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‘A direct trail of blood drops’ leads from a Twitter hack to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder

The first clue popped up on Omar Abdulaziz’s phone four years ago. A Saudi dissident attending college in Montreal, Abdulaziz got a cryptic message from Twitter. His account had been penetrated by a “state sponsored” actor. He should take precautions to protect his personal information, the company advised, offering no further details.

Abdulaziz didn’t think much of it at the time. He changed his password and switched to two-factor authentication. “I thought this is, like, a problem, it was solved and it’s not happening again,” says Abdulaziz. “I didn’t know how big that was.”

Omar Abdulaziz poses for a portrait in Montreal, Canada in 2018. (François Ollivier for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Omar Abdulaziz in Montreal in 2018. (François Ollivier for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Bigger, as it turned out, than he could ever have imagined. Although he had no idea at the time, Abdulaziz had found himself in the crosshairs of an extraordinary corporate espionage operation — conceived in Riyadh and allegedly orchestrated by a top deputy to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS — to steal personal data from thousands of critics of the Saudi regime.

The story of the espionage plot — and its devastating aftermath for a man who would later become one of Abdulaziz’s closest collaborators, Jamal Khashoggi — is the subject of “Influence Operations,” Episode 6 in the new season of Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast: “The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi.”

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“There’s a direct trail of blood drops from this hack to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” said Mark Kleiman, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who is representing Abdulaziz.

It was a trail that led straight to the doorstep of MBS. The crown prince, who the CIA has concluded authorized the operation that killed Khashoggi, is identified as “Saudi Royal Family Member-1” — and his secretary as “Foreign Official-1” — in a pending Justice Department indictment alleging wire fraud, money laundering and other crimes associated with a plot to plant two Saudi spies inside Twitter.

As “Conspiracyland” reveals, MBS is even said to have boasted about his role in the criminal scheme. “It was us. We did that. We have our guy at Twitter,” he allegedly told an associate. (Spokesmen for the Saudi government have declined multiple requests for comment.)

To understand how consequential the Twitter plot was, it’s important to understand the unique role the social media company’s platform had become in the Middle East. As is well known, Twitter was the primary form of messaging among democratic activists during the Arab Spring protests that convulsed the region starting in 2011.

Yet even after those protests were crushed in the years that followed, Twitter still loomed large — and nowhere more so than in Saudi Arabia. In a closed society, with no established forum for democratic debate, Twitter was the one platform for political discourse and much other discussion, says Abdulaziz.

“In the United States, you have the Congress. In Saudi Arabia, we have Twitter,” he says. “It wasn’t only a platform for us to talk about what we do believe. It was a place where we would gather, where we would see people, you know, who share the similar ideas or beliefs or who would try to do anything peacefully to change the situation in our country.”

And often they did so anonymously. All the more reason that the lively exchange of ideas among Saudi Twitter users — and the biting attacks by some of them on the rulers of their country — alarmed the regime, especially the rising new power in the royal court, MBS. So starting in 2014, Bader al-Asaker, MBS’s personal secretary and the director of MiSK, the prince’s personal foundation, launched an audacious plot to identify — and shut down — regime critics on Twitter.

Bader al-Asaker. (MiSK foundation)
Bader al-Asaker. (MiSK Foundation)

In June of that year, Asaker was on a tour of Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, where he was greeted and shown around by Ahmad Abouammo, a young U.S.-Lebanese citizen, who at the time was chief of the company’s Middle East partnerships tasked with managing Saudi Twitter accounts.

In classic spycraft fashion, Asaker cultivated Abouammo. He arranged to meet him in London, where he gave him an expensive luxury watch worth $20,000. It was the start of up to $300,000 in jewelry and cash that the Saudi official showered on Abouammo, with a chunk of it routed through a Beirut bank account set up in the name of one of the Twitter employee’s Lebanese relatives, according to an FBI affidavit entered as evidence in the case. And in exchange, according to prosecutors, Abouammo turned over the details of a widely read anonymous Saudi account critical of the Saudi regime — information that Asaker had requested. (Abouammo has pleaded not guilty to the charges.)

