Exclusive: investigation suggests Washington Post owner was targeted five months before murder of Jamal Khashoggi
The Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos had his mobile phone “hacked” in 2018 after receiving a WhatsApp message that had apparently been sent from the personal account of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, sources have told the Guardian.
The encrypted message from the number used by Mohammed bin Salman is believed to have included a malicious file that infiltrated the phone of the world’s richest man, according to the results of a digital forensic analysis.
This analysis found it “highly probable” that the intrusion into the phone was triggered by an infected video file sent from the account of the Saudi heir to Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post.
The two men had been having a seemingly friendly WhatsApp exchange when, on 1 May of that year, the unsolicited file was sent, according to sources who spoke to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity.
Large amounts of data were exfiltrated from Bezos’s phone within hours, according to a person familiar with the matter. The Guardian has no knowledge of what was taken from the phone or how it was used.
The extraordinary revelation that the future king of Saudi Arabia may have had a personal involvement in the targeting of the American founder of Amazon will send shockwaves from Wall Street to Silicon Valley.
It could also undermine efforts by “MBS” – as the crown prince is known – to lure more western investors to Saudi Arabia, where he has vowed to economically transform the kingdom even as he has overseen a crackdown on his critics and rivals.
The disclosure is likely to raise difficult questions for the kingdom about the circumstances around how US tabloid the National Enquirer came to publish intimate details about Bezos’s private life – including text messages – nine months later.
It may also lead to renewed scrutiny about what the crown prince and his inner circle were doing in the months prior to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist who was killed in October 2018 – five months after the alleged “hack” of the newspaper’s owner.
Saudi Arabia has previously denied it targeted Bezos’s phone, and has insisted the murder of Khashoggi was the result of a “rogue operation”. In December, a Saudi court convicted eight people of involvement in the murder after a secret trial that was criticised as a sham by human rights experts.
Digital forensic experts started examining Bezos’s phone following the publication last January by the National Enquirer of intimate details about his private life.
The story, which included his involvement in an extramarital relationship, set off a race by his security team to uncover how the CEO’s private texts were obtained by the supermarket tabloid, which was owned by American Media Inc (AMI).
While AMI insisted it was tipped off about the affair by the estranged brother of Bezos’s girlfriend, the investigation by the billionaire’s own team found with “high confidence” that the Saudis had managed to “access” Bezos’s phone and had “gained private information” about him.
Bezos’s head of security, Gavin de Becker, wrote in the Daily Beast last March he had provided details of his investigation to law enforcement officials, but did not publicly reveal any information on how the Saudis accessed the phone.
He also described “the close relationship” the Saudi crown prince had developed with David Pecker, the chief executive of the company that owned the Enquirer, in the months before the Bezos story was published. De Becker did not respond to calls and messages from the Guardian.
The Guardian understands a forensic analysis of Bezos’s phone, and the indications that the “hack” began within an infected file from the crown prince’s account, has been reviewed by Agnès Callamard, the UN special rapporteur who investigates extrajudicial killings. It is understood that it is considered credible enough for investigators to be considering a formal approach to Saudi Arabia to ask for an explanation.
Callamard, whose own investigation into the murder of Khashoggi found “credible evidence” the crown prince and other senior Saudi officials were responsible for the killing, confirmed to the Guardian she was still pursuing “several leads” into the murder, but declined to comment on the alleged Bezos link.
When asked by the Guardian whether she would challenge Saudi Arabia about the new “hacking” allegation, Callamard said she followed all UN protocols that require investigators to alert governments about forthcoming public allegations.
Saudi experts – dissidents and analysts – told the Guardian they believed Bezos was probably targeted because of his ownership of the Post and its coverage of Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi’s critical columns about Mohammed bin Salman and his campaign of repression against activists and intellectuals rankled the crown prince and his inner circle.
Andrew Miller, a Middle East expert who served on the national security council under President Obama, said if Bezos had been targeted by the crown prince, it reflected the “personality-based” environment in which the crown prince operates.
“He probably believed that if he got something on Bezos it could shape coverage of Saudi Arabia in the Post. It is clear that the Saudis have no real boundaries or limits in terms of what they are prepared to do in order to protect and advance MBS, whether it is going after the head of one of the largest companies in the world or a dissident who is on their own.”
