MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A team of 15 Saudis flew into Istanbul last week, drove to the Saudi consulate and then departed that same day on private planes headed for Cairo and Dubai. This is according to The Washington Post, which has been tracking the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi has not been heard from or seen since he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. It's not known whether he's alive or dead. Shane Harris is one of the reporters working this story for The Post. And I asked him - 15 Saudis sounds like a lot - do we know what their alleged operation was?
SHANE HARRIS: I don't think we fully know the intent. And I think you're right. Fifteen people is a lot to kill one individual. And a former U.S. official I spoke to about this said it actually bears a lot of the hallmarks of a rendition or a kidnapping operation. But we still don't know. But what we are understanding is that the U.S. government was picking up intelligence that the Saudis wanted for some time to capture Khashoggi - not clear whether they wanted to capture and prosecute him or whether they want to interrogate him or kill him but that there was some high-level interest on the part of the government of getting him in some way.
KELLY: OK. Let's unravel that a little bit. This is U.S. intelligence that allegedly picked up communications of - what? - Saudi officials discussing Khashoggi.
HARRIS: Correct. This is U.S. intelligence picking up the conversations of Saudis discussing a plan to lay hands on Khashoggi - to capture him. The initial plan, as we understand it, was to try to find a way to lure him back to Saudi Arabia and capture him there. I think probably Khashoggi felt that that was not a safe option to go home to Saudi Arabia. And it's possible that this, what you're seeing here happening in Istanbul, could be sort of a plan B for that. They send these teams to go out there. There was one group laying in wait for him, we believe, at the consulate - and then another group that came in after he may have been captured or met with his fate there at the consulate. But it shows that Saudi officials were very keen on getting him and going to, we assume, you know, whatever lengths necessary to do that.
KELLY: Do we know what U.S. intelligence did with these intercepts - i.e. did they warn Khashoggi.
HARRIS: What my sources have told me is that this information was circulated in intelligence reports. What's not clear at this point is whether anyone from the U.S. government warned Khashoggi. And there is a standing policy on what's called the duty to warn. If the U.S. government believes that someone is about to meet with harm or - whether that person is a U.S. citizen or not, there can be an obligation to reach out and tell that person. We don't know if that happened. And we don't know whether the U.S. government or the White House called the Saudis and effectively said, we know what you are up to. Back off.
KELLY: Why do you think, Shane Harris, your source wants you to know about this? In my experience, U.S. intelligence officials tend to have a reason when they talk to reporters like you or I.
HARRIS: I think there's a real concern on two fronts - one, that this was a journalist and a prominent critic of the regime in Saudi Arabia who now has gone missing. Possibly some harm has come to him, and there is a real concern about that. But more to the point, I think there is a concern within the U.S. intelligence community that this administration in particular has become very close to the ruling groups in Saudi Arabia - particularly the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who, to be frank, is not really viewed as a trusted figure within many parts of the U.S. intelligence community. There is an affection for the old guard that he replaced - that he sort of ousted. And I think people have a lot of concerns about the closeness between people in the White House and the current leadership in Saudi Arabia.
KELLY: When you talk about closeness between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, you're talking in part about the relationship between Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman.
HARRIS: Absolutely. Jerry Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman - or MBS, as he's sometimes known in the intelligence community - have developed a very close personal relationship. And that, I think, is very much at the heart of U.S.-Saudi relations right now. They've met with each other on a number of occasions, and there's a personal bond there that is translating into policy.
KELLY: That's The Washington Post's Shane Harris updating us on a couple of the many moving threads of the investigation into what happened to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Shane, thank you.
HARRIS: My pleasure. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.