BUSINESSOPINION

The lessons of Jeff Bezos’ phone

“We don’t know whether MBS hacked Jeff Bezos’ phone,” the Washington Post admitted, after running days of stories by its supposed ace reporters breathlessly insisting that the Saudi prince had done exactly that, with the help of a super-secret Israeli spyware company. So, had the capital’s newspaper of record itself been hacked, and by whom? The Post didn’t say. Instead the paper lamely offered, “We do know spyware is everywhere.”

Gee, thanks. But is this really how newspapers are supposed to work?

With the latest spurious allegations concerning the alleged hack of his phone by the Saudis, Jeff Bezos trashed his newspaper’s already-tattered reputation and brought himself back into an unwelcome and embarrassing spotlight involving nude pictures of himself cheating on his ex-wife, all seemingly for the sake of destroying the reputation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. His claim that Mohammed bin Salman taunted him with photos of the supposedly “secret” affair and then somehow used his own phone’s Whatsapp account to hack Bezos’s phone and to expose the nudes, which were then leaked to the public, remains unsubstantiated.

What is known is that the story about the alleged hack broke exactly a year ago, after Jeff Bezos and his wife filed for divorce in January 2019. Soon after, the National Enquirer publicized pictures of Bezos’ affair with his girlfriend, including “intimate texts and photos.” Bezos accused the Enquirer of extortion & blackmail. Bezos, backed by his security chief, accused Saudis of having taken part in a hack that led to the leak of these photos. Soon after, information came out that Bezos’ girlfriend gave the photos and texts to her brother, who leaked them to the media. Federal prosecutors tasked with investigating the alleged leak/hack say they have evidence that the girlfriend and her brother are the actual culprits.

Despite Bezos’ decision to publish personal op-eds lobbing accusations at the Saudis, the initial furor died down. Then, in January 2020, Bezos doubled down on his initial allegations with a poorly-sourced UN report produced by Agnes Callamard, and an equally questionable forensics report by his own paid investigators, claiming that there was in fact a hack and that the hack came from the Crown Prince’s account.

So was Jeff Bezos’ girlfriend in possession of Mohammed bin Salman’s phone? Did he first hack the account and then have her leak it to the press in exchange for a princely sum of money? This embarrassing situation went from bad for Bezos when cyber-experts started questioning the conclusions in his forensics report, stating that Bezos has not actually established a technical link between Mohammed bin Salman’s account and Bezos’ phone – eventually causing the Post to back off somewhat from the claims being made by the paper’s owner.

At issue now is Bezos’ central claim—that his phone was ever hacked. Whether Bezos will spin these developments into a new conspiracy theory—in which his girlfriend was in on it with Mohammed bin Salman —remains unclear.

Yet taken together, Bezos’ accusations raise several inconvenient questions that neither the Post’s owner, nor the other mainstream media outlets like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal that uncritically parroted Bezos’ story without demanding evidence of his claims, have bothered to address. How would Mohammed bin Salman would known about the Amazon founder’s clandestine liaison BEFORE hacking his phone – was he surveilling Amazon’s owner? How is it that Jeff Bezos, the founder of a gigantic company with hundreds of millions of accounts, could have failed to secure his own personal data? Can Amazon’s customers trust him with their own privacy?

Supposedly, there is bad blood between Bezos and the Saudis related to a business dispute over his interest in building Amazon in KSA. If so, Bezos’ behavior is fraught with irony. However, rather than speculating on Bezos’ motivations, it is more interesting to examine his actions, which indicate that this story is about far more than just Bezos’ personal issues with the Saudis, if the rumors about his business dealings are even true.

Shortly after the media storm over the renewed allegations, Bezos tweeted a picture of himself from Jamal Khashoggi’s memorial with the hashtag “Jamal”. Who else attended that memorial? Jamal Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancé, known for her support of Turkey’s authoritarian president Erdogan, and none other than the UN rapporteur Agnes Callamard, a fierce defender of Qassem Soleimani against US air strikes – and also the allegedly impartial UN official responsible for the UN investigation of the Saudi role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. It was Callamard who sided with Bezos demanding an international investigation into the hacking allegations against Mohammed bin Salman, despite the lack of any evidence.

