Saudi Operatives Who Killed Khashoggi Received Paramilitary Training in U.S.

WASHINGTON — Four Saudis who participated in the 2018 killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi received paramilitary training in the United States the previous year under a contract approved by the State Department, according to documents and people familiar with the arrangement.

The instruction occurred as the secret unit responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing was beginning an extensive campaign of kidnapping, detention and torture of Saudi citizens ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, to crush dissent inside the kingdom.

The training was provided by the Arkansas-based security company Tier 1 Group, which is owned by the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management. The company says the training — including “safe marksmanship” and “countering an attack” — was defensive in nature and devised to better protect Saudi leaders. One person familiar with the training said it also included work in surveillance and close-quarters battle.

There is no evidence that the American officials who approved the training or Tier 1 Group executives knew that the Saudis were involved in the crackdown inside Saudi Arabia. But the fact that the government approved high-level military training for operatives who went on to carry out the grisly killing of a journalist shows how intensely intertwined the United States has become with an autocratic nation even as its agents committed horrific human rights abuses.

It also underscores the perils of military partnerships with repressive governments and demonstrates how little oversight exists for those forces after they return home.

Such issues are likely to continue as American private military contractors increasingly look to foreign clients to shore up their business as the United States scales back overseas deployments after two decades of war.

The State Department initially granted a license for the paramilitary training of the Saudi Royal Guard to Tier 1 Group starting in 2014, during the Obama administration. The training continued during at least the first year of former President Donald J. Trump’s term.

Louis Bremer, a senior executive of Cerberus, Tier 1 Group’s parent company, confirmed his company’s role in the training last year in written answers to questions from lawmakers as part of his nomination for a top Pentagon job during the Trump administration.

The administration does not appear to have sent the document to Congress before withdrawing Mr. Bremer’s nomination; lawmakers never received answers to their questions.

In the document, which Mr. Bremer provided to The New York Times, he said that four members of the Khashoggi kill team had received Tier 1 Group training in 2017, and two of them had participated in a previous iteration of the training, which went from October 2014 until January 2015.

“The training provided was unrelated to their subsequent heinous acts,” Mr. Bremer said in his responses.

He said that a March 2019 review by Tier 1 Group “uncovered no wrongdoing by the company and confirmed that the established curriculum training was unrelated to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

 

Credit…Rod Lamkey/Sipa

Mr. Bremer said that the State Department, “in collaboration with other U.S. departments and agencies,” is responsible for vetting the foreign forces trained on U.S. soil. “All foreign personnel trained by T1G are cleared by the U.S. government for entry into the United States before commencement of training.”

In a statement, Mr. Bremer said that the training was “protective in nature” and that the company conducted no further training of Saudis after December 2017.

“T1G management, the board and I stand firmly with the U.S. government, the American people and the international community in condemning the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” he said.

A 2019 column by David Ignatius of The Washington Post first reported that members of the Khashoggi kill team had received training in the United States. He wrote that the C.I.A. had “cautioned other government agencies” that some special-operations training may have been conducted by Tier 1 Group under a State Department license.

The issue was central to Mr. Bremer’s contentious confirmation hearing and the written questions from senators, asking him what role, if any, Tier 1 Group had in training Saudis who had participated in the Khashoggi operation.

A State Department spokesman declined to confirm whether it awarded licenses to Tier 1 Group for the Saudi training.

“This administration insists on responsible use of U.S. origin defense equipment and training by our allies and partners, and considers appropriate responses if violations occur,” said the spokesman, Ned Price. “Saudi Arabia faces significant threats to its territory, and we are committed to working together to help Riyadh strengthen its defenses.”

A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not comment.

Mr. Trump weighed installing the head of Cerberus, Stephen A. Feinberg, in a top intelligence post last year, but the appointment was never made. While the Trump administration had appointed Mr. Feinberg to lead the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board in 2018, questions emerged about potential conflicts of interest. Cerberus formerly owned the military contractor DynCorp, which among other things provides intelligence advice to the United States and other clients.

