News: Bezos Investigation Finds the Saudis Obtained His Private Data
For 40 years, I’ve advised at-risk public figures and government agencies on high-stakes security matters. My career has included working with the CIA, FBI, at the Reagan White House, counseling foreign leaders, and advising on controversial murder cases. I’ve seen a lot. And yet, I’ve recently seen things that have surprised even me, such as the National Enquirer’s parent company, AMI, being in league with a foreign nation that’s been actively trying to harm American citizens and companies, including the owner of the Washington Post. You know him as Jeff Bezos; I know him as my client of 22 years.
To understand where this story goes, some background is needed.
In January, the National Enquirer published a special edition that revealed an intimate relationship Bezos was having. He asked me to learn who provided his private texts to the Enquirer, and why. My office quickly identified the person whom the Enquirer had paid as a source: a man named Michael Sanchez, the now-estranged brother of Lauren Sanchez, whom Bezos was dating. What was unusual, very unusual, was how hard AMI people worked to publicly reveal their source’s identity. First through strong hints they gave to me, and later through direct statements, AMI practically pinned a “kick me” sign on Michael Sanchez.
“It was not the White House, it was not Saudi Arabia,” a company lawyer said on national television, before telling us more: “It was a person that was known to both Bezos and Ms. Sanchez.” In case even more was needed, he added, “Any investigator that was going to investigate this knew who the source was,” a very helpful hint since the name of who was being investigated had been made public 10 days earlier in a Daily Beast report.
Much was made about a recent front-page story in the Wall Street Journal, fingering Michael Sanchez as the Enquirer’s source—but that information was first published almost seven weeks ago by The Daily Beast, after “multiple sources inside AMI” told The Daily Beast the exact same thing. The actual news in the Journal article was that its reporters were able to confirm a claim Michael Sanchez had been making: It was the Enquirerwho first contacted Michael Sanchez about the affair, not the other way around.
AMI has repeatedly insisted they had only one source on their Bezos story, but the Journal reports that when the Enquirer began conversations with Michael Sanchez, they had “already been investigating whether Mr. Bezos and Ms. Sanchez were having an affair.” Michael Sanchez has since confirmed to Page Six that when the Enquirer contacted him back in July, they had already “seen text exchanges” between the couple.
If accurate, the WSJ and Page Six stories would mean, clearly and obviously, that the initial information came from other channels—another source or method.
[On Sunday, AMI issued a statement insisting that “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.”
“Bezos directed me to ‘spend whatever is needed’ to learn who may have been complicit in the scheme, and why they did it. That investigation is now complete.”
Reality is complicated, and can’t always be boiled down to a simple narrative like “the brother did it,” even when that brother is a person who certainly supplied some information to a supermarket tabloid, and even when that brother is an associate of Roger Stone and Carter Page.
Though interesting, it turns out those truths are also too simple.
Why did AMI’s people work so hard to identify a source, and insist to the New York Times and others that he was their sole source for everything?
My best answer is contained in what happened next: AMI threatened to publish embarrassing photos of Jeff Bezos unless certain conditions were met. (These were photos that, for some reason, they had held back and not published in their first story on the Bezos affair, or any subsequent story.) While a brief summary of those terms has been made public before, others that I’m sharing are new—and they reveal a great deal about what was motivating AMI.
An eight-page contract AMI sent for me and Bezos to sign would have required that I make a public statement, composed by them and then widely disseminated, saying that my investigation had concluded they hadn’t relied upon “any form of electronic eavesdropping or hacking in their news-gathering process.”
Note here that I’d never publicly said anything about electronic eavesdropping or hacking—and they wanted to be sure I couldn’t.
They also wanted me to say our investigation had concluded that their Bezos story was not “instigated, dictated or influenced in any manner by external forces, political or otherwise.” External forces? Such a strange phrase. AMI knew these statements did not reflect my conclusions, because I told AMI’s Chief Content Officer Dylan Howard (in a 90-minute recorded phone call) that what they were asking me to say about external forces and hacking “is not my truth,” and would be “just echoing what you are looking for.”
(Indeed, an earlier set of their proposed terms included AMI making a statement “affirming that it undertook no electronic eavesdropping in connection with its reporting and has no knowledge of such conduct”—but now they wanted me to say that for them.)
The contract further held that if Bezos or I were ever in our lives to “state, suggest or allude to” anything contrary to what AMI wanted said about electronic eavesdropping and hacking, then they could publish the embarrassing photos.
I’m writing this today because it’s exactly what the Enquirer scheme was intended to prevent me from doing. Their contract also contained terms that would have inhibited both me and Bezos from initiating a report to law enforcement.
Things didn’t work out as they hoped.
When the terms for avoiding publication of personal photos were presented to Jeff Bezos, he responded immediately: “No thank you.” Within hours, he wrote an essay describing his reasons for rejecting AMI’s threatening proposal. Then he posted it all on Medium, including AMI’s actual emails and their salacious descriptions of private photos. (After the Medium post, AMI put out a limp statement saying it “believed fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos.”)
The issues Bezos raised in his Medium post have nothing whatsoever to do with Michael Sanchez, any more than revealing the name of a low-level Watergate burglar sheds light on the architects of the Watergate cover-up. Bezos was not expressing concerns about the Enquirer’s original story; he was focused on what he called “extortion and blackmail.”
