Jeremy Hunt has been forced to clarify that he had “no prior knowledge” of a plot to murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi after media reports suggested the British intelligence services had been made aware — three weeks before the incident.
Khashoggi, who had been an outspoken critic of the crown prince, was killed in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
Saudi Arabia initially denied all knowledge of the journalist’s fate but the Saudi public prosecutor has since described it as premeditated murder organised by “rogue agents”.
Reports on Sunday suggested that MI6 had discovered the plot and had warned Saudi Arabia to cancel the mission.
The Foreign Secretary, speaking in the Commons, denied he had any knowledge — but refused to speculate on what was known by British intelligence.
The comments came after a question from Labour MP Gill Furniss (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough), who said: “Media reports have surfaced this weekend suggesting UK intelligence services were aware of the Saudi plan to abduct the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and take him back to Riyadh, and of the deployment of the hit squad to Istanbul for that purpose.
“Can I give the Foreign Secretary the opportunity to tell the House today that those reports are categorically untrue?”
Mr Hunt responded: “I hope she will understand that I don’t comment on intelligence matters, but if it reassures her I had absolutely no prior knowledge myself of the terrible Khashoggi murder and was as shocked as I think everyone else.”
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry ditched her pre-written questions to pour more pressure on Mr Hunt to clarify his position.
She said: “If the allegations in this weekend’s report are true they are extremely serious, it was reported in early September that our intelligence services became aware of the Saudi plan to abduct Jamal Khashoggi and on October 1 they knew that a Saudi team had been dispatched to Istanbul for that purpose.
“Now I hear what the Foreign Secretary has said, that he didn’t know, but did the intelligence services know and has he asked them?”
Mr Hunt responded: “I have to repeat what I said to her and I’m sure she will understand that it isn’t possible for a Foreign Secretary or indeed any minister to comment on intelligence matters for very obvious reasons.
“I didn’t know about this attack, it’s very important that she understands that and this House understands that, and we are as shocked as everyone else about what happened.”
Mr Thornberry told Mr Hunt he could not “hide behind a blanket refusal to discuss intelligence matters” and asked him to attend a behind closed-doors session of the Commons intelligence and security committee to reveal what was known.
Mr Hunt told MPs that if he was invited to attend the committee then he would “of course consider that invitation”.