At the same time, Asaker recruited yet another Twitter mole, an engineer named Ali Alzabarah, who turned over the personal details — the emails, phone numbers, direct messages and IP addresses — of 6,000 users.

All of this was music to MBS’s ears. Saad Aljabri, a former senior Saudi counterterrorism official who was ousted by MBS, has alleged in a lawsuit against the crown prince in the United States that the de facto Saudi ruler boasted about his role overseeing the plot, leading to his comment “We have our guy at Twitter,” according to an account provided to “Conspiracyland” by Aljabri’s son Khalid.

Ahmad Abouammo, a former Twitter Inc employee accused of spying for Saudi Arabia, leaves Santa Rita jail after being freed pending trial, in Dublin, California, U.S. November 21, 2019.  (Kate Munsch/Reuters)
Ahmad Abouammo, a former Twitter employee accused of spying for Saudi Arabia, in 2019. (Kate Munsch/Reuters)

When Aljabri pushed on whether the royal court’s spy inside Twitter was a Saudi citizen, MBS allegedly replied that he was in fact an American, an apparent reference to Abouammo, who has dual U.S. and Lebanese citizenship. And, tellingly, MBS told Aljabri that the spy had been paid 1 million Saudi riyals for his services — an amount roughly corresponding to the $300,000 that prosecutors have alleged Abouammo received from the Saudis.

One of the remarkable aspects of the Twitter plot is that the FBI first informed Twitter executives of the scheme in late 2015. And yet seven months later, the company’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, met with MBS during his “charm offensive” tour of the United States recounted in Episode 5.

Why would the CEO of one of America’s biggest social media companies meet with a foreign official whose operatives had, according to the FBI, just stolen his company blind? There were other factors Dorsey and the company had to consider. In the preceding months, another Saudi royal, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal — the fabulously wealthy Saudi who 25 years earlier had paid Donald Trump $20 million for the superyacht once owned by Jamal Khashoggi’s arms-dealer cousin Adnan — had upped his stake in Twitter to $350 million. That made him and his company, Kingdom Holding Company, one of the five biggest shareholders in the U.S.-based social media giant.

All the more reason for Dorsey to stay on the Saudis’ good side, as was clearly visible when the Twitter founder met the Saudi crown prince in New York, says Kleiman, Abdulaziz’s lawyer.

“There’s this amazing photograph we’ve gotten our hands on” from the meeting, says Kleiman. Dorsey “had lowered himself, and his head was bowed and inflected toward MBS as he was shaking MBS’s hand. Here he is practically curtsying to the guy. It’s got to be galling to anybody who’s been put at risk for this.”

Mohammed bin Salman and Jack Dorsey in New York in 2016, (@badermasaker/Instagram)
Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in New York in 2016. (badermasaker via Instagram)

A Twitter spokesman declined to comment on why Dorsey would have met with a foreign leader whose spies had allegedly just infiltrated his company. The spokesman in an email said only that Twitter had notified affected users about the theft of their information and cooperated closely with government investigations. “We remain committed to protecting the public conversation from abuse by state actors,” said the spokesman, who asked not to be identified by name.

Abdulaziz would later form a close alliance with Khashoggi, exchanging hundreds of messages about ways to counter MBS’s digital repression — oblivious to the fact that the Saudis had scooped up personal details that would help them penetrate his phone and read their exchanges in real time.

But there were clues about what the Saudis were up to hiding in plain sight.

In August 2017, Saud al-Qahtani — MBS’s right-hand man and enforcer, who had created a “blacklist” of regime critics — published his own ominous tweet. “Does a pseudonym protect you from the #blacklist,” he wrote. “No.”

