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Saudi Arabia Confirms Death of Jamal Khashoggi, Top Military Official Dismissed, 18 Saudis Detained. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired October 19, 2018 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We have breaking news just coming.

In a statement just read on Saudi state television, Saudi Arabia confirms that the journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead.

Quickly want to go to CNN's Clarissa Ward. She's in Ankara, Turkey, for us. She' following these late-breaking developments.

I take it the Saudis, Clarissa, are now releasing a report on what they say happened to Jamal Khashoggi?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

So we have heard, Wolf, in a state news bulletin on state television that there are essentially two main components to what is going to happen. Saudi Arabia announcing that the king himself, the most powerful man in the country, has ordered that a committee, which will be comprised of the interior ministry, the foreign ministry and national security, have all tasked with coming together to issue a full and extensive investigative report into exactly what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, how it was he was killed.

That report is to be delivered in one month's time. So, Saudis buying themselves a little bit of wiggle room here. But in the immediate time though, Wolf, there is big news, which is that they are also announcing that they have dismissed General Ahmed al-Assiri.

Now, you may be remembering, Wolf, that since Tuesday we have been reporting that a former military officer, very high up in intelligence, was the one who was in charge of this mission. We can now confirm to you, we did not name him out of an abundance of caution before. We can now confirm to you this is consistent with our reporting of the past three days. The man in question was Ahmed al- Assiri.

He used to be the spokesperson for the coalition that was overseeing the campaign, the war in Yemen. He is well-known to be part of the crown prince's inner circle. We can now confirm Saudi state television saying that general Ahmed al-Assiri has been relieved of his position.

Wolf, this is a significant move. This is a very high-ranking official, and this is presumably the first of several other dismissals. There were some other dismissals announced as well, but none anywhere near as high-ranking as General al-Assiri.

As I said before, the other headline along with the dismissal of al- Assiri, is that they now have one month, national security, interior ministry, foreign ministry, to put together essentially a report, a commission that will get to the bottom of how it was that Khashoggi was killed, Wolf.

BLITZER: That's significant, the fact that they have now fired this General Ahmed al-Assiri. There were suggestions, reports earlier in the week that he was going to be the fall guy. Looks like that is unfolding right now.

Quickly, I want you to stand by, Clarissa.

Elise Labott is monitoring developments as well.

What are you learning, Elise?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, in this Saudi statement, in addition to Ahmed al-Assiri, who is, as Clarissa said, one of the senior adviser to Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, he was, as she said, the coalition spokesman, but Mohammed bin Salman has taken a liking to al-Assiri.

He took him over. He's the deputy head of intelligence and a senior adviser. In addition to that, another senior adviser, Saud al- Qahtani, now, he is not as senior as al-Assiri, but a very top adviser in the inner circle. And why is he important, Wolf.

Because Saud al-Qahtani is somebody who had been speaking with Jamal Khashoggi over the last year, trying to get him back into the fold. There was, as we have been discussing, a lot of consternation about his criticism of the regime, of Mohammed bin Salman.

And this was one of Khashoggi's main interlocutors was saying, stop your criticism, stop your criticism on Twitter about Donald Trump, come back into the fold and we will give you a position. We will start a think tank for you.

He is gone along, Wolf, with five top intelligence officers. Of course, the main question with so many of Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince's advisers in his inner circle fingered in the killing of Jamal, the question is, what did the crown prince know, what did he authorize, and when did he know it, Wolf?

BLITZER: I want you to stand by.

Clarissa is getting more details in Turkey right now.

What else are you learning, Clarissa?

WARD: So we're also learning, Wolf, that along with the dismissal of General Ahmad al-Assiri, which as I pointed out before is important for a number of reasons, 18 Saudi nationals have been detained, 18 Saudi nationals. One other thing I want to mention, Wolf, because it does bear

mentioning to our U.S. audience, it is currently 1:00 in the morning in Saudi Arabia. Not uncommon to see these -- well, to see major news being broken so late in the night in Saudi Arabia.

[18:05:01]

I believe when it was announced that the deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, would become the now crown prince, that announcement was made at 3:00 in the morning.