It is unclear which members of the Khashoggi kill team participated in the Tier 1 Group training. Seven members of the team belonged to an elite unit charged with protecting Prince Mohammed, according to an American intelligence report about the assassination declassified in February.

The role of operatives from the so-called Rapid Intervention Force in the Khashoggi killing helped bolster the American intelligence case that Prince Mohammed approved the operation.

“Members of the R.I.F. would not have participated” in the killing without his consent, according to the report. The group “exists to defend the crown prince” and “answers only to him,” the document said.

Members of the team that killed Mr. Khashoggi were involved in at least a dozen operations starting in 2017, according to officials who have read classified intelligence reports about the campaign.

Mr. Khashoggi, a columnist for The Post, was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, his body dismembered using a bone saw. The assassination brought widespread condemnation on Prince Mohammed, who has publicly denied any knowledge of the operation.

The instruction occurred as the secret unit responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing was beginning a campaign ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to crush dissent inside the kingdom.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Eight defendants were sentenced to up to two decades in prison last year, but human rights advocates criticized the punishments as aimed at lower-level agents while sparing their leaders.

The C.I.A. concluded that the prince directed the operation, but Mr. Trump said that the evidence was inconclusive and that America’s diplomatic and economic relationship with the kingdom took priority. After President Biden took office and debated the issue with his advisers before the release of the declassified intelligence report, his administration announced sanctions on Saudis involved in the killing, including members of the elite unit who protect Prince Mohammed, but chose not to directly punish the crown prince.

The earlier iteration of the training, which took place during the Obama administration, occurred before Prince Mohammed consolidated power in the kingdom. His predecessor as crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, was a close ally of the United States and in particular John O. Brennan, who served as C.I.A. director under President Barack Obama.

Prince bin Nayef was the Saudi counterterrorism chief and collaborated closely with Obama administration officials in working to dismantle Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group’s affiliate based in Yemen.

In 2017, Prince bin Salman pushed Prince bin Nayef from power and executed a broader campaign to wrest power from his rivals — including a notorious episode of imprisoning Saudi royals and businessmen at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.

The Trump administration considered him a valuable partner in the Middle East — especially for the administration’s strategy to isolate Iran — and Prince bin Salman developed a close relationship with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law who served as a senior adviser to Mr. Trump.

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and President Barack Obama in the White House in 2015. In 2017, Prince bin Nayef was pushed from power and remains under house arrest.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Prince bin Salman, the son of King Salman, is the next in line to the Saudi throne. Prince bin Nayef remains under house arrest in the kingdom.

The Tier 1 Group website lists numerous American special operations and intelligence units as clients, along with “specialty units that do not require recognition.” It said it also trains “OGA special operator teams” — one pseudonym for C.I.A. paramilitary units — as well as “international allied forces.”

Under federal rules that restrict foreign sales of American arms and military expertise, Tier 1 Group was required to apply for licenses to train the foreign operatives. Those license applications were examined by State Department officials — who were processing tens of thousands of licenses per year — and approved.

The approval would have allowed members of the Saudi Royal Guard to enter the United States on visas processed by the American Embassy in Riyadh. The path is similar to the one followed by Second Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, a Royal Saudi Air Force officer who opened fire in 2019 at a naval air station in Pensacola, Fla., where he was receiving military flight training. The attack killed three people and wounded eight.

Tier 1 Group was founded to train U.S. military personnel, taking advantage of an expanded Pentagon budget for military personnel training in basic counterinsurgency skills, according to former American officials familiar with its operations.

One of the company’s founders, Steve Reichert, a former Marine, was working as an instructor for the security contractor then known as Blackwater when he met Mr. Feinberg. With Mr. Feinberg’s backing, Mr. Reichert set up Tier 1 Group, according to Mr. Reichert’s 2020 account of the company’s founding and former intelligence officials familiar with the efforts.

