Yesterday, WSJ published this photo of Jeff Bezos and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman during happier times.
And a few hours later, Bloomberg reported that the scandal began during MbS’s two-week ‘goodwill’ tour of the US back in 2018.
Following the revelation that MbS personally ordered, and even helped to orchestrate, the hacking of Bezos’ phone via a Whatsapp phishing message, the UN demanded a probe of the allegations, even as the Saudis vehemently denied the reports.
But as it turns out, a meeting between the two men during that ‘goodwill’ tour sowed the seeds of one of the most bizarre political scandals during an age where bizarre geopolitical scandals seem to break almost daily.
When the two men met in 2018, each wanted something from the other: Amazon had been pushing to expand AWS and its e-commerce business in the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia. However, there was one major obstacle: Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist at the Washington Post, had been intensely critical of MbS, much to his chagrin. In one column, Khashoggi accused Bezos of “replacing old tactics of intolerance with new ways of repression…” MbS feared that Khashoggi was a major liability given his service inside the royal court, and his status as an insider-turned-dissident.
The men met at a small dinner in Los Angeles on April 4. It’s not clear what they discussed, but the meeting went well enough that the two men exchanged phone numbers.
And that’s how it all began, as Bloomberg reports. Because nearly four weeks later, on May 1, Bezos received an unexpected WhatsApp message from MbS. Per BBG, which cited a report by FTI Consulting, it arrived “unexpectedly and without explanation, meaning it was not discussed by the parties in advance of being sent.”
That message included a 4.22 MB video. And within hours of receiving the message, “a massive and unauthorized exfiltration of data from Bezos’s phone began.”
Jeff Bezos, the richest man on the planet, had successfully phished by the Crown Prince.
The infiltration wasn’t discovered until Gavin de Becker, the investigator hired by Bezos to find the source of leaked racy photos depicting Bezos with his girlfriend, TV personality, Lauren Sanchez, commissioned an analysis of Bezos’s iPhone.
But the investigation wasn’t over. De Becker hired FTI Consulting on Feb. 24, 2019 to do an analysis of Bezos’ iPhone X, according to the company’s report. The analysis was conducted in a “well-equipped and secure lab environment, including forensic imaging of Bezos’ phone and analysis of phone behavior in a sandboxed network,” the report says.
What the FTI investigators found was that the amount of data being transmitted out of Bezos’s phone changed dramatically after receiving the video file from the crown prince’s account. His phone averaged about 430 KB of egress per day in the six months prior to receiving the WhatsApp video. Hours later, the egress jumped to 126 MB, according to the report.
The FTI Consulting report was completed in November, and was passed along to experts at the U.N. who were already looking into the Khashoggi murder. One of those experts, David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said evidence shared with his team was reviewed by four independent experts, who asked some questions of the authors, leaving the U.N. team ultimately satisfied with the results.
Kaye said they sent a letter to the Saudi government warning that their statement was coming.
“The allegations here are very grave, they’re about a foreign government compromising the communications account of a phone of an American citizen,” Kaye said in an interview. “There’s clearly enough for federal authorities to examine this.”
MbS has yet to weigh in on the report. But yesterday, a WSJ report surfaced with an obviously ridiculous claim: Citing officials close to MbS, the paper reported that the prince’s inner circle was aware of the plot to hack Bezos’ phone, but not of the plot to blackmail him by leaking the photos to the National Inquirer (remember how well that worked out?) .
One Twitter wit made an amusing comparison illustrating exactly how ridiculous this claim is.
Next: Saudi officials close to MBS tell WSJ that they were aware of a plan to dismember Khashoggi, but not of any attempt to kill him. https://t.co/eGdnHp5OGe
— Sven Henrich (@NorthmanTrader) January 22, 2020
The UN is investigating Saudi Arabia’s role in the scandal, as well as Sanchez’s brother Michael, who is believed to be responsible for getting the photos to the National Inquirer.
Whatever revelations lie in wait, it looks like this extremely tawdry scandal is just getting started.