WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A year before Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told an aide he would use "a bullet" on the journalist if he did not return home and end his criticism of the government, the New York Times reported on Thursday.
The crown prince's comments to a top aide in 2017 were made well before Khashoggi was killed last October in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Times reported, citing current and former U.S. and foreign officials knowledgeable about intelligence reports.
The comments were intercepted by American intelligence agencies, the newspaper reported.
U.S. intelligence analysts have interpreted the "bullet" comment metaphorically, meaning the crown prince did not necessarily mean to have Khashoggi shot, but they do think it showed his intent to have the journalist killed if he did not return to the kingdom, the Times said.
Riyadh, which initially denied knowledge of Khashoggi's disappearance before offering contradictory explanations, has steadfastly insisted the prince was not involved in the killing.
Representatives for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, the CIA
and the National Security Agency did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment on the Times story.
U.S. intelligence agencies believe the crown prince ordered an operation to kill Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and one-time royal insider, whose body was dismembered.
The New York Times report was published one day before a congressional deadline for the White House to submit a report on whether the crown prince ordered Khashoggi's killing and if it intends to impose sanctions on the de facto ruler.
The United States has imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi officials for their role in the journalist's death, but U.S. President Donald Trump has said he stands by the crown prince.
The United Nations' human rights investigator looking into Khashoggi's murder is on a week-long visit to Turkey and is scheduled to meet Istanbul's chief prosecutor on Thursday.
A U.N.-led inquiry into the Khashoggi killing said on Thursday that evidence pointed to a brutal crime "planned and perpetrated" by Saudi officials.
(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by David Alexander and Peter Cooney)