MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And we begin this hour with news out of Saudi Arabia that the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead. Confirmation of his death came unexpectedly tonight on Saudi state TV. The details, such as we have them, are this - Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Turkey. A fight broke out between him and people who were there to meet him. And that fight somehow led to his death. There are still a whole lot of details we don't have. We're going to talk through what we do know with NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen and Robin Wright of the Wilson Center and The New Yorker magazine. She has covered Saudi Arabia for years. Hello to you both.
ROBIN WRIGHT: Good to be with you.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, there.
KELLY: And, Robin, let me start by offering my condolences. I know that Jamal Khashoggi was a friend.
WRIGHT: He was indeed. And, I mean, this is something that we have known and suspected now for 16 days. But the Saudi announcement lacked total credibility. They have claimed for two weeks that he walked out of the consulate. And the idea that a committee led by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, is going to investigate something that he has been implicated in is going to lead to a lot of questions, I think, around the world. There is no Robert Mueller in the kingdom. And it's going to be very hard for them to say anything that people are going to believe.
KELLY: Let me loop back to a couple of points you raised there. Michele, first jump in and let me let you just give any more detail that Saudi state TV is providing. What exactly was this statement tonight?
KELEMEN: Well, as you said, they said that it was a fight that in which he died, which sounded rather odd given the fact that the Turks have been telling us that there were 15 people there. The Saudis have said...
KELLY: Right, an uneven fight in other words.
KELEMEN: Exactly. The Saudis have said that 18 people have been arrested now in this case. Several people have been relieved from their duties, and that includes a royal court adviser who's close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. So you know, it's obviously getting close to him, but it's not clear what - if he's ready at all to take any credit for it. It sounds like they're, you know, trying to blame lower-level people here.
KELLY: And, Michele, to the point that Robin Wright just made, how much confidence should we have in this version of events - given that it is a completely different version of events than the one that the Saudis have been sticking to before?
KELEMEN: Yeah, you have to remember that they said that Jamal Khashoggi left the consulate. So they totally denied any knowledge of it. I was just there with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. We went to both Saudi Arabia and to Turkey - to Ankara. And, you know, at the time, he said that the crown prince and the king both denied any knowledge of this - of what took place in the consulate. And he was giving them more time to investigate. So here's what we have. They've investigated now, and they're taking some action against some people. But it's not clear how much accountability there will be at the very top.
KELLY: Robin, among the 18 people who have apparently been arrested, there are two named who stand out. This is a royal court adviser and a general who have been relieved of their posts. Who are they? What do we know about them?
WRIGHT: General Assiri was deputy head of intelligence, and he had a lot to do with Yemen - the Saudi war on Yemen. He was a very close contact of the crown prince. And Saud al-Qahtani was an advisor to the royal court and, again, another very - a person identified very closely with the crown prince. And we don't know the names of the others who have been detained. But it's very interesting that there were 18 detained, and there were 15 in this alleged squad of people who went in and were involved in Khashoggi's disappearance.
KELLY: Does this fit perhaps with a narrative that has been popping up in news reports in recent days that the Saudis are looking for some way to explain what happened without directly implicating the crown prince? In other words, are we looking at perhaps two people being fingered as scapegoats here?
WRIGHT: Totally. This is - you know, the idea that the crown prince would not know about something in a country that is this autocratic, in which the power has been centralized over the last 16 months since Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince - in his hands, he has control of the military, the security apparatus, the economic council, the royal court. He - there is very little that he would not be aware of - particularly actions taken by his close advisers against someone who, in many ways, was the voice of dissent overseas working in Washington, a country - a city where he really relied on support whether it was providing ammunition for his war or legitimacy for his rule.
KELLY: I am speaking with Robin Wright and Michele Kelemen about the news tonight that Jamal Khashoggi has been confirmed dead. This news just coming out tonight from Saudi TV. Michele, you mentioned you just got back from Riyadh. You were traveling with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Based on the conversations he had there, is this going to satisfy the Trump administration, which has been saying, we've got to wait - we've got to give the Saudis a few more days to investigate. Let's see what they come up with.
KELEMEN: You know, it's hard to know because he wasn't - he didn't talk very much with us about his impressions. And he even said that he didn't talk to the Saudis about the facts in the case. He just wanted a credible investigation. And what's interesting is that the president - President Trump earlier this week was talking about how, well, the crown prince totally denied any knowledge of this. Pompeo also said that they totally denied this. And you have to remember. They have a very close relationship with Mohammed bin Salman, you know. And it's continued despite many other things. Khashoggi was just the latest. It's also - he played - he's played a big role in the war in Yemen, which has been devastating to that country. There was this bizarre attempt to get involved in politics in Lebanon that is still kind of unexplained. And he turned the Ritz-Carlton into a prison for a while in a corruption case. So all through this time, this administration - President Trump and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner - have had a very close relationship with Mohammed bin Salman.
KELLY: A question that I would love a quick response from each of you - we now have some narrative from the Saudis of what may have happened. We have confirmation of Khashoggi's death. Is there a single big outstanding question that you're waiting to - that's still unanswered, Michele?
KELEMEN: I think that one is just the fate of Mohammed bin Salman. I mean, does this taint him? Do others in the royal family think that this is a tenable situation? That's a good question for Robin to answer.
WRIGHT: Well, first of all, where is the body? The Saudis are the only people who know where Jamal's body is. And the longer this goes on, the greater the repercussions for the House of Saud. They're going to pay some kind of price for this misadventure.
KELLY: That's Robin Wright, of the Wilson Center and The New Yorker, and Michele Kelemen, NPR's diplomatic correspondent. Thanks to you both.
KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.