The Saudis, he added, had technical ways of figuring out who the critics were and even their IP addresses. It was, Qahtani wrote, “a secret I’m not going to say.”

It is worth noting that, as Qahtani was writing his warning, Khashoggi himself had not fully broken with the Saudi regime he had faithfully supported for several decades. 

Despite his fervent backing of the Arab Spring and his calls for greater democracy and freedom of expression, Khashoggi was still trying to find a way to avoid antagonizing the royal court. As first reported by Wall Street Journal reporters Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck in their book “Blood and Oil,” Khashoggi proposed to the Saudi Information Ministry that he create a new U.S.-based think tank that would counter negative news coverage of the kingdom (and that he be hired as a consultant to advise the group). 

But that overture never got far. He would soon be offered a chance to write op-ed columns for the Global Opinions section of the Washington Post. In his debut piece he took off the gloves, lambasting MBS for his crackdowns and arrests of dissidents. “Saudi Arabia Wasn’t Always This Repressive,” read the headline. “Now It’s Unbearable.” 

It was a column, along with similarly hard-hitting follow-ups, that won him plaudits from dissidents like Abdulaziz, leading to a collaboration that within a year would result in Khashoggi’s murder. 

Next on “Conspiracyland”: Episode 7, “A Tale of Two Women”

As Jamal Khashoggi becomes more forceful in his attacks on MBS’s harsh crackdowns, he forms an alliance with Omar Abdulaziz, the dissident, wiring him money to fund an operation to counter Saud al-Qahtani’s army of trolls. But as he does so, his personal life becomes ever more complicated. He marries one woman — a flight attendant for Emirates Airlines — in an Islamic ceremony in northern Virginia. Then, just months later, he becomes engaged to another woman, a Turkish graduate student, leading to his fateful trip to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

In case you missed it:

Episode 1: “Exclusive: Saudi assassins picked up illicit drugs in Cairo to kill Khashoggi”

Episode 2: “Arms, harems and a Trump-owned yacht: How a Khashoggi family member helped mold the U.S.-Saudi relationship”

Episode 3: “‘I just fell apart crying heartbreak to you’: A murdered journalist’s years-long relationship with Osama bin Laden”

Episode 4: “From royal insider to target: How the Arab Spring propelled Jamal Khashoggi into the Saudi leadership’s crosshairs”

Episode 5: “‘A personality type that feels absolutely no guardrails’: How Saudi Arabia’s leader charmed Washington while cracking down on opponents”

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Prior to his murder, Jamal Khashoggi offered to help 9/11 victims suing Saudi Arabia

The meeting was rushed and, for Jamal Khashoggi, as risky as they come. The famed Saudi journalist, living in exile in the suburbs of northern Virginia, was furious with his government. He had just learned that it had imposed a travel ban on his adult son, blocking him from leaving Saudi Arabia — a clear punishment for Khashoggi’s increasingly forceful criticisms of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

And so, on the morning of Oct. 26, 2017, an agitated Khashoggi did something that for him would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier. He called a former FBI agent working for the families of 9/11 victims who were suing his government and asked to get together right away to discuss how he could help them.

Catherine Hunt (Catherine Hunt)
Catherine Hunt. (Catherine Hunt)

Khashoggi’s rendezvous that morning with ex-agent Catherine Hunt at a northern Virginia coffee shop has long been a subject of mystery and intrigue. Why would Khashoggi — once a Saudi spin doctor who vigorously defended his country over the events of 9/11 — want to talk to a representative of the lawyers seeking to hold his government accountable for the terrorist attack? And even more significant, did senior Saudi officials know what he was up to that morning? And if they did know, did that play a role in his brutal slaughter inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul less than a year later?