Bezos was also pictured with the founder and executive director of CAIR, Nihad Awad, at the memorial. CAIR is an unindicted co-conspirator in investigations concerning money laundering to Muslim Brotherhood-backed terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, and has extensive links to the Brotherhood.

By tweeting this image, Bezos was publicly suggesting the following:

  • He has a political agenda in going after the Saudi Crown Prince, which goes beyond any business dispute
  • The Washington Post, which Bezos owns, openly sides with the ex-Saudi spook cum turncoat cum Qatari agent Jamal Khashoggi—despite the Washington Post’s admission that the Qatar Foundation International fed Khashoggi the articles he used to attack the Crown Prince, which were rewritten by his editor Karen Attiah, who also took part in the memorial.

Bezos’ decision to tweet the Kashoggi image certainly suggests that his accusations against Mohammed bin Salman are directly tied to the Khashoggi murder. This thinly veiled message would further suggest that Bezos, Callamard, and others are deeply involved with state actors who are fueling an ongoing political campaign to discredit, smear, and ultimately oust the Crown Prince, which means that the Washington Post, if it has benefited financially from such arrangements, may itself be acting as an unregistered foreign agent, in violation of US law.

What could be Bezos’ personal or business calculus in involving himself in such an unseemly scenario? Furthermore, why is he returning to the apparently debunked story after a year and subjecting himself to personal embarrassment?

There is no real mystery here. The strategy by Mohammed bin Salman’s enemies, from the very beginning of the Khashoggi affair, has been to make it appear that the Khashoggi death is not an isolated incident; rather, the claim has been that Mohammed bin Salman has a strategy of surveilling, hacking, physically intimidating, and even trying to abduct dissidents, critics, and opponents of his policies. Since Khashoggi’s death, both the NY Times and WaPo have printed numerous articles taking conspiracy theories and baseless allegations from the Qatar-funded Arabic and English language media and giving them legitimacy without ever providing counterpoints or raising doubt about these claims.

Leftist, pan-Arabist and pro-Muslim Brotherhood critics of the Crown Prince and his Vision2030 reform plan who reside in Canada, the UK, and the US and have all claimed in print that they had been threatened, harassed, or surveilled by Saudi intelligence in the wake of Khashoggi. Prior to Khashoggi’s death, however, these individuals resorted to broader statements claiming that Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for a crackdown on dissent inside the Kingdom. The Khashoggi affair gave an opening to opportunists to push for creating an image of Mohammed bin Salman as an irredeemable villain who will never stop shutting down anyone who stands up to him.

Bezos has aligned himself with other agents of this strategy, and despite past evidence showing that other parties were responsible for the embarrassing leak of his “dick pics” (technical term), jumped head-first into this morass, bringing his newspaper with him. The calculus here appears not so much to “prove” that Mohammed bin Salman is personally guilty of the hacking of his phone, which may ultimately prove impossible, but to embarrass MBS (again) to such an extent that his own family will decide that he deserves no more chances to fix his reputation in light of his ongoing PR nightmare.

As for the timing, Bezos has recently signed a fat contract with the CIA to manage its data in its “secure cloud.” Given Bezos’ ownership of the Post, his stranglehold over the book business, and larger dependence of the American public on Amazon for services, it seems unlikely that there will be any reckoning regardless of whether his accusations are true or not. By contrast, the Western public does not perceive itself as being dependent on Saudi Arabia or its Crown Prince, and presumably has no loyalties to him, and cares little whether he is justly or unjustly accused of cyber-crimes.

* * *

A Palestinian born critic of Saudi Arabia Iyad El-Baghdadi, in a lengthy soft-ball interview with the Deutsche Welle on the subject of the alleged Bezos hack, explains his own involvement in this odd story thus:  “Bezos in February of 2019 wrote a Medium post saying that he had just experienced a blackmail attempt and hinted very strongly that Saudi Arabia was probably involved. We immediately put two and two together. Number one: We know that MbS has a problem with Bezos, that was very clear because the propaganda output of his regime was really aggressive against him. What we also know is that they had an ongoing business relationship. And we know that Jamal Khashoggi’s murder came in the middle of that. So we published our findings online and two days later we were contacted by the head of security for Bezos (editor’s note: Gavin de Becker, a longtime security consultant hired by Bezos), who said: ‘You guys are onto something and we have certain information we want to share with you as well.’”

