Did Saudi Arabia snoop on Washington Post owner Bezos?

Jeff Bezos, the American multi-billionaire who claims he was the target of a blackmail attempt, has been talking mysteriously of a possible Saudi connection.

On January 9, Bezos and his wife jointly announced they were divorcing after 25 years of marriage. Next day, the National Enquirer, a sensationalist tabloid which specialises in digging dirt on the rich and famous, devoted 11 pages to the story of an extramarital affair between Bezos and TV presenter Lauren Sanchez.

Included in the National Enquirer’s report were some intimate text messages that Bezos had sent to Sanchez. Bezos, who is said to be the world’s richest man — he founded Amazon and also owns the Washington Post newspaper — then hired private investigators in the hope of discovering how the messages had come into the hands of the National Enquirer.

The National Enquirer responded through its parent company by telling the investigators it had photos of Bezos and Sanchez which were hitherto unpublished. These were of a sexual nature and it described them in an email which has since been released by Bezos.

In a further email on February 6 it appeared to be threatening to publish the photos unless Bezos agreed to its demands. The demands were that Bezos should retract — and never repeat — claims he had previously made about “politically motivated” coverage by American Media Inc (AMI) which owns the National Enquirer.

In the same email, AMI flatly denied that it had carried out any “electronic eavesdropping” in connection with its story about Bezos’s affair with Sanchez. There’s no doubt, though, that someone had obtained data from Bezos’s phone, so if AMI and the National Enquirer didn’t do it themselves the question is: Who did?

According to Washington Post reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia, investigators working for Bezos believe “a government entity” may have obtained his text messages and passed them to the National Enquirer.

If so, there are a number of potential suspects, ranging from American government agencies to foreign powers. John Schindler discusses the various possibilities in an article here.

Bezos himself has pointed a finger at Saudi Arabia. Although the evidence so far is circumstantial and the Saudis deny any involvement, they do appear to have the technical capability and a possible motive connected to Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post.

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Murdered: Washington Post columnist Khashoggi

Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and murdered there last October, was a columnist for the Washington Post and, not surprisingly, the paper has reported relentlessly on his killing and its aftermath. This, it might be argued, provides the possible motive for a Saudi attempt to damage Bezos.

As far as technical capabilities are concerned, it’s worth noting that in 2017 Saudi Arabia acquired cyber-espionage technology known as Pegasus from NSO, an Israeli company. The Israelis saw the deal as a step towards better relations with the kingdom but its effect was to give Crown Prince Mohammed a means for snooping on his critics. There have been allegations that Pegasus was used for surveillance of Khashoggi.

Unlike the Washington Post, AMI’s boss, David Pecker, has been trying to develop his firm’s relations with the Saudis. Last April, AMI published a one-off edition of a 97-page glossy magazine called “The New Kingdom”. Some 200,000 copies were printed, for sale at $13.99 a time.

On its cover was a smiling picture of the crown prince, who it described as “the most influential Arab leader — transforming the world at 32”. This was accompanied by a series of laudatory bullet points:

● “Our Closest Middle East Ally Destroying Terrorism”

● “Controlling Staggering $4 Trillion Business Empire”

● “Building $640 Billion Sci-Fi City Of The Future”

● “Improving Lives Of His People & Hopes For Peace”

The magazine appeared a month before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was due to visit the US and its purpose, clearly, was to inform Americans that the prince was a very wonderful person.

It looked suspiciously like a part of the PR blitz that normally accompanies the prince on his foreign trips. Last year, for example, when he visited London , posters along the road from the airport paid tribute to him and vans toured the city with signs saying “Welcome the Saudi Crown Prince”. The Saudis like to give the impression that such activity is the work of well-wishers, though it’s generally assumed that the Saudi government is paying for it.

In the case of “The New Kingdom” magazine, however, AMI denied that the Saudis had funded it and the Saudis, likewise, denied any involvement.

There’s no evidence that AMI and the Saudis collaborated in producing it but the Saudis did have sight of it before publication. The Associated Press later
reported that the Saudis had received an advance copy in the form of a PDF file:

“It started circulating internally among Saudi officials, including the embassy’s military office, according to individuals familiar with the situation. It was also passed to Nail al-Jubeir, the former embassy spokesman and brother of Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, recently named Saudi ambassador to Ireland, the individuals said.

“By the next day — Feb. 20 — Saudi officials had started forwarding it to Washington foreign policy contacts, giving them an early look, said the individuals, who weren’t authorised to discuss the situation and requested anonymity.”

The Associated Press report explained that while sharing an advance copy with the Saudis was a deviation from traditional journalistic practice, it was “not legally problematic for AMI”. However, if the Saudis had paid for the magazine to be published, or directed its publication, AMI would have been required to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

There is currently no reason to believe that registration was necessary and one reason for thinking the Saudis didn’t help with the magazine’s content is that its editors seem to have been struggling to find suitable pictures. The Associated Press found that many of the photos supposedly showing Saudi Arabia were actually from other countries:

“Among the supposed Saudi Arabian highlights pictured are sand-dune surfing in Namibia, a massive indoor greenhouse in the Netherlands and wildlife pictures taken in Zambia and Israel.”

If the magazine was not produced at the Saudis’ behest, as AMI maintains, the alternative explanation is that it was an attempt to curry favour with the Saudis — an attempt initiated by Pecker in pursuit of AMI’s business interests or perhaps to assist his long-time friend, Donald Trump, in dealings with the Crown Prince.

According to the New York Times, Pecker had been considering expanding his media and events businesses into Saudi Arabia and looking for wealthy partners to join him in acquisitions.

In that connection, the paper noted Pecker’s visit to Trump for dinner at the White House in July 2017. Pecker brought along a special guest, Kacy Grine, described by the NYT as “a French businessman who advises one of Saudi Arabia’s richest men and sometimes acts as an intermediary between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and western businesses”.

The report continued:

“Mr Pecker, who had known Mr Grine only for a few months, invited him to the dinner to thank him for advice he had provided about investing in the Middle East, according to someone who knew of the invitation.

“Word soon travelled back to Saudi Arabia about the dinner: It signalled Mr Pecker’s powerful status in Washington.”

The exact nature of Pecker’s relationship with the Saudis is yet to be established but Bezos clearly sees it as relevant, and possibly central. In a blog post on Thursday, he wrote that his decision to hire investigators had made Pecker “apoplectic” and added: “For reasons still to be better understood, the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve.”

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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