In a special bonus episode of the Yahoo News podcast “Conspiracyland,” Hunt — a veteran agent who worked counterterrorism and counterintelligence cases from Los Angeles to Baghdad — provides an exclusive account of her strange encounter with the Saudi journalist. It comes at a time when the lawyers for the victims’ families are entering a new and crucial phase of their case, having recently deposed three of their most important witnesses: a former Saudi Embassy official, a reputed Saudi intelligence operative and a radical imam at a Saudi-government-funded mosque, all of whom were suspected for years by the FBI of having provided assistance to two of the al-Qaida hijackers in the run-up to 9/11.

How strong a case the families have against the Saudi government remains far from clear, given that those and other depositions remain covered by a court-imposed gag order as well as a “state secrets” privilege imposed by former Attorney General William Barr that has blocked key details about the FBI investigation into the Saudi role in 9/11 from becoming public. (The lawyers for the families — with backing from members of Congress — are asking current Attorney General Merrick Garland to lift the privilege.)

US Attorney General William Barr speaks during a news conference to provide an update on the investigation of the terrorist bombing of  Pan Am flight 103 on the 32nd anniversary of the attack, at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, on December 21, 2020. (Michael Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
Then-Attorney General William Barr in December 2020. (Michael Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

But either way, Khashoggi’s meeting with Hunt stands out. It represents a tantalizing moment when the 9/11 families and their legal team, at least for a brief moment, seemed on the verge of getting the cooperation of a well-connected Saudi insider with intimate knowledge of his country’s interactions with al-Qaida.

In fact, it was Khashoggi’s unique background — as a onetime friend of Osama bin Laden who was later hired as the media adviser to a powerful Saudi prince and former chief of Saudi intelligence — that had prompted Hunt to reach out to him in the first place, about two weeks prior to their meeting.

“If you look back on the history of his career, he had a tremendous amount of connections and access to information,” Hunt said. “So he really was in a position to potentially be very helpful to us.”

When she first talked to Khashoggi, he was — according to Hunt — “very interested” in getting together, and they began discussing setting up a meeting. And then, early on the morning of Oct. 26, Khashoggi called her and wanted to move the meeting up, telling her he had urgent business to attend to and wanted to see her right away. She rushed over to the coffee shop in the Tysons Corner shopping mall that Khashoggi suggested. When she got there, she says, he was “very upset” that his son had been barred from leaving Saudi Arabia by authorities there. It had happened, as Khashoggi explained it, only because he was “being targeted by the regime.”

At that point, Hunt said, “he started to instruct me a lot about the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and that they were charged with the responsibility of spreading Islam throughout the world. He explained that really, it was a fundamentalist version of Islam that was being propagated, and that the current government was trying to reform that position.

A general manager of Alarab TV, Jamal Khashoggi, looks on during a press conference in the Bahraini capital Manama, on December 15, 2014. (Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP via Getty Images)
Jamal Khashoggi in 2014. (Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP via Getty Images)

“He said it more in a question: ‘Is my country responsible for tolerating and even supporting radicalism? Yes. And they must take responsibility for that.’”

Even that relatively small concession, Hunt thought, was “golden.” Here was a prominent Saudi apparently prepared to say his country should be held accountable for the spread of radical Islam — and the ensuing acts of terrorism it caused. But then Khashoggi said something even more surprising. He asked if the New York-based law firm Hunt was working for, Kreindler & Kreindler, was prepared to offer him a job as a consultant to the 9/11 families’ legal team. If so, he emphasized, they would have to be secretive about it. No more get-togethers in the Washington, D.C., area, where the Saudi presence was extensive.

“He was very interested in talking about it,” Hunt said. “He wanted to have the next meeting in New York, not the D.C. area.

“I was excited,” she added. “I was thrilled that he was so positive about it. I think he could have added a tremendous amount.” As to Khashoggi’s motivation in making such an offer, Hunt said: “Here he was, he found himself in exile. And I think working with the law firm would have given him a chip in the game, if you will.”