El-Baghdadi claims to have “worked” with Bezos’ security team on investigating the incident. El-Baghdadi also admits to having worked with Jamal Khashoggi in the past on his “MENA democracy” initiative: Khashoggi had been building an anti-Saudi think tank when he was killed.

El-Baghdadi’s distaste for the Saudi government is not explicitly explained in the DW story, nor is his fellowship with Khashoggi ever fully presented, but both men have had a history of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood ideology and both resented Saudi outreach to Israel. El-Baghdadi, for instance, wrote of “two Israels”, with one of which “no peace” is possible, claiming that there are no Israeli centrists or peace partners, only “colonial masters”, and calling for “resistance.” Khashoggi was also opposed to normalization with Israel and wrote against Jews.

What is more interesting here is that El-Baghdadi was hired by Bezos’ security chief after the hack, but his role appears limited to propaganda, as he had no access to technical information regarding any alleged cyberattacks on Bezos, and he admitted as much. His history of being affiliated with Khashoggi and attacking Saudi Arabia should — but somehow does no — discredit his conclusions about what must have transpired, which were not based on technical forensic evidence but on pre-existing ideological dislike.

El-Baghdadi states that Bezos’ security team and he started to “coordinate things”, without explaining what it is they coordinated—and the DW reporters do not challenge him on this issue. What is public knowledge, however, is that in the same year after Bezos’ alleged hack, El-Baghdadi, speaking to Qatar’s mouthpiece, Al Jazeera, claimed that he was in the “crosshairs” of the Saudi government, that he is a pro-”democracy” activist despite having no connection to the Kingdom or its people, and that he therefore felt “in danger.” He apparently came to that realization after starting to work with  Bezos’ team in February 2019.

El-Baghdadi’s claims about MBS would seem further the idea that Khashoggi’s murder wasn’t an isolated case but rather part of a larger strategic crackdown by Mohammed bin Salman against his critics. The point of that suggestion appears to be to distract from the emerging information that Khashoggi himself was no white fluffy kitten but rather an experienced intelligence operative who was being run by Qatar. In any case, El-Baghdadi’s story was soon picked up without any criticism by various Western publications, including The Daily Beast, which claimed that the activist had been “forced into hiding”—although he continued to tweet and speak to the media.

What makes this situation more interesting is that DW receives public funding from the German government, raising the possibility that Germany, as a state, is promoting unsubstantiated claims intended to paint the Saudi prince in a bad light.

Agnes Callamard, meanwhile, appears to be backing an El-Baghdadi-like activist in UK named Ghanem Almasarir, who hails from the Kingdom but shares El-Baghdadi’s anti-Saudi views. Almasarir came out to allege that he, too, was being electronically surveilled by Saudi intelligence, allegedly hacked through the use of the same Israeli malware that was supposedly used to spy on Khashoggi and El-Baghdadi, and on Bezos.

In yet another recent incident, the FBI—which since Robert Mueller’s time has had CAIR and other Islamist organizations involved in sensitivity trainings— supposedly foiled an attempted abduction of a young Saudi YouTuber, Abdulrahman Almutairi, by the Saudis. The Daily Beast report is almost entirely based on Almutairi’s own story, in which he claims that Mohammed bin Salman sent a hit team for him in the airport to kidnap him because he had criticized the Crown Prince.The Daily Beast and other publications are eager to report such sensationalist accounts, without verifying details, because they confirm a narrative against MBS and in favor of the “dissidents”, young Saudis and others living abroad whose sole raison d’etre seems to be making low quality podcasts and videos trash-talking Mohammed bin Salman. All these individuals are supposedly of such importance to the Crown Prince that he would risk a major scandal with the United States government, whose backing is obviously important to him, by attempting to illegally kidnap them on American soil and bring them back home.