Now, we're also learning that apparently according to the prosecutor general, it was a fistfight that led to the death of Jamal Khashoggi. A fistfight that led to the death of Jamal Khashoggi. You may remember the details that we had heard up until this point from Turkish officials who were responding to the tape, the alleged audio that exists of this whole thing, they said there was some kind of an interrogation, some kind of a struggle that then led to Jamal Khashoggi's death.

Not exactly clear yet how a fistfight could result in the death of a journalist. That presumably is what the Saudis will want to spend the next month reviewing with the national security involved, interior ministry and foreign ministry, as I said, but certainly this is a significant moment.

We have not seen anything quite like this from the kingdom, certainly any time that I can remember, but 18 Saudi nationals detained, one incredibly important senior adviser to the prince himself also dismissed from his position, and revelations now starting to come out as to exactly how, Wolf, Jamal Khashoggi died.

BLITZER: I just want to be precise, Clarissa, 18 Saudi nationals now detained, meaning they have been arrested by the Saudi government. Does that include among the 18 General Ahmad al-Assiri and Saud al- Qahtani, these two very high-ranking Saudi officials?

WARD: Well, we do know that Saud al-Qahtani, as you said, extremely high-ranking, that he has been detained.

We know so far that General Ahmed al-Assiri has been dismissed from his position. As I said before, he is the one who oversaw the entire operation, a former military official, used to be the spokesperson for the coalition that is fighting that war in Yemen, a senior adviser, part of the crown prince's inner circle.

He has been dismissed from his position. al-Qahtani has been also detained. This is momentous. We haven't seen anything like this coming out of the kingdom for a very long time, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. And so they say that Jamal Khashoggi died as a result of a fistfight at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

We know he walked in, he was fine walking in, he never walked out, something happened inside. Walk us through what they're saying about a fistfight all of a sudden resulting in his death. WARD: Well, it is interesting, Wolf, because the Saudis have only

just begun to sketch out the bare-bones of a narrative. They clearly want to buy themselves more time by having this larger, detailed report that won't come for a month.

But if you think back to what we have been hearing from Turkish officials who have been sort of leaking elements of this audiotape that reportedly captured the entire event, what we heard again and again essentially was that Jamal Khashoggi walked in there essentially to do something as mundane as to renew -- to get some paperwork that would show that he was single, that would allow him to marry his fiancee here in Turkey.

He was quickly taken into another room. He was interrogated. There was some kind of violence that went on. The Saudis clearly categorizing that as a fistfight. Up until then, we had simply heard that it was some kind of a violent altercation.

And then somehow -- and this really is the missing link -- somehow that ends with Jamal Khashoggi being dead and, according to Turkish officials, then his body being dismembered, cut into little pieces. And there are still a lot of questions, I should add, Wolf. Where is that body?

That is the one thing Turkish officials will be wanting to know. It is something that this state news bulletin from Saudi Arabia does not appear to address. Where is the body? And, still, of course, who gave the order for this operation? What was the express purpose of this operation? How does a fistfight end up with a dismembered journalist, Wolf?

BLITZER: Especially when there are 15, 15 Saudi nationals inside the consulate who were all flown over basically that day to deal with Jamal Khashoggi.

Stand by, Clarissa, because Elise is getting new information as well.

Elise Labott is joining us.

Elise, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who just returned to the United States from Saudi Arabia, was he informed of these kinds of specific details while he was there?

LABOTT: He was not, Wolf.

The Saudis were very short on specifics, but officials have said that Secretary Pompeo gave a very stern warning to Mohammed bin Salman and the king, saying, you need to have an investigation, it needs to be credible, and all of the details are going to come out, so you need to be up front about what you know and what happened, and gave a warning to Mohammed bin Salman that his future as king is at stake, Wolf.

[18:10:10]

And from talking to sources in the region, that's one of the reasons that this came out tonight at this late hour. As we know, the Saudis are prone to have these late-night revelations

and announcements. But why is it today, on a weekend in Saudi Arabia? They're still rounding up the weekend there. Because Secretary Pompeo reportedly gave a 72-hour deadline to the Saudis to come out with something.

