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Opinion Saudi Arabia admits Khashoggi’s murder was premeditated. Fine. Who premeditated it?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the second day of the Future Investment Initiative conference, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 24. (Amr Nabil/AP)

SAUDI ARABIA once again changed its story about Jamal Khashoggi, admitting on Thursday he was the victim of a premeditated murder and not, as it said less than a week earlier , the accidental casualty of a “brawl.” But that doesn’t mean the regime of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has finally chosen to come clean about the Oct. 2 death of the Post contributing columnist.

Rather, it merely reflects Saudi acceptance of the reality that the previous official version, like the one before it and the one before that, wouldn’t fly with the Turkish president, the U.S. Congress, European governments and possibly even the Trump administration, which has been doing its best to assist the damage control operation in Riyadh. For 17 days, let’s not forget, the Saudi government insisted it knew for a fact that Mr. Khashoggi had walked out of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul shortly after arriving. While the new story is closer to the truth, it still leaves fundamental questions unanswered: Who ordered the hit on the journalist, and what role did Mohammed bin Salman play?

The crown prince’s fingerprints are all over the available public evidence. Five probable members of his personal security detail have been identified among the 15-member team that reportedly traveled to Istanbul to assault Mr. Khashoggi inside the consulate. Two of the crown prince’s closest aides, including the keeper of his enemies list and the deputy chief of Saudi intelligence, are among the officials whose firings were announced last week. U.S. intelligence intercepts show that Mohammed bin Salman was intent on silencing Mr. Khashoggi, who frequently, if gently, criticized him, by bringing the journalist back to the kingdom.

Turkey may have more evidence in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi that it's holding over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, says columnist David Ignatius. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

How that impulse evolved into a murder plot isn’t likely to be disclosed in the absence of an independent international investigation. The Saudi regime remains intent on protecting the crown prince, who cynically gave a speech on Wednesday calling the murder a “heinous crime,” after staging a cruel and creepy photo op in which he offered condolences to one of Mr. Khashoggi’s sons. In adopting the phrase premeditated murder, Riyadh merely conformed with the public demand of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the hope he will respond by suppressing some of the evidence he controls. That evidence reportedly includes an audiotape on which can be heard Mr. Khashoggi’s torture, murder and dismemberment.

CIA Director Gina Haspel, who visited Istanbul this week, has heard that audiotape, according to The Post’s reporting. Yet the Trump administration has failed to offer its own conclusions about what happened to Mr. Khashoggi, who was a resident of Virginia with three U.S. citizen children. Instead it is doing its best to protect its excessive and unwise investment in Mohammed bin Salman as a Middle Eastern ally. Asked if he believed the 33-year-old crown prince’s denials of involvement, President Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that “I want to believe him. I really want to believe him.”

What Mr. Trump should really want is the truth. If Mohammed bin Salman in fact oversaw or sanctioned the brutal butchering of a journalist who was little more than a mild critic, the administration urgently needs to alter its relationship with him — or risk even worse disasters.

Read more:

Read Jamal Khashoggi’s columns for The Washington Post

David Ignatius: The Saudi royal family circles its wagons in the Khashoggi crisis

Ben Freeman: It’s time to silence the Saudi lobbying machine in Washington

The Post’s View: Does Saudi money leave room for an honest debate?

Jamal Khashoggi: What the Arab world needs most is free expression