In the case of Almutairi, if reporters had checked his social media account, they would have discovered a self-revealed history of mental health issues (Almutairi has written about being bipolar), discussing his hospital stays and mandatory medication for his condition. A cursory review would also disclose that he was studying on a Saudi government scholarship and KSA was paying his medical bills. When the government finally cut off his tuition. Almutairi complained about it on Instagram (screenshot). What this history revealed was a mentally unstable, disgruntled individual, who ended up calling the FBI on his own father, accusing him of working with the Saudi government to abduct him.

In defense of reporters at the Post, the rest of the so-called “mainstream media” has hardly been any more professional in reporting this story, even though their paychecks aren’t signed by Jeff Bezos.The Philadelphia Inquirer printed the following headline: “Saudi Arabia murdered a journalist and hacked Jeff Bezos. Trump sent them U.S. troops.”

The Washington Post, not surprisingly, followed its owner’s line with fierce loyalty, publishing multiple stories, all of them equally one-sided, attempting to “implicate” Mohammed bin Salman in the hack.

Vanity Fair amped up the drama by using a conclusive description of the “MBS-Bezos” hack as a potential “ticking time bomb.”

AP News claimed, with very little backing or follow-up investigation, that the Saudi Crown Prince’s phone was linked to the alleged hack.

NBC News focuses on the UN experts, and their completely unproven (and likely unprovable claim) that the alleged hack was aimed at influencing Washington Post coverage of Saudi Arabia.

The Hill takes fearmongering to the next level, with the writers claiming that anyone who is critical of KSA could be in danger of being hacked.

And on and on it goes.

There are several observations to be made about this kerfuffle. First, these same outlets reacted in exactly the same way to initial reports of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and death, basing their reports on leaks and claims made by Turkish intelligence-affiliated media known for spreading Turkish government propaganda, and failed to inform the public of essential facts concerning Khashoggi’s past. To this day, many of these outlets, particularly the Washington Post, refer to Khashoggi as a “dissident” and “journalist” without disclosing his lifelong work as an agent of Saudi intelligence; his financial relationship with Qatar; and the fact that others were basically writing his columns for him. These outlets have worked to shape a narrative about Khashoggi, just as they are currently working to shape a narrative about Jeff Bezos’ phone.

Adopting these narratives is not merely lazy, unethical journalism; it turns the US press into agents for foreign governments and their intelligence agencies, who themselves have little compunction about hacking their foes. An Arab journalist here details the cyberattack on him following his investigation into Qatar’s policies, one of 1,500 celebrities reportedly hacked by the agents of the country. Even the NY Times was forced to acknowledge that Qatar uses hacking as a strategic means of promoting its agenda and intimidating potential critics.

In part, the American press is responsible for turning itself into a clown show. Yet it is also true that American reporters raised in a country with a free press, which is used to defining its mission in the language of objective reporting, have little experience with information warfare.

Information warfare is not a simple concept to define. According to standard definitions, it involves information collection, transport, protection, and manipulation with the aim of gaining a competitive advantage over one’s adversary, whether in a military, intelligence, political, or business context. Other elements of information warfare may include information disturbance, degradation, and denial. Another way of looking at information warfare is as a combination of electronic warfare, cyberwarfare, and psy-ops (psychological operations).

Information warfare utilizes cyberspace, advanced computing, mobile networks, unmanned systems, and social media to gather intelligence, disrupt the operational capabilities of an adversary, and to engage in a variety of tasks to advance the mission of governmental or non-state actors.

Character assassination as an element of information warfare is generally considered a type of psy-ops. More recently, however, traditional means of character assassination, has also relied on various types of cyberwarfare, such as hacking to advance the agenda of destroying the reputation of the target. In the course of the past two years, all of these methods had been used with the clear aim of bringing about the downfall of the Crown Prince, or at least weakening his relationships with Western countries and portions of the Arab world.

The attacks were soon interspersed with negative publicity related to a group of women’s rights activists, both men and women, who were detained and eventually put on trial after being accused of working with foreign entities against Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the worlds of journalists and political operatives seemed to merge into one, as increasingly negative stories about Saudi Arabia, regardless of how irrelevant, superficial, or one-sided, continued to proliferate, as journalists managed to tie in literally anything that happened in US politics or in the region to the death of Jamal Khashoggi and to the evil of the Crown Prince—whether it was the war in Yemen or the story of runaway Saudi girls who have had conflicts with their families.

