Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Update 1/25/20: Subsequent reporting at WSJ and elsewhere has raised questions about how solid the conclusions were, of the cyber-security firm hired by Jeff Bezos, that pointed with certainty to a hack coming from the cell phone of Mohammed Bin Salman.
We’ve long known that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s phone was hacked. Large amounts of data were taken off of it, including intimate photographs and evidence of a romantic affair, which then showed up in The National Enquirer. The tabloid’s publication of this private material led to Bezos’s divorce and the loss of half of his fabulous wealth. A careful forensic investigation of the hack now shows that Bezos’s phone was compromised when he opened a message on Whatsapp from the personal cell phone of Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The message contained malicious software that installed itself as soon as Bezos clicked on it to open it. This according to Stephanie Kirchgaessner, reporting for The Guardian.
The revelation that Bin Salman himself played a pivotal role in the attempt to ruin Bezos’s life over the Washington Post‘s reporting on Saudi Arabia and on Donald Trump should send chills down the spine of everyone who has ever chatted with the prince over Whatsapp. Bin Salman made a public relations trip to the US in spring of 2018. He met with Silicon Valley CEOs, Hollywood producers, and New York businessmen. How many phone numbers did he gather up and later use to talk to these movers and shakers over Whatsapp? How much dirt and how many secrets might the prince have by now swept up from the American elite, useful for blackmail and pressure campaigns?
We know that Trump son-in-law and high muck-a-muck without portfolio Jared Kushner also has talked to Bin Salman extensively over Whatsapp. This information raises the question of whether Kushner’s phone was similarly compromised by Saudi intelligence, which may be blackmailing Kushner to influence US Middle East policy. Indeed, for all we know, Donald Trump’s own phone may have been hacked in this way by Bin Salman. We can only speculate about such matters, since this White House is the least transparent in history. But just for instance, we know that the Saudis have long wanted Iranian general Qasem Soleimani dead. Did they have the kind of dirt on Kushner and Trump that would allow them to blackmail the US into taking Soleimani out? Did they almost involve the US in ware with Iran (something that Wikileaks shows the Saudis were trying to do way back in 2006).
This method of hacking phones uses the Pegasus software of the Israeli NSO company, and it is known that NSO sold the program to Saudi Arabia and many other authoritarian Middle Eastern governments. Former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden has said that if the Israeli software firm NSO had not sold its “Pegasus” malware to authoritarian governments like Saudi Arabia, dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (who worked for Bezos’s Washington Post) would still be alive.
We can now apparently add that if NSO hadn’t sold Pegasus to the Saudis, Jeff Bezos would still be married to his first wife, MacKenzie.
I had written last February:
David Pecker’s attempt to blackmail Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos would not ordinarily attract my eye. Except for this paragraph:
- “And sometimes Mr. Pecker mixes it all together:
“After Mr. Trump became president, he rewarded Mr. Pecker’s loyalty with a White House dinner to which the media executive brought a guest with important ties to the royals in Saudi Arabia. At the time, Mr. Pecker was pursuing business there while also hunting for financing for acquisitions…”
We knew that Pecker had brought the French investment banker and Saudi publicist Kacy Grine to the White House.
Embed from Getty Images
“SAN ANSELMO, CA – AUGUST 24: Copies of the National Enquirer are displayed at a grocery store on August 24, 2018 in San Anselmo, California. American Media, Inc. chairman and CEO David Pecker was granted immunity in exchange for cooperation with prosecuters working on the Michael Cohen case of hush payments made to a porn star and former Playboy playmate at the direction U.S. president Donald Trump. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images).”
And Spencer Ackerman had reported on Pecker’s strange move to put a pro-Saudi glossy magazine in grocery store check out lanes in spring of 2018. It is as though he thought American housewives would thrill to the soap opera in Riyadh, where the Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman had in summer of 2017 sidelined his rival Mohammed Bin Nayef, dethroning him as crown prince and greedily taking his place, before he kidnapped many in the Saudi elite to shake them down for $100 bn while imprisoning them in the Ritz Carlton. Days of Our Lives had nothing on the Saudis.
In short, there is every reason to believe that Pecker is entangled with the Saudi royal court of King Salman, perhaps, as Bezos alleges, in search of investment opportunities.
One question I have long had is whether investigators looking at the Russian element in the election of Trump are not unduly downplaying a United Arab Emirates and Saudi angle. That is, did those two oil monarchies help put Trump in power in the first place, and is there a prehistory to their entanglements with his circle?
Embed from Getty Images
“BOCA RATON, FL – AUGUST 16: David Pecker, the CEO of American Media, speaks to the news media August 16, 2002 in front of the American Media Building in Boca Raton, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/ Getty Images).”