And sources said that they knew that they had to meet the deadline and they wanted to meet it. Now, as Clarissa said, a lot that is unknown, particularly what was the mission here, the mandate? Was it just to interrogate Jamal? Was it to render him, to kidnap him and bring him back home?

And what did the crown prince know at that time? Sources say that the Saudis know no one is going to come out looking good in this, Wolf, but they're going to try to be as up front as they can. But you also saw, you know, Saudi supporters, supporters of Mohammed bin Salman saying tonight that the perpetrators need to be brought to justice, but at the same time the stability of the kingdom, the stability indeed of the region is at stake, Wolf.

And that's really in the minds of the Saudis and the United States and even the Turks as they work their way through this.

BLITZER: I want to go to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia right now, our international correspondent Sam Kiley.

Sam, I take it you watched all of this unfold on official Saudi state TV. Walk us through what they're saying over there.

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you wouldn't have imagined, Wolf, that this was a momentous announcement with the sound down, which is how it first came up to us.

It just looked like a regular newscast, almost a discussion between the newscasters, but very rapidly the details started to emerge. And they are very consistent with what we had been led to believe would be the case from our own sources over the last few days.

Just to recap, they announced that 18 officials, Saudis, have been detained, that Ahmed al-Assiri, who is the head of general intelligence here, a very, very senior intelligence official, a former spokesman for the Saudi war operation in Yemen, a very hard-line spokesman he was, too, during that period, he's been detained.

The assumption is here that all of the 15 individuals named by the Turks, but we haven't seen a full list of them yet from the Saudis, would be among those 18, plus some other officials, notably Saud al- Qahtani, who is a very intimate official in the royal court.

Now, both Assiri and Qahtani are very, very close indeed to the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and this is clearly a housecleaning operation of some considerable import. Never actually in the history probably of modern Saudi Arabia has there been quite such a dramatic move against so many people who are so close to the center of power, bodyguards, the head of intelligence, intimates of the royal court, and a signal really that the Saudis had -- eventually had to bow to the steady leak of -- the series of leaks that were coming out of Turkey.

Turkey, of course, has been arguing all along that it had definitive intelligence on this plot, that Mr. Khashoggi was killed within a couple of hours of arriving in that consulate on October the 2nd, largely based, it is assumed, on bugging equipment planted by the Turks.

The United States flew their secretary of state over here, met for 40 minutes with the crown prince, and now late on a -- well, early, rather, on a Saturday morning, about 1:00 local time a.m., we get this announcement.

This is not uncommon in Saudi Arabia, partly because people are quite late-night people here anyway. It is not quite prime time, but nor is it quite the small hours that it would be in the Western world. But it is a moment that Saudi Arabia has taken to draw breath and try to protect the House of Saud.

Whether that is successful in terms of defining the future life and longevity as a potential king in his role as crown prince for Mohammed bin Salman may well depend what comes out of this report that's due to be published in about a month's time, Wolf, according to the Saudi news broadcast.

[18:15:07]

But it is a very dramatic moment indeed, and a moment I think in which the House of Saud has had to move and bow to international pressure like never before, Wolf.

BLITZER: And very quickly, Sam, what, if anything, are the Saudis saying about what the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, actually knew about this plot to go ahead and, A, detain and eventually kill Jamal Khashoggi?

KILEY: Well, those details have not yet emerged, as far as I'm aware, Wolf.

But the plan -- the statements in the past have been consistent that he knew nothing about it and this was a rogue element. And that's the sort of language that we have had in translation from the newscasters. They're simply saying that this was a plot, that Mr. Khashoggi was murdered.

But there is no indication whatsoever that there's any kind of finger- pointing towards the crown prince, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by, Sam. I know you are working your sources over there in Riyadh.

It is 1:16 a.m. right now in Saudi Arabia.

I want to go to the White House.