Mohammed bin Salman’s face appeared in nearly every US publication and was made to embody some unique and pressing evil in a campaign that joined Jeff Bezos with large newspapers, political operatives employed by foreign states, and leading figures in both the Democratic and Republican Parties. The result of this coordinated series of attacks included the withdrawal of various lobbyists and business partners from work with Saudi Arabia, as well as two Congressional resolutions holding Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible for Khashoggi’s death, a joint Congressional resolution pushing for US withdrawal from Yemen (vetoed by President Trump), and a wave of negative press coverage of Saudi Arabia even following terrorist attacks and acts of war committed against its people and infrastructure by Iran and its proxies.

The character assassins who went after the Crown Prince were successful in creating such negative impressions because, they took advantage of three factors: 1.) the bitter political climate in the US, 2.) the information vacuum left by the Saudis themselves, and 3.) unsuspecting Western audiences who were being overwhelmed with one-sided stories from a multitude of seemingly-respectable outlets.

The non-stop coverage permeated every conceivable type of institutions, and while the Khashoggi-related discussions waxed and waned, the attacks on the Crown Prince himself have never abated. The Western press, as Lee Smith writes, has become a tool of political operatives and foreign and domestic intelligence agencies with an agenda—to take down Mohammed bin Salman, and to replace him with members of the reactionary faction that was at the helm prior to his rise. Ironically, the same people who blame the Saudi government for its alleged support for Saudi members of Al Qaeda who perpetrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks are gunning to remove the person who pushed that faction from power.

Mohammed bin Salman’s anti-corruption probe may have recovered some money for the country and temporarily stopped some Islamist sympathizers and funders from their destabilizing activities inside the country but he, without a doubt, has further angered those who already had grievances against him, whether as a result of competing claims to power, different political priorities, old family grudges, or condescension towards a young prince, or simple personal dislike.

Alwaleed bin Talal was a backer and promoter of Jamal Khashoggi, as was Turki al-Faisal, the former Chief of Intelligence, who has strong contacts with Western intelligence agencies, especially the US, UK, and Germany. Turki al-Faisal was not imprisoned during the probe, but Alwaleed was placed under arrest. The former Saudi Ambassador to the US Bandar bin Sultan, whose daughter is the new Saudi Ambassador to the United States, and whose son is the Ambassador to the UK, is himself alleged to be under a travel ban. He, too, was a Washington insider, who once was a press favorite and fed information to US intelligence agencies. The backers of former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, such as the Governor of Mekka (Turki al-Faisal’s half-brother, Khalid al-Faisal), are using the grievances of those implicated in the corruption probe who lost their money, freedom, and/or dignity to undermine the Crown Prince, aligning with Turkish, Qatari, Muslim Brotherhood, and Western intelligence actors with an interest in weakening, extorting, or displacing the Crown Prince.

Iran lobbyists and former Obama officials, who were threatened by Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the nuclear deal and Iran’s assorted regional proxies, too, also had a hand in promoting the anti-Crown Prince narrative, which soon became an expertly organized and coordinated media and political campaign, with the same type of language describing Mohammed bin Salman and blaming him for all manner of crimes appearing in multiple, otherwise divergent outlets and channels.

And now it appears that the American tech and business community, or at least Jeff Bezos, can also be enlisted by foreign and domestic interests who are running information warfare campaigns. We are already seeing the impact of these sub rosa and often ad hoc alliances in Silicon Valley and in the tech world, as much as on K Street and within foreign and domestic political parties and security agencies. We would do well to seek to understand the nature and workings of these campaigns more closely.

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Irina Tsukerman

Irina Tsukerman is a New York-based human rights and national security lawyer and analyst. She has written extensively about geopolitics, foreign policy, and security issues for a wide variety of domestic and international publication. She has appeared on Fox Business, i24, and the John Batchelor Show, and has been interviewed by multiple Arabic language channels and publications, including Morocco’s 2M and Al Arabiya. Her writings have been translated to Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Indonesian.

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