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In a new Frontline documentary, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman addresses, for the first time, his role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Frontline’s Martin Smith, who tracked the crown prince down for the film, says Khashoggi’s murder opened a window for journalists to ask more questions. Smith joins Judy Woodruff to discuss what Frontline uncovered.
Later tonight on PBS, "Frontline" presents "The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia."
In the documentary film, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman addresses for the first time his role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In a moment, we will hear from "Frontline" reporter Martin Smith, but first a clip from the film.
In this scene, Smith has tracked bin Salman down at a racetrack to ask him about Khashoggi.
It was reported that on the day of the murder, Maher Mutreb made a call. He said, in effect, tell your boss the deed was done.
The phone number that was being called in Riyadh was the crown prince's office. It doesn't get much better than that. If you call the White House Situation Room, I come to the conclusion the White House knows what is going on.
Last December, I talked to Prince Mohammed at the racetrack. He spoke about his role in the Khashoggi murder for the first time.
My camera was outside, but he said: "It happened under my watch. I get all the responsibility because it happened under my watch. I really take it very seriously. I don't want to tell you, no, I didn't do it or I did do it or whatever. That's just words."
I asked how it could happen without him knowing about it.
"Accidents happen. Can you imagine? We have 20 million people. We have three million government employees. I am not Google or a supercomputer to watch over three million."
"They can take one of your planes?" I asked.
"I have officials, ministers to follow things, and they're responsible. They have the authority to do that."
"But during it, Qahtani is texting you, right?" I asked.
"Yes, he texts me every day."
After Khashoggi is killed, the United States intelligence community starts looking backwards, grabbing intercepts that they had picked up over years.
And they find MBS chatting with Qahtani back in 2016.
Mohammed bin Salman is expressing frustration and annoyance about Khashoggi, saying he's becoming more influential.
Qahtani cautioned the prince that any move against Khashoggi was risky and could create an international uproar. MBS scolded Qahtani for being too cautious.
And to explore more of what "Frontline" uncovered, I'm now joined by Martin Smith.
Martin Smith, welcome to the "NewsHour."
Explain to us, first of all, why you weren't able to get closer to the crown prince with a camera.
Well, it's — this is an enormously opaque country, to begin with. We were able to — I was able to stand next to him on the rooftop at this event that took place. But he is tremendously guarded about — and chooses how he is going to be portrayed very carefully.
Why do you think he explained his role in this as he did?
Well, I think that what he said has been something that his advisers, I know, have been telling him he should say for a long time.
That is that:
It happened on my watch and I get the responsibility for it.
That had been worked out. He used similar language when he did an interview later with "60 Minutes."
So he's wanting to get this past him. I think he's been frustrated that it hasn't passed. I think, when I saw him in December of 2018 at the big sporting event, this big race, I think he thought that this was going to pass much sooner.
Now we're a year down the road, and still this is something that haunts him.
Is it your sense, Martin Smith, having spent as much time as you have knowing and interviewing Jamal Khashoggi, and then working on this, that one day we are going to know for a fact the connection between what happened and the crown prince?
That's a good question, that there are people that know what happened. Some of those people are on trial, although that trial is closed to the public and to reporters.
There's a big question about where his closest aide, Saud al-Qahtani, is. If I had one more chance to sit down with the crown prince, I would ask him, where is Saud al-Qahtani?
They won't say. I have sent many messages to them asking. And he's not on trial. That's what we know. So he certainly knows what's going on.
You know, I wouldn't give up on this. I think that, if anything, this deserves a lot more attention from the United Nations. And I think it is important to remember that this isn't just about Jamal Khashoggi. There are women in prison for asking for equal rights. There are academics, writers, others that have been rounded up and put in jail, businessmen as well.
So, Jamal Khashoggi's murder opened a window on Saudi Arabia. And it's up to us to make sure we look into that and find out just what is going on. This is major U.S. ally.
But I think people probably can't fully understand the kind of roadblocks that that government, that that — that they have put up to prevent the press from figuring anything out here.
Well, they're not letting a lot of reporters in. It's very difficult to get in and work there.
I was fortunate enough to have had a long association with Saudi Arabia and had gone back many times. I don't think, after this documentary airs, I will be getting any invitations in the mail.
It's a tremendously Kafkaesque, closed place, tightly controlled. But the crown prince is trying to open the country up for foreign investment. He's trying to open it up socially, to some degree. He doesn't want to grant political rights. That's clear.
But he is going to have to have a difficult time opening the — continuing to open the country up and preventing journalists from getting in there and asking questions.
And they have, I guess, a major international business conference coming up very soon that a number of American business leaders are going to be attending.
How much do you think Saudi Arabia's ability to operate in the world, to function as a major power is impaired or affected by this?
I have to think it's fairly serious, although I did attend a financial sector conference, another one, that was held at the Ritz-Carlton in April.
And the businessmen there were saying: We don't really worry about the executions that are ongoing and the imprisonment of activists. We're interested in the opportunities that are here.
And I suppose that will continue with this upcoming conference. They're going to have a G20 meeting in Riyadh next year. At least, that's what's scheduled.
But all of this, opening the country up to businessmen and others, is a risky proposition, if they're going to continue to clamp down on the ability of anybody to really see into what they're doing.
Martin Smith with "Frontline" and, again, another extraordinary documentary, "The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia."
Martin, thank you very much.
Thank you, Judy.
"The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia" will air tonight on PBS, and can be watched online at PBS.org/Frontline.
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