But what Bezos goes on to allege is that he had hired a private investigator to find out how Pecker got hold of his texts and exchanges of smartphone photographs with his lover, Lauren Sanchez.
And the investigator, Gavin de Becker, looked into whether Pecker’s National Inquirer is influence-peddling for Saudi Arabia for some sort of quid pro quo.
Bezos also hints that Pecker was upset about the Washington Post’s quest to get to the bottom of the Saudi government’s murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018. Bezos owns the Post, though he maintains he is a hands-off owner.
Bezos alleges that the investigation of the Saudi connection most alarmed Mr. Pecker, and precipitated the attempt to blackmail the Amazon CEO into falling silent and backing off, with the threat of releasing further compromising photographs and text messages of a private nature.
Ronan Farrow said on Twitter that Pecker’s hired gun, Australian Dylan Howard, had also attempted to intimidate him when he was investigating Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment of all the women in Hollywood.
This charge makes me wonder if Pecker isn’t America’s answer to Rupert Murdoch, whose British tabloids were famous for hacking Britons’ telephone messages and then blackmailing or smearing them with the stolen material. Former prime minister John Major alleged that Murdoch threatened him with bad press unless he bent himself to Murdoch’s will.
I have to say that I never took Pecker or the National Inquirer seriously, but maybe he is secretly one of the more powerful men in the world, holding files on politicians and celebrities and coercing them behind the scenes.
One piece of jeopardy for Mr. Pecker is that he was granted immunity, for cooperating with the Mueller probe, from charges of election fraud for paying off nude model Karen McDougall, Mr. Trump’s lover, to gain her silence during the 2016 election campaign silence. That immunity depends on his avoiding further acts of illegality. It is not clear that the courts would accept Bezos’ claim of extortion. But Pecker wouldn’t be so nervous about Bezos investigating his Saudi ties unless there was something to hide in that regard.
Then last April I added:
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ security team has alleged in The Daily Beast that Saudi Arabian intelligence hacked his phone and passed to the National Enquirer intimate photos that the married Bezos had sent to his lover, Lauren Sanchez. Although the Enquirer’s parent company, AMI, has alleged that it received the material from Sanchez’s brother, this allegation may be be a cover story intended to deflect attention from the Saudi role (of which AMI may or may not have been aware. AMI reiterated its denials after the Daily Beast story appeared.
Bezos owns the Washington Post, which has often been critical of Trump, who in turn has viciously attacked the newspaper and its owner.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman established a strong relationship with Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner in 2017, which had been prepared for by the de facto head of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammad Bin Zayed, who secretly flew into the US after the November election to meet with Trump officials.
It has been alleged that the crown prince targeted expatriate Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in part because he had written critically about Trump at the Washington Post, where he was given a column after he fled Bin Salman’s increasingly dictatorial government.
Post columnist David Ignatius, considered close to the CIA, revealed that Khashoggi himself was hacked by a cyber espionage ring run from Riyadh by Saud al-Qahtan, one of Bin Salman’s chief lieutenants. Al-Qahtan had assembled a suite of hacking tools from Italy, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Here’s another corner to the conspiracy: allegations keep surfacing that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, attempted to get Qatar to take a billion-dollar white elephant, 666 Fifth Avenue, off his hands. He and his father had purchased the building for way too much money, and were not able to get their money back. A balloon payment was coming due, and they were desperate to unload the property. They approached Qatar, but its investment fund knows a pig of an investment when it sees one.
So the allegation is that Kushner conspired with Bin Salman, who had his own reasons to be annoyed with Qatar, to frame Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad for terrorism and Iran ties, and to put his country under blockade or even invade and take it over.
The June 5, 2017, attack on Qatar involved hacking into the state broadcasting facilities and altering the speech Tamim gave. It is also alleged that the Saudis hacked the smartphones of the emir and his circle.
Qatar, under siege and blockade, may have greenlighted an investment company in which it has an interest to lease the Kushner property.
With the Kushners mollified, Trump suddenly began tweeting positively about Qatar, after having branded it a font of terrorism when the blockade was launched.
So Emir Tamim of Qatar was hacked to benefit Trump and his in-laws.
Then Khashoggi turned critical of Trump, and he was hacked by al-Qahtan’s team, and then the order went out to murder him.
Then the Saudi hackers went after Bezos, obtaining photos of him naked, and broke up his marriage, costing him half his fortune, because of the Washington Post’s criticism of Trump and possibly because it wouldn’t let Khashoggi’s murder go.
The Washington Post connection links Bezos and Khashoggi. The Saudi connection links Qatar and Kushner, though it cannot be assumed that he was involved in the Bezos gambit.
Trump dirty tricks and influence-peddling abroad are reshaping the globe.