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U.S. says audio recording of Khashoggi killing does not implicate Saudi crown prince

National security adviser John Bolton said "those who have listened" conclude no involvement by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

File photo dated March 2018 of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.
File photo dated March 2018 of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.Read moreBalkis Press / Abaca Press / TNS

A member of the Saudi team that killed Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi made a phone call shortly after the journalist's death, giving instructions to someone in Saudi Arabia to "tell your boss" that the assassination had been carried out, according to people familiar with the call.

The message appears to have been directed to a person overseeing the team, which killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and then dismembered and disposed of his body, the people said. But, they added, U.S. and European officials are not certain to whom "your boss" refers.

Officials in multiple countries have said they don't think the journalist could have been killed without the knowledge of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Trump administration's key ally in the Arab world. But so far, no "smoking gun" has emerged definitively showing Mohammed knew about or ordered the operation, these officials said, and Saudi officials deny that the crown prince was in any way responsible for Khashoggi's death.

The New York Times first reported on the phone call that relayed the message that Khashoggi had been killed.

The Turkish government allowed CIA Director Gina Haspel to listen to the audio recording of events that took place inside the consulate and to the telephone conversations that took place between the team and Saudi Arabia, a senior Turkish official said. U.S. officials have heard a recording of the call in which a "boss" is referred to, one person familiar with the matter said.

Turkey also thinks the United States has information, possibly including intercepted Saudi communications, beyond what Turkish intelligence has gathered, the person said.

National security adviser John Bolton said Tuesday that the audio recording did not appear to provide any link between the killers and Mohammed. Speaking on the sidelines of a regional summit in Singapore, Bolton said that he has not listened to the recording himself but that "those who have listened to it" assess that it does not implicate Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler. The crown prince's father, King Salman is formally the head of the country.

Saudi officials said the Turks have not provided audio to them that includes the phrase "tell your boss."

"We categorically deny the reporting referencing the crown prince in this matter or that he had any knowledge whatsoever of it," a Saudi official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter. "Despite our multiple requests, the Turkish authorities have not provided us with the recordings. However, they allowed our intelligence services to hear recordings, and at no moment were there any references to the mentioned phrase in those recordings."

Saudi Arabia has not been entirely forthcoming with information about the role of its citizens in the killing, according to a Turkish official.

Although Saudi Arabia sent its senior prosecutor to Turkey last month for what it called a "joint" investigation, the Saudis shared no information and appeared only interested in learning what the Turkish investigators knew, the official said. Since the prosecutor's return to Saudi Arabia, the kingdom has not responded to Turkish requests for information on 18 Saudis arrested in the case, including the results of any interrogations of those detained. That includes information on the disposal of Khashoggi's remains, which have not been found.

Bolton's comments playing down the phone call as a link to Mohammed reflect President Trump's own resistance to blaming the crown prince for the journalist's death.

Trump has indicated to aides that he is inclined to accept the official Saudi explanation that rogue operative killed Khashoggi without Mohammed's knowledge.

The Saudi version of events has changed over time. Initially, the kingdom said that Khashoggi left the consulate on Oct. 2, after stopping in to obtain documents he needed for his marriage and that it had no knowledge about where he went subsequently.

But as evidence from flight manifests and video surveillance mounted, including footage of personal security guards for the crown prince at the consulate, the Saudi government acknowledged the killing but blamed it on a group of outliers.

Trump has repeatedly emphasized the importance of maintaining a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, the world's largest purchaser of U.S. defense equipment.

At a news conference last Wednesday, Trump declined to respond to a question on whether he considered the Saudi government responsible for the killing. He said he was consulting with Congress on how to respond and that "I'll have a much stronger opinion on that subject over the next week. I'm forming a very strong opinion."

U.S. officials have said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom Trump sent to Riyadh and Ankara, the Saudi and Turkish capitals, respectively, for consultations two weeks after Khashoggi was killed, has pushed the Saudis hard for answers. In a telephone call Sunday with Mohammed, Pompeo "emphasized that the United States will hold all of those involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi accountable, and that Saudi Arabia must do the same," the State Department said in a statement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials have said they do not believe King Salman is responsible but have implied that orders for the operation came from Mohammed. A central question for the Trump administration will be whether to blame the crown prince, if it comes to believe he is responsible, even if, as is expected, a Saudi investigation does not implicate him.

"We haven't made a determination" about whether Mohammed knew of the plot to kill Khashoggi, one U.S. official said. "We can see people signaling that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is very important, but that's different. That's not saying that the crown prince is very important." But experts also believe that any U.S. assignment of guilt to the crown prince would severely affect the bilateral relationship.

Trump has all but ruled out punishing the kingdom by withholding weapons sales, insisting that the Saudis would simply buy billions of dollars in arms from Russia or China.

But the value of the arms sales is not what the president has claimed. When he visited Riyadh on his first presidential trip overseas in May 2017, Trump said the Saudis had agreed to a $110 billion weapons purchase. But many of those potential sales were negotiated under the Obama administration or amounted to little more than expressions of interest. According to the State Department, "implemented cases" that were part of the $110 billion have totaled $14.5 billion as of mid-October.

Congress has placed informal holds on five State Department-approved arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and no cases are awaiting formal congressional approval. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has continued to express interest in buying weapons from other countries, including acquiring Russia's S-400 missile defense system. Saudi Arabia let pass a September deadline for signing a sales contract to buy the U.S. THAAD missile defense system, the biggest item in the prospective Trump package at $15 billion.

The United States is also depending on Saudi Arabia to maintain high levels of oil production to keep international prices from rising while the U.S. administration implements sanctions against Iranian oil exports. But after Trump granted sanctions exemptions to at least eight countries that buy Iran's oil, the Saudis announced Saturday that they would cut their own shipments by 500,000 barrels a day next month.

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The Washington Post's Shibani Mahtani in Singapore, Louisa Loveluck in Istanbul and Josh Dawsey in Washington contributed to this report.