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Evidence Is Growing That The Saudi Crown Prince Was Involved In Killing Of Journalist

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's growing evidence that Saudi Arabia's crown prince was involved in the killing of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi.

Turkish officials have an audio recording that they've played for the CIA director and intelligence officials from other countries. That tape apparently has the last minutes of Khashoggi's life at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month.

David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times has written about this recording and joins us now.

Hi, there.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Hello.

SHAPIRO: First, have you heard this tape yourself, or is your reporting based on the accounts of others who have?

KIRKPATRICK: My reporting is based on the accounts of others. And it's a - it's a subject of great frustration. We wish the tape would be released.

SHAPIRO: Well, the headline in your latest story has the phrase "Tell Your Boss," which apparently appears on the audio recording. Tell us why that phrase is so significant.

KIRKPATRICK: So we have three people who are familiar with the contents of the tape and the audio and have told us that one of the killers, Maher Mutreb, said to someone in Riyadh over the phone, tell your boss the job is done. And U.S. intelligence officials believe that the boss in question was Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

SHAPIRO: Believe that it was the crown prince, but how sure are they?

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, that's a good question. They are less than a hundred percent sure, but it's their conclusion that that was Mohammed bin Salman. It's possible - there's a remote chance that there might have been some other meaning intended. But they believe that was meant to refer to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

SHAPIRO: The American national security adviser, John Bolton, told reporters that people who've heard the recording did not conclude that it implicated Mohammed bin Salman. What do you think is happening there?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, this is kind of a - I'm not going to say exactly a half-empty, half-full situation, but it's an opportunity to interpret the audio recording in different ways. You know, Crown Prince Muhammed is not named on the recording. And so this reference to tell your boss is the strongest link that the recording offers to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

However, in the backdrop of all this is the fact that almost everybody who knows how Saudi Arabia works, who has any experience with the kingdom already concluded that the operation could only have happened on Crown Prince Mohammed's orders, right? It was already highly unlikely, almost impossible that it happened without his authorization.

SHAPIRO: To put it bluntly, do you think that Trump administration officials are looking for some plausible deniability so that they don't have to dramatically change the U.S.-Saudi relationship as they would if it was unequivocally clear that the crown prince was involved in this?

KIRKPATRICK: They are certainly looking for plausible deniability. Now, in their defense, they may have plausible deniability, right? You know, if Crown Prince Mohammed is not mentioned on the tape, you know, then would that stand up in a court of law?

Might it be that Maher Mutreb thought that whoever told him to do this had orders from crown prince, and Maher Mutreb was wrong? It's not a lock. It's not a hundred percent, but it's certainly stronger evidence than we knew about a few days ago.

SHAPIRO: At this point, it's very clear that this was a premeditated killing, that somebody in Saudi Arabia wanted Khashoggi killed. Why is it so important whether the crown prince himself was at the center of the plot?

KIRKPATRICK: Right now, Crown Prince Mohammed is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. He is set to inherit the throne and a rule for five decades to come - as much as five decades to come. And so at stake in the Khashoggi affair is his power to continue to do so effectively. Can he be a statesman? Can he hold his head up in the eyes of the world, or will he be severely tarnished from the scandal around the killing of Jamal Khashoggi?

SHAPIRO: The Saudi story has changed a lot. First they said he left the consulate. We don't know what happened to him. Then they said he died in a brawl. And then they said it was premeditated, but the crown prince had nothing to do with it. What's their latest line?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, we expect to hear what they promised will be their final explanation later this week. Right now they have acknowledged that the Turks have evidence that it was a premeditated killing. So they've basically acknowledged it was a premeditated killing. But they insist that the crown prince did not authorize it and was unaware until well after the fact.

SHAPIRO: The Trump administration has been very close with Saudi Arabia. Do you see that changing?

KIRKPATRICK: So far, no. I mean, what people around the White House have been telling us is that they're going to stand by Crown Prince Mohammed. They see this as an opportunity, since he's going to need American support, to leverage that to get some benefits from him - for example, persuading Saudi Arabia to wind down or somehow lessen its bombing campaign in Yemen which has led to a humanitarian disaster there without winning the war or to resolve Saudi Arabia's dispute with Qatar, which is another American ally. Saudi Arabia has led a blockade of Qatar for reasons of regional rivalry.

SHAPIRO: David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times, thanks for joining us today.

KIRKPATRICK: It's my pleasure.

SHAPIRO: And tonight the White House announced a nominee to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia - retired General John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.