But as U.S. military training budgets began to shrink, the company, like other private security firms, began searching for new clients. By 2014, it was beginning to train foreign military units, including Saudis.

Decisions about granting licenses to American firms to train foreign nationals are usually made after getting input from numerous government agencies, said R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs during the Trump administration. The Pentagon and intelligence agencies often play a role, he said.

“These things don’t just come out of the ether,” he said.

Mr. Cooper said he could not recall any discussion about the Tier 1 Group training of Saudis, even after Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. He said there were intense deliberations inside the Trump administration about how to respond to the killing after the government concluded that Prince Mohammed most likely approved it.

In the end, he said, administration officials did not want to squander America’s relationship with the kingdom — and the strategy of isolating Iran — khashoggi

“No government is going to flush a significant bilateral relationship over this murder, no matter how horrific it was,” he said.

Adam Goldman contributed reporting.

Correction: 

An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to Louis Bremer’s nomination for a Pentagon position. Mr. Bremer’s nomination never received a Senate vote and expired at the end of President Donald J. Trump’s term; it was not withdrawn. The error was repeated in a photo caption.

Joe Rogan | The Morality of CIA Assassins w/Annie Jacobsen

00:00
the Joe Rogan experience morality talk
00:05
to me about morality or talk about why
00:07
we can’t talk about certain things well
00:09
while we’re what you were saying before
00:11
about being a competitor the United
00:14
States is competitive obviously and when
00:17
you’re playing the ultimate game which
00:18
is war you have to be very careful about
00:20
what you reveal and what you don’t
00:22
reveal and this is where the
00:24
conversation about surprise kill vanish
00:26
comes in because the CIA using these
00:30
covert operations to assassinate people
00:33
and whether or not that should be
00:35
allowed or not allowed whether it’s good
00:37
or bad whether it’s necessary whether
00:40
it’s like if you want people to be safe
00:41
over here there’s certain people you got
00:43
to take out and sometimes you just can’t
00:45
follow the rules and why why are we not
00:48
supposed to know about that should we
00:50
know about that the way the story
00:51
started for me I’m at my house in 2009 a
00:54
source is you know calls me up he says
00:56
I’m on my way back from the Middle East
00:58
gonna pop by the house and say hi he
01:01
brings me a challenge coin that says
01:03
Kabul Afghanistan State Department I’m
01:05
thinking okay he is not a diplomat I
01:08
mean he’s weapons trained at the time my
01:12
boys were young there are lots of GI
01:14
Joes in the garden and they had little
01:16
weapons right and the source is showing
01:20
them about the weapons and they’re like
01:21
so into it cuz they know he’s military
01:22
trained and then he says if it’s okay
01:24
with your mom and dad I’ll show you some
01:26
weapons the boys are like please so he
01:29
sets up this sniper rifle in the living
01:31
room and I live up in the hills and you
01:34
can look across the canyon through this
01:36
scope he set up and I can see the veins
01:39
on a leaf
01:40
across the canyon and I thought okay so
01:43
now I know what he was doing in Kabul
01:45
Afghanistan he’s taking out al Qaeda
01:47
with this mm-hmm
01:49
there’s another case on the ground that
01:51
he never opens and when the boys go off
01:54
I say to him what’s in that and he said
01:57
he opens it up and inside there’s a
01:59
knife and it’s serrated and I said
02:02
what’s that for
02:03
immediately realizing you know my
02:05
naivete and he says to me sometimes a
02:08
job requires quiet so why that became
02:13
interesting
02:13
to me was because of my own thoughts and
02:17
perceptions about what he had told me in
02:19
other words I could I could deal with
02:21
him with a sniper rifle
02:22
I could me like okay that’s what he does
02:24
but the knife gave me pause I was like
02:26
is he slitting someone’s throat is it in
02:29
the ribs and I thought why is it that I
02:31
am willing to accept sort of the
02:35
clinical nature of of a sniper rifle but
02:38
I can’t I’m uncomfortable with that
02:41
close-up hand-to-hand killing and that
02:45
led me to surprise kill vanish because
02:47