Kaitlan Collins is getting reaction, I suspect. Earlier in the week, we did hear the president say, Kaitlan, that he

had heard that -- quote -- "rogue killers" may have been responsible. What the Saudis are now suggesting is that, yes, rogue killers may have been responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

And the question now is going to be, who does the White House believe here. Now, of course, this is coming out. We know the White House is tracking these developments as we are learning about them ourselves coming from Saudi state television, so they're keeping track of that.

But we did hear from President Trump on this earlier. So, you have to wonder. They're giving this one-month timeline of this investigation, but earlier when President Trump, who is out West right now, was speaking to reporters, he said he hopes to know more by Monday and that he already knew a lot.

Of course, that's going to raise a question of what exactly is it that the president knew and did he know that Jamal Khashoggi is dead, now that the Saudi state television is confirming as much?

Now, one of those questions, Wolf, that he was asked about is if it is found that the Saudis are found to be responsible for the death of this reporter, what are the consequences going to be?

He said he wasn't ready to start talking about that yet, but that this was serious stuff and that he wanted to get to the bottom of it, and that when it came to the decision, that time to have action and make a decision on what to do in response to this, he did want to keep Congress involved.

Now, Wolf, most people took that to believe that he was talking about sanctions, but he did say he was going to make recommendations to Congress about that arms deal that is in the works, and essentially saying he didn't want it to affect the arms deal, that he thought there were other avenues to explore there.

So, he said he would make recommendations to Congress, essentially saying it would be something along the lines of that arms deal. But as you heard Clarissa saying, the questions now are, who are they going to blame?

Because so far, the president, though he has come closer to acknowledging that this reporter was killed in the Saudi consulate, he has not pointed the finger at the Saudi crown prince, as others have. And he has not said exactly what the consequences are going to be if it is found they are responsible for this.

And, Wolf, as you pointed out, earlier in the week, the president suggested rogue killers could be responsible for this. So the question is going to be, is he going to buy Saudi denials, even if other people don't believe them?

BLITZER: And, as you know, Kaitlan, the president earlier said within the next two or three days, maybe by Monday, they will get the complete report. But the Saudi statement says they need another 30 days right now to continue their investigation.

COLLINS: And that's likely not going to be a timeline that is going to make a lot of people in Washington happy, because even some of the president's allies have been demanding answers.

Wolf, it has been over two weeks since Jamal Khashoggi entered that Saudi Consulate and never came out. Of course, the Saudis initially said that he did leave the embassy, but now they're saying he is dead. That is going to raise even more questions about what it was they told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he visited Riyadh, because when he left that trip, he was asked, point-blank, do you believe this reporter is dead or alive?

He said he didn't want to talk about the facts, that the Saudis weren't ready to talk about the facts, but, Wolf, that simply is not going to be an answer that is going to suffice for a lot of people in the coming days.

BLITZER: All right, Kaitlan, we are going to get back to you. I know you are working your sources.

I anticipate a formal statement coming from the White House.

We have our correspondents in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, all over. They're watching this story. Much more on the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:24:13]

BLITZER: We are following breaking news.

In a statement just read on Saudi state TV, the Saudis now confirm the journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead.

Let's go back to CNN's Clarissa Ward in Ankara, Turkey, for us.

Clarissa, walk us through what the Saudis now claim, the detention of 18 Saudi nationals and apparently the removal of some high-ranking intelligence officials?

WARD: That's right.

So we know that General Ahmed al-Assiri has been relieved of his duties. He is the man that CNN has been reporting, without naming him, was the one to oversee this operation. But it is another official who is possibly even more interesting.

His name is al-Qahtani. He is incredibly senior within Saudi Arabia's power structure. He is one of the crown prince's top three most senior, closest advisers. He is also well-known for having sort of spearheaded this rather ugly media campaign on Twitter to essentially take out critics of Saudi Arabia.

[18:25:14] He also played a prominent role in the propaganda campaign against Qatar, when Saudi Arabia decided to launch a blockade against Qatar. And we are actually hearing from one extremely-well-placed source, Wolf, that Qahtani himself called Jamal Khashoggi to warn him/threaten him about keeping criticizing the king.

