Why Won’t Turkey Release the Khashoggi Tapes?

If Turkish officials really have the grisly recordings, they must share them—and soon.

Turkish forensic officials arrive to the residence of Saudi Arabia's Consul General Mohammad al-Otaibi on October 17, 2018
Turkish forensic officials arrive to the residence of Saudi Arabia's Consul General Mohammad al-Otaibi on October 17, 2018 (Osman Orsal / Reuters)

The soundtrack to Jamal Khashoggi’s beating, vivisection, and murder lasts just seven minutes, according to Turkish officials who spoke anonymously to several outlets yesterday. By the end of the recording, the screams have subsided, and Khashoggi is dead, although his alleged killer—a Saudi doctor named Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy—must have continued sawing away at his limbs for some time after. (It takes about two minutes to saw through a human femur with a manual bone saw, and longer than that to dissect the soft tissue around it.)

I hope never to hear this tape. But I want someone to hear it, and soon. The Turkish officials have leaked details of this operation with frustrating caginess. They promise that the tapes exist, and that they were recorded with Khashoggi’s own Apple Watch. They have shared their account of the tapes with journalists and foreign powers, including the United States—but they have not shared the tapes themselves. It’s time for them to end the steady drip of leaks and reveal the source material. By the descriptions we’ve heard so far, that material must be awfully difficult to fake. You can’t exactly go to Craigslist to hire a Jamal Khashoggi impersonator to scream in Saudi dialect as if his fingers are being chopped off.

The release of the recording need not be to the general public. It has been described in detail to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and to government-friendly media from Turkey and Qatar. Play it for those same reporters, and for the ambassadors or delegated officials from any two dozen countries. The mystery of the fate of Khashoggi, and perhaps also of the complicity of Saudi officials like the consul general, Mohammad al-Otaibi, will be resolved in minutes.

Failure to release the tapes does not mean they do not exist. Turkey has caught a regional rival in a compromising position—with no alibi or coherent strategy to defend itself. By letting one detail slip each day, titrating the dosage of grotesquerie to prolong the headlines, it has turned the likely torture of Khashoggi into a torture of another sort for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). David Ignatius reported yesterday that MbS has been in a “rage” and a “funk” for days. Even before these calamitous last weeks, rumors circulated in the kingdom of MbS’s possible ouster or assassination. Turkey has prolonged the news cycle to nourish the perception that MbS is crazy and murderous. As if to illustrate how terrible his options are, CNN reported that MbS will acknowledge Khashoggi’s death at the hands of his security services but will attribute it to “rogue” elements. That excuse will, if anyone believes it, replace the perception that he is a crazy murderer with the perception that he is surrounded by crazy murderers he is unable to restrain, potentially including even his own senior diplomats, intelligence officers, pilots, and physicians.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump told the AP that he has requested the recording—“if it exists,” he added. His skepticism was ridiculed, but it is not unreasonable. Much remains unexplained about this case. Why didn’t his killers remove Khashoggi’s watch? Why did they kill him in the consulate, the only place in all of Istanbul where their culpability was guaranteed to be detected? They reportedly brought in a DNA expert to clean up the crime scene. Why not just kill Khashoggi as he walked down the street, and spare themselves the trouble of dismembering him and redecorating the consulate?  There are easier ways to kill a dissident—especially if you do not intend to interrogate him. That much is clear from yesterday’s leaks: The assassins allegedly clobbered him as soon as he walked in the door, and set to work on him without asking questions.

All signs point to an assassination by Saudi Arabia. At this point, the slow leakage by Turkey is beginning to feel like a game in which one country is running up the score against another. In diplomacy this happens sometimes, and it is no surprise. But those who value truth should now demand the irrefutable evidence we have been promised, and should grow more skeptical of its existence if those who have profited from whispering about it for the past two weeks cannot produce it.