There has been, and will be much written about today’s shocking development, in which Jeff Bezos revealed that the National Enquirer attempted to blackmail him. Bezos’ original statement is here. The tabloid outlet threatened to reveal salacious pictures of him with his girlfriend if he did not back off the Washington Post’s reporting on the media property. Specifically, the Enquirer wanted the Post to stop saying that pursuit of the story was a political vendetta against the Amazon CEO.
Bezos, of course, owns the Post, which has done aggressive reporting involving Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who’s almost universally believed to have orchestrated the murder of journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. The latter was a Saudi dissident who’d begun writing regular columns criticizing his native country for the Post. In fact, a blockbuster report today alleges that the NSA has 2017 intercepts of conversations between MBS and his chief fixer in which he declares he’s like to put a bullet in Khashoggi if he can’t persuade him to stop writing bad things about the Saudi royal.
A Post reporter who interviewed Bezos’ chief security consultant, Gavin de Becker told MSNBC tonight that he believed that a “government entity” may have secured his boss’ text messages:
“Gavin de Becker told us that he does not believe that Jeff Bezos’s phone was hacked — he thinks it’s possible that a government entity might have gotten a hold of his text messages.”
Though the security consultant ruled out hacking, he might have an ulterior motive, since he is responsible for ensuring Bezos’ security and the integrity of his business and personal communications.
If de Becker is correct and a government entity is involved, there could be several suspects. Among the most likely would be either the Trump administration or the Saudis. If the Amazon chief’s cell phone was not hacked, then that would rule out the participation of the NSA (its surveillance of Bezos would likely be a violation of U.S. law, anyway). When it comes to other possible culprits in Trump’s orbit there are far too many, since the president has spent his entire life engaging in this sort of sleazy business. He likely would have hired someone like his former fixer, Michael Cohen (who is now “indisposed”) or Roger Stone (similarly indisposed). With someone like Trump, when he loses a loyal toady there are always a dozen more who can take their place–for a price.
But the Saudi angle is interesting as well. Given MBS’ vendetta against Khashoggi and the Post’s aggressive pursuit of stories implicating him in the murder, the Saudi crown prince would have ample motive and opportunity to seek any dirt he could find on either the newspaper or its owner. The Saudis are known for employing the Israeli cyber-hacking firm, NSO Group, to hack the smartphones of enemies like Khashoggi and his fellow-dissident associates. The Pegasus malware developed by NSO hacked the phone of one of Khashoggi’s protegé’s and may have permitted the murderers to track Khashoggi’s communications and physical location leading up to the crime. In this case, it’s quite possible the Saudis could have used Pegasus (or at least tried to use it) to hack Bezos’ phone.
But even if de Becker is right and there was no hack, the Saudis would have ample funds and motivation to pursue other avenues in obtaining the material used to blackmail Bezos. As MBS already has a very close relationship with Enquirer CEO, David Pecker, it would only be a hop, skip and a jump from the Saudi into the pages of the Enquirer.
Another bizarre element in this case is that Pecker has an agreement with the Department of Justice to reveal everything he knows about his involvement with Trump, including paying off Stormy Daniels and other matters. In return, he’s secured a deal by which he will not be prosecuted for any crimes he may have committed. But given this new development, how does DOJ go forward with an informant who has engaged in a repetition of the sleazy behavior for which you’re investigating him? Extortion and blackmail are serious crimes. In fact, they may be more serious than whatever crimes Pecker committed in catching and killing Daniels’ story and arranging for her pay-off. This could unravel an important element of the Mueller investigation of Trump’s misdeeds.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.