But Hunt never heard from Khashoggi again — and the full significance of their meeting didn’t hit home until more than a year later, in the weeks after his murder inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. The Washington Post had reported that the then Saudi ambassador to the United States, Khalid bin Salman (or KBS, the brother of Mohammed bin Salman), might have played a role in luring Khashoggi to Istanbul. The ambassador responded in a tweet that he’d had no contact with Khashoggi since they communicated via text on Oct. 26, 2017 — the same day as the meeting with Hunt.

Saudi Arabia's Vice Minister of Defense Prince Khalid bin Salman waits for a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and others at the Pentagon August 29, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Saudi Prince Khalid bin Salman in 2019. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

What Khashoggi and KBS (now the country’s deputy defense minister, who met with Biden administration officials this week during a trip to Washington) texted or communicated about that day remains unknown. But Jim Kreindler, the lead lawyer for the 9/11 families, said he is convinced Khashoggi sought to use the meeting with Hunt as leverage with the Saudi ambassador to help his son.

“There isn’t a doubt in my mind that after speaking to Catherine, he called KBS and said, ‘Hey, the plaintiffs’ lawyers had an FBI agent talking to me. I didn’t give them anything yet, but, you know, you mess with my son and I’m going to spill the beans.’”

To be sure, Kreindler has no hard evidence to support his speculation. But the curious timing of Khashoggi’s meeting with Hunt — on the same day he was communicating with the Saudi ambassador to the United States — adds one more mystery to the many surrounding the last year of the journalist’s life before the Saudi team of assassins injected him with a lethal dose of drugs, suffocated him and then carved up his body inside the consulate in Istanbul.

In case you missed it:

Episode 1: “Exclusive: Saudi assassins picked up illicit drugs in Cairo to kill Khashoggi”

Episode 2: “Arms, harems and a Trump-owned yacht: How a Khashoggi family member helped mold the U.S.-Saudi relationship”

Episode 3: “‘I just fell apart crying heartbreak to you’: A murdered journalist’s years-long relationship with Osama bin Laden”

Episode 4: “From royal insider to target: How the Arab Spring propelled Jamal Khashoggi into the Saudi leadership’s crosshairs”

Episode 5: “‘A personality type that feels absolutely no guardrails’: How Saudi Arabia’s leader charmed Washington while cracking down on opponents”

Episode 6: A direct trail of blood drops’ leads from a Twitter hack to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder

Episode 7: “’He gave nobody a full view of his life’: In his final days, Jamal Khashoggi juggled a secret wife in the U.S. and a fiancée in Turkey”

Episode 8: “‘Was there a bone saw?’ How Trump helped the Saudis whitewash the murder of Jamal Khashoggi”

Bonus Episode 1: “Training the assassins

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images, Middle East Monitor/Handout via Reuters, Robert Giroux/Getty Images

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‘Was there a bone saw?’ How Trump helped the Saudis whitewash the murder of Jamal Khashoggi

In early October 2018, just a few days after Jamal Khashoggi had disappeared inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, White House officials first saw the TV footage that stopped them in their tracks.

A supposed Khashoggi look-alike — a heavy-set man wearing the journalist’s clothes and glasses — could be seen walking out of the consulate as though he didn’t have a care in the world. Kirsten Fontenrose, then the director of Gulf affairs at the National Security Council, suspected right away what this was: a scene clumsily crafted to cover up a murder.

“When that footage kept playing, all of us were looking at each other saying, ‘OK, does this mean they premeditated this? Is this what we’re looking at here?’” says Fontenrose, who knew Khashoggi and would regularly have coffee with him every few weeks near the White House. “Because this is a disaster. This is crazy. Can this really be happening?”

Donald Trump with Prince Mohammed bin Salman
President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a White House meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March 2018. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The story of how the Trump White House responded to Khashoggi’s gruesome murder — and ultimately helped cover up the crime — is the subject of “Anatomy of a Cover-up,” the eighth and final episode in the Yahoo News “Conspiracyland” podcast series, “The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi.”

