Questions about the latest Khashoggi affair twist: The “secret recording”

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Since the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi on October 2 during a visit to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, rumors and leaks have circulated describing various details of the search for evidence of what happened to him. Over the weekend details emerged of an alleged recording. “Turkish officials have an audio recording of the alleged killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi from the Apple Watch he wore when he walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul over a week ago, a pro-government Turkish newspaper reported Saturday.”

The article goes on:

“Turkish authorities recovered the audio from Khashoggi’s iPhone and his iCloud account, the newspaper said. The journalist had given his phones to his fiancée before entering the consulate. The newspaper also alleged Saudi officials tried to delete the recordings first by incorrectly guessing Khashoggi’s PIN on the watch, then later using the journalist’s finger. However, Apple Watches do not have a fingerprint ID unlock function like iPhones. The newspaper did not address that in its report. An Apple Watch can record audio and can sync that later with an iPhone over a Bluetooth connection if it is close by. The newspaper’s account did not elaborate on how the Apple Watch synced that information to both the phone and Khashoggi’s iCloud account.”

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Headlines about the audio recording 

The story of the recording emerged as Saudi officials arrived in Turkey for discussions about the case, including hopes that a joint investigation might take place. US offers of sending the FBI have not materialized, despite major US media and Congressional outcry. At the same time since October 10 there have been other details circulating, such as stories about a Saudi pathologist, and a New York Times report about a “bone saw” and dismemberment of the victim.

Most of the new reports about the “recording” all cite the same source. “A missing Saudi journalist may have recorded the moments he was allegedly tortured and killed on his Apple Watch, a Turkish newspaper reported (The Independent).” The details vary a bit with the telling. “The Turkish government has reportedly told US officials it has audio and video recordings indicating the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed during his visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul (Business Insider October 12).”; “Jamal Khashoggi was dragged from the consul general’s office inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last Tuesday before he was brutally murdered by two men who cut up his body, sources close to the investigation have told Middle East Eye (October 13).”

CNN notes: “Khashoggi turned on the recording function of his Apple Watch before walking into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, according to Sabah newspaper. The moments of his ‘interrogation, torture and killing were audio recorded and sent to both his phone and to iCloud,’ the pro-government, privately owned newspaper paper reported. The Turkish newspaper said conversations of the men involved in the reported assassination were recorded.”

But Tech Crunch thinks the story is unlikely. They trace the ur-source to “Wednesday, Reuters reported, citing Turkish officials, that investigators were looking to Khashoggi’s black Apple Watch that he was wearing as he entered the consulate.” What did Tech Crunch note?

  • Turkey does not have the watch, Reuters said, suggesting it may have been lost, destroyed or remains in the custody of Saudi authorities.
  • “TechCrunch staff have scoured several photo libraries and social media and found one image of Khashoggi wearing a third-generation Apple Watch — based on the red dot on the watch’s crown. The 2017 model comes with an optional LTE connection.”

So they conclude that since the watch does not support cellular connections and may not have accessed a Wi-Fi network or been close enough to sync that “in any case, if health data from Khashoggi’s watch was transmitted over the air to Apple’s iCloud where it could be synced with his iPhone, the data is end-to-end encrypted with his passcode.”

Asking the right questions

Now we need to ask the right questions.

If the Watch recorded the killing, why are we only hearing about it now? The story is that the Watch transmitted the audio of the killing and that therefore it would have been available immediately on October 2. Yet at the time we were told that his fiancee waited 11 hours for him to emerge and she called Yasin Aktay to report he had not come out.

If it was recorded on October 2, then why didn’t Turkey immediately inform the media and detain the suspects before they could fly out?

This is a key question. If they had the Apple Watch data and it has synced then it would have been heard on October 2. There would have been no “mystery” about the disappearance. They would have heard the struggle and what sounded like foul play. They would have sought to prevent or at least interdict the alleged perpetrators, the “15 man hit squad” from leaving.

Yet at the time there was no such attempt to stop anyone or even any sense that a frantic effort was made to save Khashoggi’s life, which if there was audio recording of a struggle, there would be such a frantic effort. In fact as late as October 7 the Turkish leadership was still saying they hoped Khashoggi was still alive.

A second theory has been put forward that the recording is not from the watch but actually because the consulate was bugged or audio was intercepted in some manner.

If the consulate was bugged the Turkish authorities would have had the audio in real time and certainly by the night of October 2, so why didn’t the security services react?

If the audio came from a bug or other type of intercept then wouldn’t it have been known on October 2. Wouldn’t the security officials monitoring it have immediately told someone at the highest level. Along with the calls from the fiancee reporting Khashoggi missing, it would have been known at the highest levels that something terrible had happened.

Yet there was no frantic activity, no attempt to stop the alleged perpetrators from leaving. yet it wasn’t until days after the disappearance that photos and video of the alleged perpetrators were released. So how come the “mystery” a week, or almost two weeks, after the disappearance?

How can this be? How can it be that on the one hand the authorities had audio in the first 24 hours after the disappearance but hesitated. Is it because Turkey wanted to slow play this, leaking some details and not others, to pressure Riyadh? Turkish media have stressed the importance of the Saudi-US ties, for instance, amid the release of the US pastor. Yet Turkish writers do seem confident: “It is estimated that when Khashoggi entered the consulate building on Oct. 2, he was greeted by an assassination squad from Saudi Arabia and was killed shortly after.”

It has been suggested that if the audio came from a “bugging” rather than from the watch, then by intervening sooner that it could cause a scandal because it would be known that Ankara was spying on the Saudis. This is only partially reasonable, since there are ways to still protect the source of the audio, by simply saying on October 2 that the fiancee had heard it live-streamed to her via the watch.

Another assumption may be that the audio is the “smoking gun” and it is being held back to pressure Saudi Arabia for some concessions or to push the momentum of this story elsewhere ahead of the pPastor’s release and also ahead of the major investment conference in Saudi Arabia. Would Turkish officials be so calculating and would they really have strategized how this would play out? That seems too complex.

A more interesting theory was that it was being held back in order to pressure for the return of Khashoggi if he was still alive. It could be used as leverage or a bargaining chip. But once it was announced that it existed, don’t major media want to hear it?

A more interesting question is what happened to the watch? If the watch is the heart of the story, don’t some of these devices, such as Khashoggi’s phone, have ways to track someone? Where are the devices? 

 

 

 

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