. Khashoggi credited the young leader 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. One person in contact with the crown prince, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preserve the relationship, said Khashoggi last year asked him to give a message to Mohammed saying he needed someone like Khashoggi as an adviser.
When he transmitted the message, this person said, the crown prince said that Khashoggi was tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Qatar, both Saudi adversaries, and that the arrangement would never happen.
Two other friends of Khashoggi said that at least twice he received cordial phone calls from Qahtani, the adviser to the prince, conveying friendly messages on his behalf.
In one of the calls, in September 2017, Qahtani said that Mohammed had been "very happy" to see Khashoggi post a message praising the kingdom after the government announced it was lifting a driving ban on women, according to one of the friends, who was with Khashoggi at the time. The tone of the call was pleasant, but Khashoggi also told Qahtani he would praise the government when there were "positive developments. When there are bad things, I will speak up."
He spent the rest of the call advocating on behalf of several recently imprisoned critics of the regime.
A friend also said that Khashoggi told him he had been approached several times by a businessman close to the Saudi ruling family. The businessman, whom Khashoggi did not name, seemed "keen" to see him every time he visited Washington and told Khashoggi that he would work with the Saudi authorities to arrange his return, the friend said.