How revelations of Jeff Bezos’ affair led to allegations of a Saudi conspiracy
Two years ago, Jeff Bezos seemed to lead a charmed life. Having taken Amazon from an obscure online bookseller to the world’s largest e-commerce platform, he had amassed the world’s largest personal fortune, estimated at $110 billion. His purchase of the Washington Post in 2013 was viewed as almost a philanthropic gesture, saving the world’s best newspaper from inexorable decline, and he more recently joined other US tech entrepreneurs in founding a space exploration business.
Little was known about the private life of the world’s richest man, other than the fact that he was married for 25 years to MacKenzie Bezos, had four children, and that he was such an avid Star Trek fan that he made a cameo appearance as an alien in Star Trek Beyond in 2016.
Then on January 9 last year, Bezos took to Twitter to make the unexpected announcement that he and MacKenzie were divorcing. There was no mention of the series of events that led to the statement, which simply said the couple had “decided to divorce and continue our shared lives as friends.”
Media coverage of the statement initially focused on the size of the likely divorce settlement, which turned out to be in the region of $35 billion. But later that day, the US tabloid National Enquirer published an explosive report on Bezos’s affair with a married former TV anchor, Lauren Sanchez, including intimate texts and what it described as “lewd” photos exchanged between the two. The tabloid said the piece was the result of a “four-month-long investigation into the affair.”
Responding to the tabloid report, Bezos shunned his own newspaper and published an article on the online platform The Medium stating that American Media Inc. (AMI), the owner of the Enquirer, had tried to blackmail him and sent him an email describing every private photo they obtained.
Bezos said AMI threatened to publish the photos unless he and his personal security adviser, Gavin de Becker, stated to the press that they had “no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”
The mogul asserted that he would not participate in “blackmail” and he preferred to “stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out.”
Source of the leak
Bezos was determined to find out how the Enquirer got their hands on his private messages and intimate photos. He tasked de Becker to oversee an investigation and commissioned Washington-based FTI Consulting to examine his cellphone for evidence of a cyber-attack.
In March last year, the Daily Beast reported that Michael Sanchez, Lauren’s brother, had in fact sold the pictured to the Enquirer for $200,000.
However, de Becker wrote shortly afterwards that the tabloid had reached out to Sanchez as a possible source prior to him leaking the information, indicating they were already tipped off about the affair before speaking to Sanchez.
In de Becker’s article, he stated: “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.”
AMI almost immediately refuted de Becker’s claims and stated: “The fact of the matter is, it was Michael Sanchez who tipped the National Enquirer off to the affair on Sept. 10, 2018, and over the course of four months provided all of the materials for our investigation ... There was no involvement by any other third party whatsoever.”
But Bezos did not accept AMI’s statement and instructed his security adviser to continue investigating.
The Saudi connection
Bezos’ security adviser fixed his attention on Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, with whom Bezos already had a difficult relationship.
The Crown Prince first met Bezos during his visit to the US in Spring 2018. At the time, Amazon had its eye on $1 billion deal to build three data centers in Saudi Arabia for Amazon Web Services.
However, those plans were put on hold indefinitely after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi was a columnist at Bezos’ Washington Post and had written articles critical of the Kingdom’s leadership.
Five people have since been sentenced to death for the brutal murder and three others were sentenced to a total of 24 years in jail.
Bezos himself mentioned Saudi Arabia five times in the February 2019 article he posted on The Medium about being blackmailed by AMI and its head David Pecker.
“Mr. Pecker and his company have also been investigated for various actions they’ve taken on behalf of the Saudi Government,” wrote Bezos, hinting that he might have been targeted for political reasons.
The report commissioned by Bezos
The FTI Consulting report was delivered to Bezos’ team in November last year, but only came to public attention last week when it was leaked by Vice, the US media outlet. FTI Consulting said they had examined Bezos’s phone and concluded with “medium to high confidence” that the Crown Prince was responsible for hacking it.
However, experts quickly noted that the report contained many statements that did not support this conclusion. For example, it stated that there was no “malicious traffic” identified on Bezos’ phone and said some of their “investigative avenues did not provide evidence to confidently state whether Bezos’ iPhone X had been compromised.”
