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Saudi Arabia, in reversal, says Khashoggi's killing was ‘premeditated'
[BEIRUT] Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor said on Thursday that new evidence indicated that the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been "premeditated," suggesting yet another shift in the kingdom's official story of how he was killed.
For weeks after Khashoggi disappeared on Oct 2, Saudi officials insisted that he had left the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul alive and well that day. Later, officials hinted that he might have fallen victim to "rogue" agents of the kingdom.
On Saturday, Saudi officials acknowledged that a 15-man team had flown to Turkey to confront Khashoggi inside the consulate, and killed him there. But they said his death was an accident, the result of a "fistfight" - when he screamed, they said, one of the men put him in a chokehold, killing him accidentally.
The latest statement, which was announced through the kingdom's state-run news media, said the kingdom's public prosecutor had received new information from Turkey through a joint Saudi-Turkish investigation into the death. It also said that the investigation was continuing, making it unclear whether Saudi Arabia itself had concluded that the killing was premeditated.
The latest change is likely to cast further doubt on the kingdom's explanation of what happened to Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia's narrative has already been met with widespread skepticism, not least by President Donald Trump, who called it "one of the worst in the history of cover-ups."
The shift in the Saudi account coincided with a visit to Turkey by Gina Haspel, the director of the CIA. Turkish officials said Ms Haspel was expected to receive access to an audio recording and other evidence that the Turks have said prove Khashoggi's killing was a premeditated assassination ordered from the upper levels of the Saudi royal family. Sabah, a pro-government Turkish newspaper, reported on Wednesday that Turkish officials had already shared evidence including audio recordings with Ms Haspel.
The timing of the latest announcement suggests that the Saudis may be seeking to revise their previous public explanation before Washington received and digested evidence that would further discredit it.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on Wednesday called Khashoggi's killing "premeditated murder" and asked a series of leading questions about who in Riyadh had ordered the operation. Turkish officials have leaked several details that point to premeditation, including the fact that a member of the Saudi team that flew to Istanbul resembled Khashoggi, dressed in his clothes and walked around Istanbul to create a false trail of security camera images that appeared to show the journalist alive.
The new revision will probably increase the pressure from lawmakers of both parties in Congress for the Trump administration to impose sanctions on the Saudi government, which is de facto led by the White House's close ally, the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Turkish officials have said that the team killed Khashoggi soon after he entered the consulate and then dismembered his body with a bone saw, which they brought with them to Istanbul.
US intelligence officials have said that such a sensitive operation would most likely not have been carried out without the knowledge of Prince Mohammed, but it is not clear whether Turkey or the United States has evidence linking him directly to the crime.
The Turks have leaked to the news media the names of men on the Saudi team as well as photographs of them arriving at the airport and moving around Istanbul. Several have ties to Prince Mohammed.
Khashoggi's body has not been found.
The Turks have said their government was withholding the claimed recordings of Khashoggi's death from public disclosure to avoid exposing sensitive intelligence sources. Several former British and American intelligence officials who have worked closely with Turkey have said that its spy agencies almost certainly had audio surveillance inside the consulate.
For the recordings to have real usefulness to the CIA or other agencies, the Turks would have to provide a full copy so US intelligence operatives can perform technical analysis and establish their authenticity. But even then, the recordings would most likely be of little value on the key policy question: whether the Saudi crown prince was connected to the killing, officials briefed on the intelligence said.
Why Turkish intelligence agencies had not previously shown their evidence to their close partners in the US government is a more complicated question.
Two political allies close to Mr Erdogan had said in recent days that he did want to share confidential intelligence about the killing with the White House because he feared that the Trump administration might seek to aid a Saudi cover up, perhaps by sharing the information with Prince Mohammed.
But while Mr Erdogan and Turkish intelligence officials distrust the White House, they believe that their longtime partners in the CIA will be independent and nonpartisan, the allies close to Mr Erdogan said.
The Turks would be reluctant to turn over evidence to the Trump administration "for fear of what the administration" would do with it, said Thad Troy, a senior executive at the business intelligence firm the Crumpton Group and a former senior CIA officer with experience in Turkey. "So instead, the Turks most likely asked the CIA director to come and view their materials there."
Ms Haspel, the CIA director, speaks Turkish and previously worked as a top CIA official in Turkey, where the agency collaborates very closely with Turkish intelligence services.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who is now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the director would not have made the trip unless she knew she would have access to the evidence.
"She wouldn't go unless it was to see and hear what the Turks had or at least part of what they have," he said. "Erdogan has put the ball in her court. He is playing this like a cat with a mouse."
Speaking to reporters in Ankara on Thursday, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, appeared to confirm that the Turks had shared the evidence with Haspel.
"We shared information and evidence, within the framework of law" with "those who wanted to have detailed information," he said.