that was the motto of the precursor
02:50
agency of the CIA it was called the OSS
02:54
the Office of Strategic Services their
02:57
motto was surprise kill vanish because
02:59
they would jump out of aircraft land
03:02
work with their French partners and kill
03:04
Nazis with a you know a knife to the
03:07
throat and I thought okay that’s
03:10
considered okay because they were Nazis
03:12
right but we can’t we’re not supposed to
03:14
do that anymore
03:15
in this world we live in why and I spent
03:19
the whole this whole book researching
03:22
and reporting is about that sort of
03:25
conundrum if you will that moral puzzle
03:28
you know why do we why do we
03:31
differentiate you know and who are they
03:35
willing to do that to where do they draw
03:37
that line like I’m sure you’re aware of
03:40
the story of Jamal khashoggi the
03:43
journalist who was assassinated by
03:46
someone some group of people and that
03:49
they entered into the Turkish embassy
03:51
and they whacked him and chopped him up
03:55
and carried him out in boxes and it’s an
03:57
international it was a huge incident
04:02
right this supposedly was ordered by who
04:07
was it supposed to order by the head of
04:09
Saudi Arabia yeah MBS Mohammed bin
04:12
Salman I mean that’s the idea is that
04:14
their head of state wanted him killed
04:16
because he was a threat because he was a
04:18
reporter because he’s writing some
04:20
things yeah and that they this is how
04:24
they did it yeah I mean and there’s
04:25
that’s a great question because what
04:27
yours
04:27
like okay so but we all think of that as
04:29
reprehensible right right right
04:31
why you know cuz cuz he’s a journalist
04:33
on our side he’s delivering information
04:35
to people but the government of Saudi
04:39
Arabia disagree they like that
04:41
information is our information he’s a
04:43
threat by releasing it yes he’s a threat
04:46
to our livelihood yes yeah and who
04:49
decides who’s a threat I mean a lot of
04:51
this book is about who’s on the kill
04:53
list right I mean there is an actual
04:55
killers they’re always husband and the
04:56
euphemisms involved I mean I write
04:59
history as I said so Eisenhower called
05:02
his assassination program health
05:05
alteration
I mean literally in the
05:07
declassified documents the Solaris
05:09
health all three she had a health
05:11
alteration committee whoa Kennedy had an
05:14
executive action committee that’s also
05:17
cleaner all right
05:19
guess what Reagan’s was called super
05:22
Wonder Boy power up close pre-emptive
05:27
neutralization preemptive neutralization
05:30
Wow why do they keep switching the names
05:32
for it they’re burying the information
05:35
right and they keep switching around the
05:38
they switch around who has authority to
05:43
you know say yes let’s go ahead and put
05:45
this guy on the kill list I mean that
05:47
was fascinating I mean I interviewed a
05:49
guy named John Rizzo who was a
05:51
decades-long CIA attorney I was stunned
05:53
that he was willing to talk to me and he
05:56
explained to me how a presidential
06:00
finding also called a memorandum of
06:02
notification works that gives the
06:05
president the authority to put an
06:09
individual on the kill list that job is
06:12
then given to the CIA’s paramilitary
06:14
army an operator or their assassins
06:18
because the CIA works under a code
06:21
called title 50 of so it makes it legal
06:25
whereas the Defense Department works
06:27
under what’s called title 10 so in other
06:30
words and they can’t their rules of
06:31
engagement are totally different so the
06:33
misnomer is like oh the SEALs killed bin
06:35
Laden well they were seals trained but
06:39
that was a CIA mission
06:41
hmm because Pakistan is a sovereign
06:45
nation and the military can’t kill
06:49
people in countries were not at war with
06:51
so those guys all became essentially CIA
operators for the night whoa right and
06:59
if you look at photographs as I have
07:02
seen you’ll notice that they have no
07:04
markings on their outfits so that if the
07:09
job went south it’d be like I don’t know
07:11
who these guys are and if you look back
07:14
at Vietnam photos of the Mac V SOG teams
07:16
which I also write about in surprise
07:19
kill vanish because that’s the precursor
07:21
of that you see no markings right that
07:24
way you can go into you can go behind
07:27
enemy lines you can go into Laos you
07:29
know in the Vietnam War you can go now
07:31
you can go into Pakistan what I learned
reporting this book is we’re in a
hundred and thirty four countries doing
title 50 operations think about that