It is a story in which American values and rhetorical support for human rights around the world collided head first with perceived U.S. strategic and economic interests in the region. And it is a tension that carried over into the Biden administration when the new president, having pledged during his campaign to turn the Saudi kingdom into a world “pariah,” chose not to impose any penalties on the person who the CIA had concluded was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS.

It is also a story — related in a special episode of “Conspiracyland,” “Training the Assassins” — in which Trump officials maneuvered to remove American fingerprints from the crime. President Donald Trump had nominated Louis Bremer, a managing director of the New York-based investment firm Cerberus Capital Management, to be assistant secretary of defense for special operations. But Bremer — whose boss, Steve Feinberg, served as chair of Trump’s intelligence advisory board — had potential baggage: He served on a five-person board of Tier 1 Group, an Arkansas-based company owned by Cerberus that had a State Department license to train Saudi intelligence operatives. The training took place at a compound outside Memphis, where former members of U.S. Special Forces conducted paramilitary courses in staging commando raids, evasive driving and rapid-fire shooting, according to Tier 1’s website and YouTube videos it has posted.

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When Bremer appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing on Aug. 6, 2020, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., grilled him intensely. Was he aware of reports that Tier 1 may have specifically trained members of the Saudi Tiger Team that killed Khashoggi? Had the company conducted any investigation into whether that had happened? Bremer demurred, acknowledging that “I do know that we train Saudi nationals as part of our engagement with the kingdom,” but saying he had “no recollection” of being told that some of them had participated in the Khashoggi murder. He promised, however, to check and provide written answers to the committee.

When Bremer did so, and submitted those responses for review to the White House, officials were stunned and realized they had a serious PR problem on their hands. Bremer confirmed his company had indeed conducted such training, “and there were invoices for members of the Saudi hit team,” said one former senior Trump official who was flabbergasted after reading the written responses.

Rather than disclose the American connection to Khashoggi’s murder, the White House never forwarded Bremer’s responses to the Senate and his nomination to the top Pentagon post was allowed to die. (Bremer and Cerberus declined to respond to repeated requests for comment from Yahoo News, but the former nominee recently confirmed his responses to the New York Times, telling the paper that Tier 1 Group conducted training of members of the Saudi Tiger Team that was “protective in nature.” “The training provided was unrelated to their subsequent heinous acts,” Bremer told the paper.)

Louis Bremer
Louis Bremer at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in August 2020 to consider his nomination as an assistant secretary of defense. (Rod Lamkey/CNP/Shutterstock)

Khashoggi’s murder sparked a crisis inside the Trump White House. Trump and his top aides, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, had made the Saudis the centerpiece of their Middle East strategy. The president had extolled the Saudis as a bulwark against Iranian aggression. He had taken his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia and cultivated MBS, welcoming him to the White House and gushing in front of the TV cameras about the billions of dollars in weapons the Saudis were buying from U.S. defense contractors.

But the murder of Khashoggi, a U.S.-based journalist writing for one of this country’s leading newspapers, threatened to upend all that. And top officials scrambled to contain the fallout.

“Get the full story out, whatever the full story is,” former national security adviser John Bolton says he and Kushner told the crown prince in a phone call shortly after Khashoggi’s disappearance. But Bolton acknowledged he never asked MBS directly the most obvious and important question of all: Did he order the murder? “No, I didn’t, because I hadn’t spoken to the president at that point,” Bolton said in an interview for “Conspiracyland.” “It was not something that I wanted to raise before I knew what direction Trump was going to go in.”

Soon enough, Trump himself was on the phone to both MBS and his father, King Salman, pressing for answers as well, according to Fontenrose, who monitored the calls.

“The president had multiple calls with MBS and with King Salman, specifically asking them, ‘Did you know anything about this?’” she says. “The president would flat out ask, I mean, up to a dozen times on any individual phone call, whether it was with King Salman or with MBS or both of them, ‘Did you have any knowledge of this operation?’ ‘Did you know this was going to happen?’ ‘Did you give this order?’”

