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U.S. intercepts show Saudi plan to lure Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to his death

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 past 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 fuelled 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.

Two
men walk to a waiting car after leaving Saudi Arabia’s consulate
on October 11, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey.
Chris McGrath/Getty
Images

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 totalling 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.

Duty to warn applies if harm is intended toward an individual

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.

In
this Feb. 1, 2015, file photo, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
speaks during a press conference in Manama, Bahrain.

Hasan Jamali/AP
Photo

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 Donald 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.

”Though

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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.

A
Saudi Arabia flag flies behind barbed wires at the backyard of
the Saudi Arabian consulate on October 11, 2018 in
Istanbul.
OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

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.

— The Washington Post’s Kareem Fahim and Loveday Morris in
Istanbul and Josh Dawsey, Karoun Demirjian, Karen DeYoung and
Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report

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