government wants that to be kept secret
07:44
so in all those countries they’re doing
07:48
things that don’t fall under the normal
07:51
letter of the law not yes not under the
07:54
rules of engagement of the military but
07:56
the CIA works at the president’s behest
07:59
that that was one thing that really blew
08:01
my mind to report to research to
08:03
understand
08:04
I talked to forty two guys who have
08:05
direct access to this who are in this
08:08
world you know from the knuckle draggers
08:11
on the ground as they call themselves to
08:13
the lawyer at CIA senior intelligence
08:16
staff that’s the equivalent of a general
08:18
at the CIA
08:19
those guys explaining to me Annie this
08:21
is how it works you know and again to
08:26
your question well why why does someone
08:28
get to know that and why does the
08:30
government want why do they allow that
08:32
information out is super interesting and
08:34
I believe that has to do with a certain
08:38
climate we’re in right now about
08:40
military might right in other words what
08:43
the CIA does is called tercio up do it’s
08:45
the third option you’ve got the first
08:48
option is diplomacy second option is war
08:51
so if diplomacy is not working
08:54
and war is unwise you go to the third
08:58
option which is the CIA’s paramilitary
09:01
and they’re in a hundred and how many
country 134 do you well if you wonder
why the military budgets so big that’s
what it is folks kind of feed those
09:09
folks what work I mean what happened and
09:13
you as a competitor would be fascinated
09:15
by the kind of training they do and what
09:17
they do I mean so many of these
09:18
infiltration techniques are
09:19
mind-boggling you know they’ve got halo
09:22
jumping which you know about right where
09:23
they high altitude low opening so they
09:26
jump out they you know freefall down
09:29
terminal velocity pull the ripcord
09:31
really low so they’re not detected by
09:33
radar and then they meet up with a team
09:35
on the ground and go do what they do
09:36
then they also have hey-ho which is high
09:39
altitude high opening and that way you
09:42
can fly over airspace where we’re
09:45
allowed and float into let’s say a
09:49
country like Iran and land gather your
09:54
team and do what you have to do hmm but
09:56
like so much of what I report I get
09:58
information like that and then I ask a
10:00
million questions like you’ve asking me
10:02
and it’s like can’t talk about that
10:03
that’s classified hmm you don’t you
10:07
you’re a journalist so you’re trying not
10:09
to judge mm-hmm but is it your belief
10:14
that this is a good thing for America
10:18
meaning having a third option
10:21
whoa I mean I write in the book that
10:25
that’s in the prologue after I tell that
10:27
story about the source with a knife I
10:29
say I wanted to know in that exact
10:34
question like is this a good thing and
10:36
my answer at the end after it’s complex
10:40
not to be vague but it is really complex
10:42
is also that well if you’re gonna take
10:48
that pole position you must accept
10:54
rivalry right mm-hmm and also after talk
10:59
do I think it’s a good thing after
11:01
talking to a lot of 20-year old soldiers
11:04
who come back from the war theater miss
11:06
limb with intense PTSD and who
11:12
essentially serve as cannon fodder I
11:14
would say my opinion right for the
11:18
Pentagon that’s the second option or the
11:23
42 guys that I interviewed you know
11:26
they’re like send me they are a
11:28
professional they are Tier one operators
11:31
they’re Green Berets they’re seals their
11:32
Delta they retire they join the CIA yeah
11:36
so they’re like professionals at what
11:37
they do
11:38
and they’re saying I want someone has to
11:40
do this job we’ve been doing this since
11:42
the end of World War two I want to do it
11:44
so do I think it’s better I mean I think
11:49
that that concept speaks to choice right
11:59
because I’m not so sure that the 20 year
12:00
olds know what they’re in for
12:02
and the 40 year olds know what they’re
12:04
in for and are willing to do it so that
12:07
well also the difference between a
12:09
specialized trained individual with a
12:12
very specific task versus someone who is
12:14
sort of following orders and at the
12:16
front of the line yeah right I mean and
12:19
also has a you know a lot of times I
12:22
talk to these young kids who go to war
12:23
and they tell me one of the fascinating
12:27
detail is that they talk about movies
12:30
that they see and whether it’s Saving
12:32
Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down even