This is a man who was very well-known to be a rather unsavory character, but what is specifically significant about him being detained, Wolf, is how close he is to the crown prince.

Is this an attempt to shield the crown prince by saying someone this powerful could, indeed, have managed and held responsibility for all of this and organized the cover-up job, or does this in fact even become more damning to the crown prince? Does it say the fact these two were close makes it virtually impossible that there is any way the crown prince could not have known about this?

Let's just go over once again very quickly, Wolf, what we're hearing from the Saudis. They have said that when Jamal Khashoggi went in to the Saudi Consulate, that he was taken, there was some kind of a quarrel, and what they are calling a physical altercation or a fistfight, somehow, Wolf, that ended up with Jamal Khashoggi dead.

We don't yet know what happened to him. We don't yet know where his body is. There was no mention of this in the announcement on Saudi state news. And the question now becomes, is this a legitimate excuse, is this a legitimate reason, is this just still more cover-up story? And is the world willing to wait the one month that Saudi Arabia says it will need to wait for a full and proper and thorough investigation into exactly what happened and who ordered it, Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, this notion of a fistfight resulting in his death sounds very, very suspicious, Clarissa. He is a 60-year-old man surrounded by 15 Saudi nationals, high-ranking Saudi officials who were brought in to deal with him. All of a sudden, there's a fistfight and he winds up dead, that sounds very suspicious to me.

I want to go to Barbara Starr over at the Pentagon. She is working her sources as well.

What are you hearing, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what we do know is, for the U.S. military, U.S. intelligence services, the White House, Congress, the question tonight is what is not being said, and that is the role of the all-powerful crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman.

The Saudis are not talking about him tonight, and what the U.S. officials want to know is, what was his role? He, as crown prince, all-powerful to the elderly king, King Salman. The official announcements coming in the king's name, but he is quite on in years. And U.S. officials throughout the week have pointed out King Salman may not be fully aware of everything all the time going on due to his advanced age. He has placed a lot of power in this crown prince, who is in his 30s.

And, indeed, for U.S. intelligence services around the world, it is vital for them to rapidly understand tonight, what is the crown prince's role? Is there a possibility tonight, since his name is not being mentioned, that there is even a power struggle inside the royal family that may take some days, weeks, even months to sort out?

The Saudis do not like international attention placed on them, and that is what they have had now for many, many days. Some of the older princes in the kingdom are very reluctant to get so much public attention on how they operate, on how the kingdom operates.

And, look, what the Saudis are also reacting to is economic and financial pressure in the oil kingdom. We have seen over the last several days U.S. companies, European companies become very hesitant to deal in Saudi Arabia, many of them pulling out of a major conference. Not the message that the Saudis want to send to the world.

So the question again for intelligence services tonight is what is not being said in these announcements being made in the king's name. That is, what about the all-powerful crown prince? How could he really, as we're saying, have had such an operation take place without him knowing?

He is so powerful. Does he not know what is going on in his own intelligence apparatus? Is he not in control? He can't really have it both ways, so he has to tell the older princes something.

And what I am hearing from officials here is, it could take some time for all of this to really sort out. Tonight, it is vital to know the answers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, the Saudis say they want another 30 days to investigate.

What I want to know is, now that Saudi Arabia has officially confirmed that Jamal Khashoggi is dead, will they hand over his body to his family, to his children, to his fiancee? Will they do the right thing, at least in that area?

[18:30:00]

We're going to have much more. We are getting a lot of reaction to the breaking news.

Senator Richard Blumenthal is standing by. We'll get his reaction. Much more on the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, Saudi Arabia now confirming officially, publicly the death of the dissident journalist and "Washington Post" contributor Jamal Khashoggi.

[18:35:10] Let's get some reaction. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is joining us. He's a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Thank you so much, Senator, for joining us. As you know, the Saudis are now dismissing two high-ranking officials. They say they've detained or arrested 18 other Saudi officials.

Do you think that's enough to -- does that satisfy you that they are, at least, taking some responsibility for the death of this journalist?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: The Saudis very clearly seem to be buying time and buying cover, but this action raises more questions than it answers.

