The CIA believes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, sources familiar with the matter said on Friday, complicating President Donald Trump’s efforts to preserve ties with a key U.S. ally.
The sources said the CIA had briefed other parts of the U.S. government, including Congress, on its assessment, which contradicts Saudi government assertions that Prince Mohammed was not involved.
The CIA’s finding, first reported by the Washington Post, is the most definitive U.S. assessment to date tying Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler directly to the killing.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington rejected the CIA assessment.
“The claims in this purported assessment is false,” a spokeswoman for the embassy said in a statement. “We have and continue to hear various theories without seeing the primary basis for these speculations.”
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, on a visit to Papua New Guinea, told reporters traveling with him that he could not comment on classified information.
“The murder of Jamal Khashoggi was an atrocity. It was also an affront to a free and independent press and the United States is determined to hold all of those accountable who are responsible for that murder,” he said, but added that Washington wanted to preserve its relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The State Department declined to comment.
Trump and top officials of his administration have said Saudi Arabia must be held to account for any involvement in Khashoggi’s death, but they have also stressed the importance of the alliance.
U.S. officials have said Saudi Arabia, a major oil supplier, plays an important part in countering what they see as Iran’s malign role in the region, and Trump has repeatedly said he does not want to imperil U.S. arms sales to the kingdom.
While the Trump administration on Thursday imposed sanctions on 17 Saudis for their role in Khashoggi’s killing, many lawmakers think the United States should take a tougher stance, and the CIA’s findings are likely to embolden that view.
Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government and a columnist for the Washington Post, was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 when he went there to pick up documents he needed for his planned marriage to a Turkish woman.
Khashoggi had resisted pressure from Riyadh for him to return home. Saudi officials have said a team of 15 Saudi nationals were sent to confront Khashoggi at the consulate and that he was accidentally killed in a chokehold by men who were trying to force him to return to the kingdom.