12:35
right where the outcome is not
12:37
necessarily great but they talk about
12:40
the romanticization of war and of
12:44
camaraderie and a brotherhood that comes
12:47
from that and then they have their
12:48
experience and some of that does give
12:51
them that sense but not always whereas
12:54
the operators are much more about you
12:58
know getting the job done that’s what I
13:00
was fascinated by I mean these guys are
13:02
really clear they’re their competitors
13:05
they’re like top tier competitors they
13:07
have a job they do it they get it done
13:09
and they ask for the next job so is the
13:13
oversight when it comes to choosing
13:16
whether or not this operation takes
13:18
place or not is it
13:20
do they have moral guidelines do they
13:24
have ethical or moral guidelines where
13:25
they say like this is the president is
13:29
requesting that this person get taken
13:31
out the Chiefs of Staff whoever it is is
13:33
that did they have to make a an ethical
13:37
distinction you mean or they like kill
13:39
him nicely like don’t make it over this
13:41
do they decide like does this make sense
13:43
or like what if the president is like
13:45
Rosie O’Donnell she’s been talking shit
13:47
take her out you know
13:49
well I mean that’s you know that’s a big
13:51
issue but what I try to write in some
13:55
what I try to report in surprise kill
13:57
vanish is the idea that the people we
14:00
take out may be our bad guys right one
14:03
one guy write about his che guevara okay
14:05
because che is often portrayed in the
14:10
press as you know this amazing hero and
14:15
that he and we you know I don’t know if
14:18
you know but he was he was killed by the
14:20
Bolivian Rangers but it was a CIA
14:21
operation and I interview the man in
14:23
charge of that operation in Surprise Cal
14:26
vanished his name was Felix Rodriguez ok
14:28
long-serving CIA paramilitary officer so
14:31
but I also report why the President to
14:36
your question wanted Che Guevara dead
14:40
you know he was really advocating for
14:43
nuclear war and I and I shared it yes I
14:48
mean he spoke publicly about you know if
14:50
if we have to have an atomic war the
14:52
Cuban but paraphrasing the Cuban people
14:54
will be happy to have sacrificed
14:55
themselves that I mean che was also che
14:59
killed anyone who betrayed him he killed
15:01
he writes about it in his Diaries as I
15:04
write in the book right so but on the
15:06
morality question who decides I don’t
15:08
have that answer but I will tell you
15:09
what I did I went with my main source
15:11
Billy hua who he’s a 89 now and he was
15:15
he’s been with the CIA for 60 years
15:18
okay I mean he went and he and I went to
15:23
Cuba for him to do a halo jump with Che
15:27
Guevara son so we were a guest of the
15:30
man whose father was killed by the CIA
15:36
okay and we had this really interesting
15:39
discussion in the cigar club where che
15:43
and Castro you know smoke cigars and
15:46
plotted the downfall of the United
15:48
States and that’s what I try to give
15:52
readers a sense of the long lens of
15:56
history how time changes all things and
16:00
maybe leave with them them with this
16:03
idea which they can come to their own
16:04
conclusions about what you asked me of
16:06
is it right or is it wrong because
16:08
really what you might ask is is it
16:11
necessary mmm right I mean I could
16:15
moralize right wrong but it would just
16:17
be my opinion but when you see I went
16:20
Billy wall and I also try out travel to
16:23
Vietnam because he was supposed to kill
16:25
he was tasked to kill the top commander
16:28
of the North Vietnamese Army a guy named
16:30
general shop and law didn’t kill shop
16:34
and we had this incredibly this terrible
16:36
mission that went awry that I write
16:38
about in the book in the Vietnam War so
16:40
50 years later while and I go to visit
16:43
the son of general giap are sitting
16:46
there in shops home talking about these
16:49
same issues right and my conclusion of
16:52
that again is not is it right or wrong
16:55
but is it necessary I mean we have these
16:58
wars we keep having these wars is it
17:02
necessary yeah what do you think well I
17:07
mean my opinion is that the Defense
17:11
Department is far too concerned with
17:14
vast weapons systems of the future which
17:17
is its mission statement of its science
17:19
department and so you create what some
17:22
at the Pentagon call a self licking ice
17:24
cream cone or the military-industrial
17:26
complex and there’s a lot built into
17:29
that there’s a lot to be said about
17:36
[Applause]