And there's no way the world will wait for 30 days for a Saudi investigation to be done. There has to be an international investigation. It has to be done with legitimate and credible means involving the United States. And it has to use those tapes, the surveillance that evidently the Turks have done that show, in fact, torture, cutting of fingers.

The idea that there was some botched interrogation or rogue killers or a fistfight that's responsible for the absolutely gruesome, brutal death of this American journalist, even though he's not an American citizen, a resident of the United States, is absolutely unacceptable.

BLITZER: Because when you compare the gruesome details that we've learned over these past couple of weeks and what the Saudis are now saying, that there was a fistfight, some sort of altercation, and he wound up dead, does that make any sense to you at all, that this 60- year-old journalist would wind up in a fistfight inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul with 15 Saudis, high-ranking Saudi officials surrounding him, and all of a sudden, he's dead?

BLUMENTHAL: That explanation absolutely defies credibility. We have no way of knowing at this point exactly what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, but the world deserves an explanation. Not from the Saudis, who evidently are making every effort to insulate and shield the crown prince, but from an international inquiry.

And this idea that they are going to arrest a certain number of the key people involved raises the possibility that they may put them in a kind of protective custody and insulate them from an international investigation, shield them from fact-finding that the world needs to do.

The Saudis for too long have been given a pass in killing innocent civilians in Yemen, in suppressing dissent in their own country and imprisoning women activists and other kinds of suppression of human rights and liberties; and they evidently have underestimated the level of outrage that the world now feels.

BLITZER: Senator Blumenthal, thanks so much for joining us.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

BLITZER: And I want to go the back to Sam Kiley, our international correspondent who's in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia right now. You're working your sources, Sam. What else are you learning?

SAM KILEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we now know from none other than the Saudi press agency, Wolf, that what the future of the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, is, and that is to head up -- I say again, to head up the investigative committee that will include the interior minister and the foreign minister, among others, that will be looking into and investigating what occurred in this consulate. He is going to be investigating the very people who've been arrested who come from very close to his own entourage, notably Saoud al-Qahtani, his chief media adviser, the deputy head of general intelligence, and others; body guards, too.

So he is being put in charge of the investigation into the murder of "The Washington Post" columnist, Jamal Khashoggi -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Because 18 Saudi nationals have now been detained. They've been arrested. They're being held right now. But two very high- ranking Saudi officials, General Ahmed al Asiri and Saoud al-Qahtani, both very, very close to the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, they have been relieved of their responsibilities.

Does anybody really believe they would have been involved in an operation like this, to go ahead and deal with Jamal Khashoggi, without the specific knowledge of and approval of the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman?

KILEY: Well, I think that's the narrative that the House of Saud has to put out. It's the narrative, Wolf, that we've been hearing from sources that was likely to be put out.

But it would be -- it's a question of mathematics. If you look at this number of people that have been arrested, detained or relieved of their positions, the majority work for the crown prince in some capacity or other. And those that don't were clearly ordered in to participate in this murder, as we now know it to be, by somebody in a very senior position, notably the very senior pathologist, a professor of pathology who was brought in as part, allegedly, of this plot. He was not part of the entourage, but you don't get somebody like that to join a team unless you've got some pretty substantial top cover, Wolf.

[18:40:37] BLITZER: And you don't bring in a bone saw into an operation like this unless you have a specific goal in mind.

Sam, I know you're working your sources. We're going to get back to you. Sam Kiley is in Riyadh for us.

We're going to have much more on the breaking news. Our experts are standing by to assess this information. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:45:33] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: More now on the breaking news. Saudi Arabia publicly confirming that the Saudi journalist and "Washington Post" contributor Jamal Khashoggi is dead, in the middle of the night, announced that. Officials in Riyadh said he died as a result of a physical altercation inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Saudi state television says 18 nationals have been detained for investigation and a top general has been dismissed.

CNN's Clarissa Ward is joining us from Ankara, Turkey, right now.