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi enters the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018.  (CCTV/Hurriyet via AP)
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi enters the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. (CCTV/Hurriyet via AP)

And every time it was, ‘No, no, no, we didn’t know anything, and we’re still looking and we’re still searching.’ ‘Yes, Donald, we totally understand this makes things difficult for you, and we’re trying to get to the bottom of it.’’’

One piece of intelligence in particular had gotten Trump’s attention. U.S. officials had concluded that the Saudis had used a bone saw to carve up Khashoggi’s body.

“I mean, he would go back to it and back to it and back to it, trying to press them and telling them, you know, ‘This will change everything, you guys. We’ve got to know. We’re with you. We’re standing behind Saudi Arabia … but we’ve got to get to the bottom of this. Was there a bone saw? Was there a bone saw?

“‘I’ve been in difficult negotiations. I’ve never had to take a bone saw.’”

At one point Trump turned to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to Fontenrose, and asked: “‘Have you ever had to take a bone saw into negotiations?’ ‘No, Mr. President, ha-ha.’ And pressing, pressing, pressing, and every time, ‘No, no, no, Donald, we didn’t know anything about it. We’re still trying to get to the bottom of this.’”

While these talks were going on, the Saudis were issuing an ever-shifting series of denials. At first, three days after the murder, MBS had insisted in a Bloomberg interview that Khashoggi had left the consulate and the Saudis had no idea what happened to him. Then, as Turkish officials started to leak details of secret audiotapes they had made from inside the consulate, the Saudis declared that Khashoggi had died in a “fistfight.”

Mike Pompeo, center
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in December 2018, leaves a briefing on the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia in regard to Khashoggi’s murder. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Finally they settled on a different narrative: Khashoggi had been murdered by “rogue killers” who acted on their own. It was a formulation Trump immediately adopted — and proclaimed to the world.

“I just spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia, who denies any knowledge of what took place with regard to, as he said, his Saudi Arabian citizen,” Trump said on Oct. 15. “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?”

The message was clear. Trump was determined to protect the Saudis — even if, as Bolton suggests, he knew the Saudi leaders’ denials were lies.

“I think this was a case where Trump very decisively and flatly decided he was going to continue to support the Saudis on a very realpolitik basis. That’s unpleasant, to be sure, but we live in an unpleasant world,” Bolton said. “Look, I think Trump knew and acted on the assumption that the highest levels of the royal family were involved in it, and he made his decision in any event. And at that point, the issue was closed for the rest of us, for Mike Pompeo, for myself. The president had made up his mind.”

Trump also made that reasoning perfectly clear when speaking to reporters on Nov. 20.

“If we abandon Saudi Arabia, it will be a terrible mistake,” Trump said. “They’re buying hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of things from this country. If I say, ‘We don’t want to take your business,’ if I say, ‘We’re going to cut it off,’ they will get the equipment, military equipment and other things from Russia and China. And I’m not going to tell a country that’s spending hundreds of billions of dollars — and has helped me out [to] do one thing very importantly, keep oil prices down so they’re not going to 100 and 150 dollars a barrel. And I’m not going to destroy the economy for our country by being foolish with Saudi Arabia. It’s about America first.”

Donald Trump
Trump talks to reporters about a meeting with the king of Saudi Arabia, Oct. 15, 2018. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Trump’s formulation — that the Saudis needed to be protected over their role in a ghastly murder so as not to disrupt lucrative arms deals — was too much for Sen. Bob Corker, then the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “To equate the probable murder of a journalist who worked for a U.S. institution, to equate that with our ability to sell arms … it was hard to believe that any president would stoop to that level of equivocation,” he said. “It was a low moment, in my opinion, as far as the moral leadership of the United States of America.”