The possibility that the head of one of America’s leading companies was targeted by Saudi Arabia could pose a dilemma for the White House.
Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner have maintained close ties with the crown prince despite a US intelligence finding – reportedly with a medium–to–high degree of certainty – that Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
Both Saudi Arabia and AMI have denied that the kingdom was involved in the publication of the Bezos story.
A lawyer for Bezos who was contacted by the Guardian said: “I have no comment on this except to say that Mr Bezos is cooperating with investigations.”
The Guardian asked the Saudi embassy in Washington about the claims. It did not immediately return a request for comment.
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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos accuses the National Enquirer of trying to blackmail with compromising photos unless the Washington Post ended an investigation into how the magazine obtained private texts related to his divorce
Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos said Thursday that he was the target of an extortion and blackmail effort by the National Enquirer, which he accused of threatening to publish intimate pictures of him unless he backed off an investigation of the tabloid.
In an extraordinary post to the online publishing platform Medium, Bezos said the Enquirer and its parent company, American Media Inc., made the threat after he began investigating how the tabloid obtained text messages that revealed his relationship with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez.
Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, wrote that the Enquirer wanted him to make a false public statement that he and his security consultant, Gavin de Becker, “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”
Bezos declined to do so.
Instead, he published what he said were emails from Enquirer executives to a lawyer representing de Becker. In one, top Enquirer editor Dylan Howard appears to suggest that the tabloid would publish a series of salacious photos of Bezos and one of Sanchez if AMI’s terms weren’t met.
“I wanted to describe to you the photos obtained during our newsgathering,” Howard wrote, going on to say that the Enquirer had a “below the belt selfie” of Bezos, among other shots. Howard added, “It would give no editor pleasure to send this email. I hope common sense can prevail — and quickly.”
Bezos noted that the email “got my attention,” but said that “any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”
.. On Feb. 5, The Post reported that Bezos and de Becker suspected that the source of the text and photo leaks may have been Sanchez’s brother, Michael, a California public relations executive who is close to Pecker and various figures in Trump’s orbit, including former campaign advisers Roger Stone and Carter Page. Michael Sanchez denied any involvement in revealing his sister’s relationship with Bezos.
The Post reported that Sanchez said he was told by multiple people at AMI that the Enquirer set out to do “a takedown to make Trump happy.”
.. “Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten,”
.. “This could constitute criminal conduct in the eyes of a prosecutor, if these allegations are true,” said Mintz. “For prosecutors, your worst nightmare is watching a cooperation deal unravel. Alleged conduct like this puts them in the position to rethink that deal and potentially turn around and have to prosecute AMI, and that undermines their ability to continue to use them to assist other ongoing investigations.”
.. Bezos said in his Medium post that the tabloid threatened to keep the photos on hand and publish them in the future “if we ever deviate from [the] lie” that politics played no role in the Enquirer’s pursuit of Bezos’s relationship with Lauren Sanchez.
.. The Enquirer has said that it obtained the texts and photos lawfully, and that it had the right to publish the material under the “fair use” doctrine of copyright law. It also said the photos were newsworthy, given Bezos’s prominence.
But as Bezos began to investigate the leak, the tabloid’s parent disputed any suggestion that its story was politically motivated. The company “emphatically rejects any assertion that its reporting was instigated, dictated or influenced in any manner by external forces, political or otherwise,” Fine wrote in an email to de Becker’s lawyer, Martin Singer, which Bezos shared. “Simply put, this was and is a news story.”
Ted Boutrous, a veteran lawyer who briefly represented McDougal in a dispute with the Enquirer, said the emails Bezos described in his post are “a textbook example of blackmail and extortion. It’s ripped right out of the law books.”
He added, “At an extreme level, this shows how frightening it should be to the citizens of the United States that the National Enquirer reportedly has a safe full of information about the president of the United States. That’s one of the dangers to democracy of what they were engaged in when they were catching and killing information they could have used against Candidate Trump and now President Trump. . . . It’s a shocking and frightening thing Mr. Bezos has revealed.”