What else are you learning, Clarissa? You've been on top of this story.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: All right. Two things, Wolf. Number one, they talked about a physical altercation. The foreign ministry has changed its translation. It is saying that Jamal Khashoggi died in a chokehold, that essentially he went in to be interrogated, there was some kind of an altercation and he was held in a chokehold and he then died.

The second thing, the most senior man relieved of his duties as a result of this whole incident, we know his name is al-Khatani (ph), the issue is how close is he to MBS.

I want to read a tweet we found he wrote a year ago. He said, I never say anything from my mind without instructions. I am an employee, loyal to the king and the crown prince.

One has to ask one self, Wolf, if this man is tweeting that he doesn't even tweet or say anything without getting permission from the crown prince and the king, would he undertake a massive operation and cover- up job like this without permission from the top -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting.

All right. Clarissa, thank you very much.

Let's bring in our experts. You know, Samantha Vinograd, you've spent some time in Saudi Arabia. They just issued a statement, a formal statement: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia expresses deep regret at the painful developments that have taken place in this case and affirms the commitment of the shorts in the kingdom to bring the facts to the attention of the public and to hold accountable all those involved.

What's your reaction, so far, to what they're doing?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Any logical reaction to the statement is going to be, we weren't born yesterday. This is not a credible investigation. It's being led by the man who very likely was involved in at least ordering an illegal interrogation, torture -- a choke hold as the authorities are now saying -- and potentially an assassination.

If the Saudis were serious about finding out what happened, there would be independent law enforcement agents allowed to participate and they wouldn't be locking away the potential suspects, which is very convenient for them, behind closed doors and not allowing anyone access to question them about what happened. This is a farce to me and the administration should demand better, while concurrently ordering an investigation on our own, with our own intelligence assets with their own law enforcement partners to find out what happened.

BLITZER: Shawn?

SHAWN TURNER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATION FOR U.S. NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Listen, I agree with Sam completely. This explanation out of the Saudis is laughable and shame on us if we believe it.

Look, what I see here is I see a narrative being constructed to distance Saudi leadership from what we now know happened to this "Washington Post" columnist and they're retroactively manufacturing facts to support that narrative.

Look, when we look at the background of the individuals that walked into the consulate, look at what they brought with them, we look at how many went in, it is clear to everyone here this was an effort designed to do harm to Jamal Khashoggi. So I am much more interested in what the U.S. intelligence community finds and what the intelligence community finds based on working with our partners and allies than I am that anything the Saudis have to say.

BLITZER: Let me hear your thoughts, Phil?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERORRISM ANALYST: White wash. This is pretty basic. If you want to conduct an investigation like this -- and, remember, this murder didn't happen in Saudi Arabia. It happened in Turkey. If I were the Turks and the Americans, we got a green card holder, I would have questions.

Number one, any investigation includes interrogation and interviews of the individuals, not only the 18 but individuals around them. One of the persons of interest would be the crown prince. In the real world, he would be interviewed, now he's running the investigation. I bet there was not a single serious investigative interview.

Most significant, I want to see their cellphones and laptops. I want to see who they communicated with before and who they called right after this murder was done. I guarantee there's no diagnostic information from computers and laptops.

And, finally, I want the stuff from Turkey. Where is this audio? Was it part of the investigation? What did they find in terms of DNA inside the facility?

I don't see one investigative step that was taken here beyond an effort to say the crown prince didn't know and he wants to be king in ten years. That's about it.

BLITZER: Yes. And in their statement, Saudi Arabia says they will seek justice by referring those responsible to the competent courts in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

What I'm interested in knowing is, will they hand over Jamal Khashoggi's body to his children, to his fiancee for proper Islamic burial?

[18:50:07] MUDD: The answer is no. Look, I lived there. I worked for the Saudis seven years ago. There's a problem if they hand the body over and that problem goes right to the crown prince. How are they going to hand over a body that's been dismembered and potentially shows a murder that doesn't look like the murder they're describing in the documents and the announcements we saw today? You can't hand over the body, I don't think.

BLITZER: You spent some time in the region. What do you think, Alex?

ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I just think -- let's game this out, Wolf. How does, in the big picture, affect the U.S.-Saudi relationship, even after an investigation takes place over the course of the next month?