Cyber security experts were highly skeptical of FTI Consulting’s findings. “The details really matter here and the public reporting falls short of any real firm smoking gun,” iPhone security expert and CEO of Guardian Firewall Will Strafach was quoted as saying by The Associated Press.
FTI Consulting alleged that Bezos received an encrypted video file via WhatsApp from the Crown Prince on May 1, 2018, which led to an outpour of data being transmitted from the phone for months.
However, FTI Consulting said it was unable to analyze the contents of the “encrypted downloader,” known as an .enc file, through which the video was transmitted.
Bill Marczak, senior researcher at the Citizen lab at University of Toronto, told The Medium: “It is possible to decrypt the contents of an .enc file from WhatsApp, given a forensic extraction of the phone, of the type that FTI mentions they performed.”
On the same day that the FTI Consulting report was leaked, UN special rapporteurs, Agnes Callamard and David Kaye, released a statement to “complement” FTI Consulting’s report.
They adopted FTI Consulting’s conclusions and took them one step further. “The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Mr. Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia.”
They alleged that the Crown Prince was involved in the murder of Khashoggi and accused the Kingdom of “waging a massive online campaign against Mr. Bezos and Amazon targeting him principally as the owner of The Washington Post.”
The UN special rapporteurs made clear in their statement, published on a UN website and on official headed paper, that they were not UN officials, but “special procedures experts [who] work on a voluntary basis.” In the statement, they go to lengths to explain that they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. “They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity,” they stated.
Saudi Arabia’s embassy in the United States responded to the allegations immediately: “Recent media reports that suggest the Kingdom is behind a hacking of Mr. Jeff Bezos’ phone are absurd. We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out,” the embassy said on its official Twitter page.
But these denials were not going to get in the way of a good story. The Guardian kicked off reporting on the FTI Consulting report and the UN experts follow-up, portraying the “hack” as further evidence of Saudi misbehavior. CNN reported that “the revelation casts a new shadow over the future king.”
The UN special rapporteurs even went as far as to warn Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of the US President, to change his phone and urgently contact a cyber expert to check his phone for evidence that the Crown Prince had also hacked his phone.
However, the tone of the reporting quickly changed on Friday when the Wall Street Journal revealed that federal prosecutors in Manhattan had concluded that it was Michael Sanchez was in fact the actual source for the National Enquirer’s scoop.
CNN, having previously described the story as a “revelation,” acknowledged that the report was flawed. Even Bezos’s Washington Post was forced to acknowledge that security expert “questioned the forensics report upon which UN officials are basing their conclusions.”
The FTI Consulting report included a photograph of a woman who it claimed resembled Lauren Sanchez, the woman with whom Bezos was then having a secret affair. According to FTI Consulting, this photograph was sent from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s phone to Bezos shortly after his phone was allegedly hacked – interpreted as evidence that the Crown Prince had hacked the phone, accessed Bezos’ private information, and sent the photograph to him to suggest he knew about the affair.
But according to the WSJ, federal prosecutors in Manhattan have evidence which suggests Bezos’ girlfriend gave text messages to her brother – as the National Enquirer claims.
“The evidence gathered by federal prosecutors includes a May 10, 2018, text message sent from the phone of Lauren Sanchez, Mr. Bezos’ girlfriend, to her brother Michael Sanchez containing a flirtatious message from the Amazon chief,” the WSJ cited “people familiar with the matter” as saying.
“The text messages reviewed by the Journal, as well as a $200,000 payment Mr. Sanchez received from the Enquirer under an October 2018 contract the Journal also reviewed, supports American Media’s earlier statements that he was the source for the National Enquirer’s article,” it added.
While the information that Michael Sanchez gave the photographs to the Enquirer does not rule out the allegations that Bezos’ phone was hacked – security chief De Becker claimed that the Enquirer sought out Sanchez after acquiring the information from elsewhere – it has prompted questions over the coverage of the entire affair.
“The Bezos report, compiled under Mr. de Becker by the digital security firm FTI Consulting, was so juicy that it overwhelmed traditional journalistic skepticism at some news outlets,” wrote the New York Times.
Others said that Bezos had used his influence to give the story coverage despite the lack of evidence.
“Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s most powerful and richest men, is levelling severe allegations against the Saudis, and once again, he has nothing to show for them,” wrote Jordan Schachtel in The Federalist.