Next, Bezos directed me to “spend whatever is needed” to learn who may have been complicit in the scheme, and why they did it.
That investigation is now complete. As has been reported elsewhere, my results have been turned over to federal officials. Since it is now out of my hands, I intend today’s writing to be my last public statement on the matter. Further, to respect officials pursuing this case, I won’t disclose details from our investigation. 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. As of today, it is unclear to what degree, if any, AMI was aware of the details.
“Our investigators and several experts concluded with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone, and gained private information.”
We did not reach our conclusions lightly. The inquiry included a broad array of resources: investigative interviews with current and former AMI executives and sources, extensive discussions with top Middle East experts in the intelligence community, leading cybersecurity experts who have tracked Saudi spyware, discussions with current and former advisers to President Trump, Saudi whistleblowers, people who personally know the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS), people who work with his close associate Saud al-Qahtani, Saudi dissidents, and other targets of Saudi action, including writer/activist Iyad el-Baghdadi.
Experts with whom we consulted confirmed New York Times reports on the Saudi capability to “collect vast amounts of previously inaccessible data from smartphones in the air without leaving a trace—including phone calls, texts, emails”—and confirmed that hacking was a key part of the Saudis’ “extensive surveillance efforts that ultimately led to the killing of [Washington Post] journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”
Some Americans will be surprised to learn that the Saudi government has been intent on harming Jeff Bezos since last October, when the Post began its relentless coverage of Khashoggi’s murder. The Saudi campaign against Bezos has already been reported by CNN International, Bloomberg, The Daily Beast, and others.
Saudi Arabia attacks people in many ways, obviously, including through their elaborate social media program that uses sophisticated technology and paid surrogates to create artificially trending hashtags. To give you an idea of how this program has infected the U.S., the New York Times reported that the Saudis even had an operative inside Twitter, which fired the suspect employee, and later advised select activists and others that “your Twitter account is one of a small group of accounts that may have been targeted by state-sponsored actors.”
In October, the Saudi government unleashed its cyberarmy on Bezos (and later me). Their multi-pronged campaign included public calls for boycotts against Amazon.com and its Saudi subsidiary, Souq.com. Just three examples among thousands:
“We as Saudis will never accept to be attacked by the Washington Post in the morning, only to buy products from Amazon and Souq.com by night! Strange that all three companies are owned by the same Jew who attacks us by day, and sells us products by night!”
“Our weapon is to boycott… because the owner of the newspaper is the same as their owner.”
“We’re after you – the Jew, worshipper of money, will go bankrupt by the will of God at the hands of Saudi Arabia… the owner of Amazon and Souq is the owner of the Washington Post is the spiteful Jew who insults us every day.”
Bezos is not Jewish, but you get the point.
We studied the well-documented and close relationship between MBS and AMI chairman, David Pecker. That alliance includes David Pecker bringing MBS intermediary Kacy Grine to a private White House meeting with President Trump and Jared Kushner. Pecker has also traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with the Crown Prince. Though we don’t know what was discussed in those private meetings, AMI’s actions afterwards are telling. To coincide with MBS’ March 2018 U.S. tour, AMI created a 100-page, ad-free, glossy magazine called The New Kingdom.
Since MBS wasn’t yet a notorious figure in the West (this was before the murder of Jamal Khashoggi), AMI’s magazine introduced him to Americans as “the most influential Arab leader—transforming the world at 32,” and “improving lives of his people & hopes for peace.”
The Associated Press reported that AMI sent an advance digital copy of their laudatory magazine to the Saudi Embassy three weeks before printing and distributing 200,000 issues. (Despite AP’s substantial forensic evidence, the kingdom denied it received the magazine’s content in advance. While we’re on denials, the kingdom says Saudi Arabia had nothing to do with the Bezos matter. The kingdom also says MBS had nothing whatsoever to do with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.)
When AMI publicly insisted that nobody outside of their executives and editors “had any influence on this publication or its content,” I guess they meant other than Kacy Grine, the very same MBS intermediary Pecker had brought to The White House. I say that because AMI soon had to disclose to the Department of Justice National Security Division that their mystery magazine included content written by Grine, and that they also gave him the whole working draft for advance review, and that he suggested changes, and that they implemented his changes, and that he provided better photographs of MBS. With friends like AMI, you don’t need… publicists.
My firm has done many investigations into Enquirer misconduct, including one that became the subject of a 60 Minutes investigative piece way back in 1990. Before then, tabloids had been seen as almost funny publications, mixing celebrity gossip with space aliens and Elvis sightings. But when the Enquirer’s on-again-off-again relationship with the truth percolated into politics, it wasn’t so funny anymore.
Though relatively benign at first (“Al Gore’s Diet Is Making Him Stupid”), the Trump/Pecker relationship has metastasized: In effect, the Enquirerbecame an enforcement arm of the Trump presidential campaign, and presidency, as the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York laid out in its case against Michael Cohen, who has pleaded guilty.
The U.S. Attorney has done the country a service by levying extensive controls on AMI, David Pecker, and his deputy Dylan Howard, through a non-prosecution agreement that requires them to commit no other crimes for three years, and requires everyone at AMI to attend annual training on federal election laws. I’m guessing that’s not how they used to spend their time.
Gavin De Becker