Earlier this year, Jeff Bezos beat the National Enquirer to the punch by announcing the dissolution of his marriage – which the tabloid was planning on blowing up anyways in the form of a lengthy expose of his affair with news anchor and media personality Lauren Sanchez. The mildly-interesting-at-best story got a whole lot more interesting, however, when Bezos alleged that the Enquirer and its parent company American Media Inc. (AMI) had attempted to blackmail and extort him with sexts including a 'dick pic' they had kept in reserve.
The point of this alleged blackmail, Bezos said, was to derail an investigation into who obtained his sexts, as well as force him to issue a statement denying that the Enquirer’s marching orders came from someone with a political motive and that AMI or anyone associated with it had engaged in hacking. Bezos implied that someone with a vendetta against him, such as Donald Trump or the notoriously authoritarian Saudi Arabian government, could have been involved, though so far the trail has led to Lauren Sanchez’s pro-Trump brother and alleged AMI serial snitcher, Michael Sanchez.
Well, on Saturday the security researcher running Bezos’s investigation, Gavin De Becker, wrote in the Daily Beast that his team believes it was indeed the Saudis. According to De Becker, the motive was to hit back at Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, which has understandably been highly critical of the Saudi government’s brutal torture and murder of their colleague, dissident journalist in self-imposed exile Jamal Khashoggi.
De Becker outlines several reasons that he believes the Saudis obtained the messages. The first is that AMI appears to have done its best to serve up Michael Sanchez’s name on a platter:
Reality is complicated, and can’t always be boiled down to a simple narrative like “the brother did it”, even when that brother is a person who certainly supplied some information to a supermarket tabloid, and even when that brother is an associate of Roger Stone and Carter Page. Though interesting, it turns out those truths are also too simple.
De Becker added how unusual he thought it was that AMI’s alleged blackmail attempt included language specifically asking Bezos to say not only that it had not used “any form of electronic eavesdropping or hacking in their news-gathering process” but that their reporting was not “instigated, dictated or influenced in any manner by external forces, political or otherwise”.
De Becker also highlighted numerous examples of what he said was the tight relationship between AMI and the Saudi government, including their publication of a gaudy promotional magazine nationwide before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the U.S. last year, and AMI chairman David Pecker’s one-on-one meetings with the prince (including one at the White House with the President, the details of which remain private). He also said he had confirmed reports that the Saudi government has access to powerful cyber-intelligence tools that would let them spy on targeted devices; researchers with the Toronto-based Citizen Lab have said they identified this type of spying on dissident Omar Abdulaziz, who was in contact with Khashoggi before his death. De Becker also cited reports that Saudi-funded troll armies had relentlessly attacked Bezos online, including with anti-Semitic rhetoric (Bezos is not Jewish).
Pecker’s relationship with the president, described in the piece by De Becker, is also well known – Pecker received immunity from federal prosecutors for information about Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, specifically hush money Cohen paid to women alleging affairs with Trump. Pecker was reportedly aware of this because AMI was buying and sitting on the rights to such embarrassing stories about Trump on the latter’s behalf, a practice known as “catch-and-kill”.
However, De Becker did not provide hard evidence for his claim that the Saudis orchestrated the incident (and stated he could not confirm whether AMI was necessarily aware of how the compromising Bezos sexts were originally obtained). Instead, he wrote, they had referred their finding that “the Saudis had access to Bezos’s phone, and gained private information” to federal investigators, and alluded to an extensive investigation that supported that conclusion:
That investigation is now complete. As has been reported elsewhere, my results have been turned over to federal officials. Since it is now out of my hands, I intend today’s writing to be my last public statement on the matter. Further, to respect officials pursuing this case, I won’t disclose details from our investigation. I am, however, comfortable confirming one key fact:
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.
We did not reach our conclusions lightly. The inquiry included a broad array of resources: investigative interviews with current and former AMI executives and sources, extensive discussions with top Middle East experts in the intelligence community, leading cyber security experts who have tracked Saudi spyware, discussions with current and former advisers to President Trump, Saudi whistleblowers, people who personally know the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (also known as MBS), people who work with his close associate Saud al-Qahtani, Saudi dissidents, and other targets of Saudi action, including writer/activist Iyad el-Baghdadi.
Without knowing what De Becker has up his sleeve, most of this boils down to circumstantial evidence. For example, AMI could have demanded the statement denying it hacked anyone could be because any break-in to a computer system, like Bezos’s or Lauren Sanchez’s phones, could potentially violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and someone at AMI could be nervous it violated the terms of Pecker’s deal with prosecutors. But it’s fair to say that if true, and coming at a time when the Saudi government’s human rights record has come under a renewed wave of scrutiny, that it would have the makings of an international incident.
Featured photo: Cliff Owen (AP)