And yet as he looks back on it, Bolton — who would famously break with Trump in a tell-all book — continues to defend the White House response, comparing MBS to the notorious Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, who was backed by the U.S. for decades despite a lengthy record of human rights abuses.

“Franklin Roosevelt once said of Anastasio Somoza, a Central American dictator, ‘He may be an SOB, but he’s our SOB.’ I’m with Roosevelt on this,” said Bolton in his interview for “Conspiracyland.” “I don’t know where the rest of you all are, but that’s just the way it goes.”

Are you saying that MBS is your SOB?” he was asked during the “Conspiracyland” interview.

No, I’m saying he’s the U.S.’s SOB,” he responded. “If somebody’s got a different idea of how to deal with Saudi Arabia, then let’s hear it.”

While running for president, Joe Biden suggested he did have a very different idea. “We [are] going to in fact make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are, and so they have to be held accountable,” he said during a 2019 debate when asked about Khashoggi’s murder.

Antony Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

But when he had the chance to do so in February, the price was a marginal one. Biden’s new director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, released a report that had been withheld by the Trump White House and that found that MBS did approve the operation that killed Khashoggi.

But the report was skimpy, containing few new details about what the U.S. intelligence community knew about the murder. And the administration declined to impose any sanctions or punishment for MBS or any other high-level Saudi figures — a failure that Secretary of State Antony Blinken struggled to defend at a press conference.

“I would say the relationship with Saudi Arabia is an important one,” Blinken said. “We have significant ongoing interests. We remain committed to the defense of the kingdom. So what we’ve done by the actions we’ve taken is not to rupture the relationship but to recalibrate it to be more in line with our interests and our values. This is bigger than any one person.”

And as if to underscore the point, the Pentagon confirmed that just days before the release of the report essentially accusing MBS of murder, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called his counterpart in Riyadh, the Saudi defense minister, the very same MBS. The purpose, according to a Pentagon readout of the call, was to “reaffirm the strategic defense partnership between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

In case you missed it:

Episode 1: “Exclusive: Saudi assassins picked up illicit drugs in Cairo to kill Khashoggi”

Episode 2: “Arms, harems and a Trump-owned yacht: How a Khashoggi family member helped mold the U.S.-Saudi relationship”

Episode 3: “‘I just fell apart crying heartbreak to you’: A murdered journalist’s years-long relationship with Osama bin Laden”

Episode 4: “From royal insider to target: How the Arab Spring propelled Jamal Khashoggi into the Saudi leadership’s crosshairs”

Episode 5: “‘A personality type that feels absolutely no guardrails’: How Saudi Arabia’s leader charmed Washington while cracking down on opponents”

Episode 6: A direct trail of blood drops’ leads from a Twitter hack to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder

Episode 7: “’He gave nobody a full view of his life’: In his final days, Jamal Khashoggi juggled a secret wife in the U.S. and a fiancée in Turkey”

Bonus Episode 1: “Training the assassins

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: courtesy of Hanan Al-Atr (2), Dylan Martinez/Reuters

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‘Conspiracyland’ podcast: The secret lives and brutal death of Jamal Khashoggi

Jamal Khashoggi was Saudi Arabia’s most prominent journalist, writing for one of the United States’ premier newspapers. What happened to him inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2, 2018, was shocking. And the more one digs into his murder, the more it becomes clear: This was the result of a real-life conspiracy. The latest season of Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast is out now.

Episode 1: The Henchman

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Episode 2: The Arms Dealer’s Harem

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Episode 3: Jamal and Osama

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Episode 4: A Revolution Crushed

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Episode 5: The Rise of the Bullet Guy

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Episode 6: Influence Operations

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Episode 7: A Tale of Two Women

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Episode 8: “Anatomy of a Cover-up”

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Bonus Episode 1: “Training the Assassins”

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Bonus Episode 2: “Khashoggi and the 9/11 lawsuit”

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