ISTANBUL — Surveillance video recorded by Turkish law enforcement appears to confirm reports that Saudi agents used a body double as part of an attempted coverup after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
The video was released as pressure intensified on Saudi officials to explain what happened to Khashoggi, 59, a critic of the Saudi government who had been living in self-exile in Virginia and was in Istanbul to obtain documents for his pending marriage to his Turkish fiancee.
After denying any knowledge of Khashoggi’s death, the Saudi government reversed course Saturday, saying he had accidentally been killed in the consulate after an altercation with a team sent to negotiate his return. But that account has been greeted with suspicion and derision by European leaders and many U.S. politicians.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to reveal details of an extensive investigation into Khashoggi’s death Tuesday, in what could be a pivotal moment in the case. Turkish investigators have alleged that 15 Saudi agents killed and dismembered Khashoggi, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, soon after he entered the consulate in Istanbul three weeks ago.
The Trump administration has intensified its contacts with the Saudi leadership in recent days, as the president and his allies have scrambled to preserve their relationship with the kingdom, a close regional ally and major purchaser of U.S. weapons. President Trump has swung between publicly accepting the Saudi account of Khashoggi’s death and complaining of “deception” and “lies” from the kingdom.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Trump said that he was “not satisfied” with what he has heard about who is responsible for Khashoggi’s killing but that he did not want to “lose all of that investment” by punishing the Saudi leadership. Later, in an interview with USA Today, Trump said he believed that the death resulted from a “plot gone awry,” seemingly echoing the official Saudi explanation.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin met Monday in Riyadh with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, illustrating how the White House is retaining close ties with the embattled leader despite the growing international outcry.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry posted a photo of the meeting on Twitter, saying in a caption that Mohammed stressed “the importance of the Saudi-US strategic partnership” during the encounter.
Tony Sayegh, Mnuchin’s top spokesman, said the two men discussed the Khashoggi investigation, the implementation of sanctions against Iran, the Saudi economy and ways to combat the financing of terrorism.
Still, the Treasury Department was reluctant to comment on the meeting, which had not been announced in advance.
Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA official who is now head of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, said the session was a way for Saudi officials to signal that the crown prince won’t be cowed by any investigation into Khashoggi’s death.
“He’s just trying to tough it out and say, ‘You have to deal with me,’ ” Riedel said. “ ‘I’m in charge here. I’m not going anywhere. You can’t avoid having your picture taken with me when you come here.’ ”
There have been growing questions in recent days about what role, if any, Mohammed played in the Khashoggi plot. Twelve of the 15 members of what Turkish officials call a hit squad dispatched to kill the journalist have ties to the Saudi security services, and several have connections to the crown prince, according to their posts on social media, emails and local media reports. Saudi authorities deny that Mohammed had been aware of the operation.
Like many other foreign officials, Mnuchin announced last week that he was withdrawing from a high-profile investment conference in Saudi Arabia this week. But he traveled to the kingdom for other meetings, officials said.
In New York, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a White House adviser, said in an interview at a CNN conference Monday that he has advised Mohammed to be “fully transparent” about the Khashoggi case. Kushner has cultivated a close partnership with the heir to the Saudi throne.
Kushner declined to say whether he believes the Saudi account of Khashoggi’s death, saying the administration was still “in the fact-finding phase.”
Trump said top U.S. intelligence officials were in Turkey, suggesting they were trying to assess the information the Turks have gathered. CIA Director Gina Haspel departed for Turkey on Monday, according to people familiar with the matter.
Saudi officials have refused to say what happened to Khashoggi’s remains, one of many questions raised about their explanation for the killing.
For weeks, the Saudi government had said that Khashoggi walked out of the consulate after his Oct. 2 visit. The body double shown in the newly released video appeared to be an attempt to substantiate that claim, but the cover story fell apart, according to a diplomat familiar with the case. The video footage clearly shows that the man is wearing different shoes than Khashoggi wore when he entered the consulate.
“It was a flawed body double, so it never became an official part of the Saudi government’s narrative,” said the diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.
The video that aired Monday — which appeared to show Mustafa al-Madani, 57, and an accomplice — further challenges the Saudi government’s explanations of what transpired in the consulate and in the hours after Khashoggi’s death.
In clips from closed-circuit television cameras, Madani is wearing the gray pants, light shirt and black jacket worn by Khashoggi before he entered the mission.
Madani, who is suspected of working for Saudi intelligence, traveled to New York shortly before Mohammed was scheduled to arrive there as part of his U.S. tour this spring, according to records maintained by the Department of Homeland Security. Four users of a caller-ID app popular in the Arab world list Madani as working in intelligence, and another describes him as working in the headquarters of the kingdom’s primary intelligence agency.
In the video, Madani arrives at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul’s Levent district at around 11 a.m., wearing black-and-white sneakers and a blue plaid shirt, roughly two hours before the arrival of Khashoggi.
Madani is shown departing the consulate about four hours later apparently wearing Khashoggi’s clothing — except for his shoes. He is accompanied by another man wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and carrying a white plastic bag. The two take a taxi to Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, where they enter a bathroom, the images show. Madani emerges from the bathroom wearing the same plaid shirt he had on when he arrived at the consulate, and the two men dispose of the plastic bag, which Turkish officials believe contained Khashoggi’s clothes, CNN reported.
Later, the two are seen laughing as they approach the Mövenpick Hotel, where both were believed to have stayed during their brief trip to Istanbul.
The video was released as Turkish authorities continued their investigation, which has included seeking testimony from the consulate’s employees. Investigators Monday discovered an abandoned vehicle they said belonged to the consulate. It was located in a private parking lot in the Sultangazi district, about 10 miles from the consulate grounds.
Turkish investigators were prevented by Saudi authorities from searching the car, which bore diplomatic license plates, Turkey’s NTV news channel reported.
Later Monday, the pro-government A Haber channel aired footage it said was of Saudi Consulate officials burning documents in the mission’s garden the day after Khashoggi was killed. The channel did not say how the footage was obtained, but it appeared to have been filmed from directly above the consulate.
Turkish officials have maintained a steady leak of information to local and international media outlets in the weeks since Khashoggi was killed.
The strategy, analysts say, is designed to maximize pressure both on the United States and on Saudi Arabia, Turkey’s rival.
More than four dozen members of Congress sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats on Monday demanding clarity on what the intelligence community knew about the risk Khashoggi faced before his disappearance and whether American officials attempted to notify him that his life was in danger. They’ve also sought the declassification of relevant intelligence intercepts.
U.S. intelligence agencies have a “duty to warn” people at risk of being kidnapped or killed, according to a policy adopted in 2015. The letter, signed by 54 Democrats and one Republican, says the lawmakers intend to use the “full force of Congressional oversight and investigatory powers to obtain these answers should they not be forthcoming.”
The office of the Turkish president said early Monday that Erdogan and Trump spoke by phone the night before and agreed to “clear up the Jamal Khashoggi incident.”
A White House official confirmed that the call took place. Trump and his administration have emphasized Saudi Arabia’s status as a key U.S. ally.
Paletta reported from Washington. Zeynep Karatas in Istanbul and John Hudson, Karoun Demirjian, John Wagner, Shane Harris and Josh Dawsey in Washington contributed to this report.