Amazon boss Jeff Bezos’s phone ‘hacked by Saudi crown prince’

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.

Mohammed bin Salman
 Mohammed bin Salman. One observer said the alleged targeting of Bezos reflected the ‘personality-based’ environment in which the crown prince operates. Photograph: Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi royal court/EPA

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 Beckerwrote 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.

Have you got new information about this story? You can message Guardian investigations using Signal or WhatsApp: +447584640566. For the most secure communications, use SecureDrop. You can also email: stephanie.kirchgaessner@theguardian.com.

‘Seven whistleblowers’

And a story that — if true — could be deadly for Jared Kushner

Seven Brides for Seven BrothersThe Magnificent SevenSeven SamuraiThe Seven Year ItchSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Hollywood loves stories and film titles with seven in them. So how about Seven Whistleblowers? It has a nice ring to it. Because a source tells Cockburn that House Democrats trying to impeach Donald Trump have no less than seven intelligence whistleblowers willing to give evidence, or who have already given evidence, about President Trump’s dealings with foreign governments.

Some we know about already. There’s the original whistleblower, the CIA officer at the White House who first reported Trump’s call to the Ukrainian president. Republicans are now pushing to ‘unmask’ him, though his name is already all over the internet. He is, supposedly, a 33-year-old graduate of Yale, a registered Democrat who had worked for both Joe Biden and John Brennan. These facts, so helpful to the White House, are in a ‘dossier’ circulated on Capitol Hill by the president’s allies. A second Ukraine whistleblower has come forward. We know this because the lawyer for the first whistleblower, Mark Zaid, told ABC News that he was representing a second. In fact, Zaid’s co-counsel said that they were representing ‘multiple’ whistleblowers. Two? More than two? Seven?

Cockburn wondered if one of the whistleblowers could possibly be Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the senior Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, who came to the US from Ukraine — to Little Odessa in Brooklyn — as a child aged three. He arrived to give evidence to the House Intelligence Committee wearing his dark blue Army dress uniform and military ribbons. He said that the White House transcript of the call between Trump and Ukraine’s president had important gaps — and that his attempts to include ‘crucial words and phrases’ had been rebuffed. ‘I am a patriot and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend our country irrespective of party or politics.’

Or perhaps Tim Morrison, the NSC’s director for European and Russian Affairs, who was one of the small group to have listened to the call. He told the committee that Trump’s ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, had said Ukraine wouldn’t get US arms unless it investigated Biden. But the British Daily Mail has pointed out that both officials testified under subpoena and so — Lord Rothermere’s organ states, correctly — neither is legally a whistleblower.

However many Ukraine whistleblowers there may or may not be, Cockburn’s source says that at least one of the (purported) seven has nothing to do with Ukraine at all. Instead, it’s claimed that this whistleblower reported a call between Trump and the Saudi ruler, Mohammed bin Salman. He or she is said to have had ‘concerns’ about what was said on the call about the president’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner. Kushner himself is known to have a very close relationship with MBS. Cockburn has previously written that Kushner may have been what Cosmo would call an ‘oversharer’ when it came to MBS. Unfortunately, it’s claimed that what he was sharing was American secrets: information Kushner had requested from the CIA would (allegedly) be echoed back in US intercepts of calls between members of the Saudi royal family. One source said this was why Kushner lost his intelligence clearances for a while.

According to Cockburn’s source about the seven whistleblowers, there’s more. It is that Kushner (allegedly) gave the green light to MBS to arrest the dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who was later murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. A second source tells Cockburn that this is true and adds a crucial twist to the story. This source claims that Turkish intelligence obtained an intercept of the call between Kushner and MBS. And President Erdogan used it to get Trump to roll over and pull American troops out of northern Syria before the Turks invaded. A White House official has told the Daily Mail that this story is ‘false nonsense’. However, Cockburn hears that investigators for the House Intelligence Committee are looking into it. Who knows whether any of this is true…but Adam Schiff certainly seems to be smiling a lot these days.

Jared Kushner’s Secret Meeting

Jared Kushner attends a secret meeting in Saudia Arabia with MBS that could benefit him and the Trumps.  This is how Trump deals with the man responsible for killing and dismembering Jamal Koshoggi.

The Republicans have said to ban all Muslims because they are a national security risk, but are fine with giving Saudi Arabia nuclear reactors.

Jared and the Saudi Crown Prince Go Nuclear?

There are too many unanswered questions about the White House’s role in advancing Saudi ambitions.

Jared Kushner slipped quietly into Saudi Arabia this week for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, so the question I’m trying to get the White House to answer is this: Did they discuss American help for a Saudi nuclear program?

Of all the harebrained and unscrupulous dealings of the Trump administration in the last two years, one of the most shocking is a Trump plan to sell nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia that could be used to make nuclear weapons.

Even as President Trump is trying to denuclearize North Korea and Iran, he may be helping to nuclearize Saudi Arabia. This is abominable policy tainted by a gargantuan conflict of interest involving Kushner.

Kushner’s family real estate business had been teetering because of a disastrously overpriced acquisition he made of a particular Manhattan property called 666 Fifth Avenue, but last August a company called Brookfield Asset Management rescued the Kushners by taking a 99-year lease of the troubled property — and paying the whole sum of about $1.1 billion up front.

Alarm bells should go off: Brookfield also owns Westinghouse Electric, the nuclear services business trying to sell reactors to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi swamp, meet American swamp.

It may be conflicts like these, along with even murkier ones, that led American intelligence officials to refuse a top-secret security clearance for Kushner. The Times reported Thursday that Trump overruled them to grant Kushner the clearance.

This nuclear reactor mess began around the time of Trump’s election, when a group of retired U.S. national security officials put together a plan to enrich themselves by selling nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia. The officials included Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, and they initially developed a “plan for 40 nuclear power plants” in Saudi Arabia, according to a report from the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The plan is now to start with just a couple of plants.

As recently as Feb. 12, Trump met in the White House with backers of the project and was supportive, Reuters reported.

No one knows whether Prince Muhammed will manage to succeed his father and become the next king, for there is opposition and the Saudi economic transformation he boasts of is running into difficulties.

Trump and Kushner seem to be irresponsibly trying to boost the prince’s prospects, increasing the risk that an unstable hothead will mismanage the kingdom for the next 50 years. Perhaps with nuclear weapons.