A report in the Guardian claims it wasn’t just any Saudi government hacker — it might have been Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) himself.
Sources claim MBS may have personally sent Bezos a video file on May 1, 2018, via a WhatsApp chat. It’s not clear what the video contained, the Guardian says. “But a forensic technical analysis of the file has found that it is ‘highly probable’ it contained malware that penetrated Bezos’s mobile phone and exfiltrated a large amount of data within hours.”
It’s also unclear what information was taken from Bezos’s phone during the hack, and how it may have been used.
But last February, Bezos accused American Media Inc., then the parent company of the National Enquirer, of trying to extort Bezos after the publication approached him saying it had text messages and photos that revealed Bezos was having an affair. AMI repeatedly said its tipster was Michael Sanchez, the brother of the woman Bezos was allegedly having an affair with. (AMI’s CEO, David Pecker, is close to President Trump, and AMI was involved in the saga of hush money payments to two women who said they had affairs with Trump.)
Our investigators and several experts concluded with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone, and gained private information. As of today, it is unclear to what degree, if any, AMI was aware of the details.
The Guardian report adds further fuel to the very serious allegation that a foreign government hacked a private citizen (Bezos) who also happens to own the Washington Post, the publication that employed columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in Turkey in 2018, a hit the CIA believes MBS himself ordered.
It also raises even more questions about MBS’s personal relationships, including with Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kushner reportedly communicates with foreign leaders through WhatsApp, including with MBS — something that cybersecurity experts say also makes him vulnerable to hacking.
Why would MBS hack Bezos?
In January 2019, Bezos announced that he and his wife were seeking a divorce. Just a few hours later, the National Enquirer claimed it had completed a four-month investigation into an extramarital affair between Bezos and Laura Sanchez, a former anchor for a Fox affiliate in Los Angeles.
As Vox’s Anna North reported at the time, soon after the initial story of the affair, “the National Enquirer released what it said were ‘sleazy text messages’ sent by Bezos to Sanchez, and claimed to have seen ‘a cache of lewd selfies’ sent by the Amazon CEO as well.”
Bezos has become a regular punching bag for President Donald Trump, who dislikes the Washington Post — and by extension, its owner — for what he sees as coverage critical of his presidency.
Pecker, the CEO of AMI (and until recently the owner of the National Enquirer), is a longtime friend of Trump’s. In August 2016, the tabloid arranged what’s called a “catch and kill” deal with former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who alleges she had an affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007.
Federal prosecutors also revealed in charging documents that AMI was involved in the illegal hush money payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels. Both of these payments were designed to protect Trump and influence the 2016 election. In December 2018, AMI agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in that federal investigation to avoid prosecution.
Now back to Bezos: In February 2019, Bezos wrote a lengthy post on Medium accusing AMI of trying to extort him. Bezos said he’d hired investigators (including de Becker) to look into how his private messages had been obtained. In his post, he claimed that once AMI learned of Bezos’s investigation, it contacted him claiming it had even more text messages and photographs of Bezos and threatening to publish them unless Bezos halted the investigation.
Bezos published the exchanges, which included some interesting demands from AMI, including that Bezos publicly acknowledge that he had “no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces, and an agreement that they will cease referring to such a possibility.”
AMI also said in its correspondence with Bezos that it “affirms that it undertook no electronic eavesdropping in connection with its reporting and has no knowledge of such conduct.”
Bezos dismissed what he called “blackmail.” Meanwhile, de Becker continued with his investigation. In March 2019, he made the explosive claim that the Saudi government had gained access to Bezos’s phone.
AMI denied that it had received any information from the Saudis, calling the allegations “unsubstantiated,” and said the materials were acquired from a single source, Michael Sanchez. “There was no involvement by a third party whatsoever,” the AMI statement read.
But AMI has a connection with the Saudi government. As North explained last year:
Pecker’s relationship with Trump continued after the latter took office, according to [the New Yorker’s Ronan] Farrow. AMI employees told the reporter that Trump associates had introduced Pecker to potential funding sources for the company. In 2017, Pecker had dinner at the White House with “a French businessman known for brokering deals with Saudi Arabia,” Farrow writes. Two months later, the businessman and Pecker met with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS.
In 2018, AMI published a nearly 100-page, ad-free magazine full of articles, many of them unbylined, praising MBS, as Spencer Ackerman reported at the Daily Beast. The magazine called MBS “our closest Middle East ally destroying terrorism” and included coverage of “New Rights for Saudi Women.” AMI said it had no outside help publishing the magazine and compared it to special issues on “The Royals, Elvis, The Kennedys, The Olympics, etc.” (all subjects better known to Americans than MBS, Ackerman notes).
AMI published the favorable coverage of MBS, in the spring of 2018, when the crown prince was embarking on a goodwill press tour across the US, an attempt to recast him as a modernist reformer. Bezos met with MBS during his US visit.
Another major event also happened in 2018, albeit later that year: the brutal killing of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, who worked for the Post, vanished in October, but soon a gruesome assassination plot was revealed. Intelligence agencies, including with the CIA, linked Khashoggi’s death to MBS. The Post led coverage on the murder of its columnist, which was invariably bad coverage for MBS.
There are still many unanswered questions. But the report in the Guardian that a message from MBS himself might have led to a hack raises some troubling questions. A foreign leader targeting a private US citizen, if true, would be explosive. The Trump administration has developed a close relationship with the Saudi government, and has largely avoided holding Riyadh accountable for its misdeeds, including the killing of Khashoggi.
What’s more, MBS and Jared Kushner — the president’s son-in-law and top adviser — also reportedly communicate through encrypted messaging apps, including WhatsApp. House Democrats have tried to get access to these texts, saying Kushner conducted official government business through these tools. The question might be, however, whether MBS shared any videos.