Let's say all 18 of the men are convicted and they say that the crown prince had no idea. This just smacks of an effort to isolate the crown prince, absolve him of any wrongdoing and participation in this. Of course, in addition to the fact that he's now been named as the head of this investigation. So, essentially, what they're probably going to come out with in 30 days is that, that the crown prince had no role.

So then the question becomes, does that give the Trump administration their cover to maintain the ties that they had with the Saudis, ties they worked on so hard to improve after the Obama administration? We've seen from the beginning, President Trump and his aides saying, well, yes, this is a horrible thing, and it's very sad, and there should be severe consequences. But at the same time, you know, this is a very important relationship, standing together against Iran, supporting Israel, of course, there's the war in Yemen.

So, then, does the question become that -- does the Trump administration then say, all right, well, you saw what they did. They are punishing these 18 guys who were clearly acting independently. But at the end of the day, these are the Saudis who are investigating themselves.

And then if the Trump administration does give them that pass, what does Congress do? Because that's what's been really interesting over the course of the past few days. We've seen senators on both side of the aisle being very aggressive about going after Saudi Arabia both in terms of potentially blocking arms deals which go into the billions of dollars and enacting the Magnitsky Act.

BLITZER: What they're saying now, the Saudis, sort of fits into what President Trump said earlier in the week, that he had been told maybe rogue killers were responsible.

VINOGRAD: We saw, I believe, on Monday, the king had a call with President Trump and president Trump came out of that call and was literally a mouthpiece for King Salman. He started crafting this off ramp that ostensibly came from the Saudis.

It wasn't me. It was someone I didn't have control over. We've all spent time in the kingdom. We all know that it's not a very roguish type place. Things happen for a reason, because the king orders it or the crown prince orders it. There is no free press, there is no free speech and there's no

separation of powers. So the president started parroting the king earlier in the week.

And, Alex, just to add to your point, it's not just what Congress is going to do. It's also what our allies are going to do and the business community is going to do. We have heard the U.K. come out quite strongly against Saudi Arabia and we have to guess, you both work in the intelligence community, there's a lot of behind the scenes coordination going on right now between our intel partners and I hope by Secretary Pompeo with his counterparts to say, let's take collective action regardless of what the Saudi report says.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to have much more on the breaking news. Going to take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:57:49] BLITZER: The breaking news, Saudi Arabia confirming now that the Saudi journalist and "Washington Post" columnist Jamal Khashoggi is dead. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has been named to head a commission to investigate.

Let's go to our CNN global affairs correspondent Elise Labott.

Elise, you've been working this story for a while. So, step back a little bit. What does all this mean?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you have the closest advisers, some of the top two advisers to the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Today, they're talking about an investigation, but what I think the unanswered question has to be, what did he know and when did he know it?

I think in the next coming days, you're going to see further narratives coming out of Saudi Arabia. You know this is a crown prince that is not -- he's facing a lot of headwinds at home. There are a lot of internal turmoil in the royal family, a lot of debates within the royal family about whether he should continue, and I think that you're going to see some questions about whether he knew about whether -- that these gentlemen, that these men went to meet with him.

Something very key in this statement says, the suspect went to Istanbul to meet and then the emergence of indications of the possibility of abduction and something else. So, I think at the very least, it's implausible that Crown Prince Mohammed did not know that these 15 men were going to meet him.

The question now for the United States, is this explanation enough? I think we're going to hear from the U.S. that it is not, even if it's not a public statement, it will be behind the scenes, and a lot of questions right now about Crown Prince Salman and whether there are questions about the relationship with Saudi Arabia, with the rest of the world, Wolf.

We've seen over the last week officials, bankers, everybody pulling out of this Saudi conference. If there's not something credible that comes out in several weeks, I think it will spell further turmoil for the relationship with the United States and for this young crown prince.

BLITZER: Elise, thank you very much. Elise Labott reporting for us.

Lots more coming up on the breaking news. Thanks very much for watching.

Our breaking news coverage continues right now with "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT".