How the Saudis and the National Enquirer are linked to the alleged hacking and blackmail attempt against Jeff Bezos

Mohammed bin Salman (L,) Jeff Bezos (C,) and David Pecker (R.) AP/Reuters/Business Insider
  • In January 2019, Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie announced their surprise divorce. The statement preempted the National Enquirer tabloid’s story describing intimate texts and photos from Bezos’ extramarital affair.
  • Bezos also accused the National Enquirer of “extortion and blackmail.”
  • Bezos and his security chief hinted at or accused the Saudis of accessing the Amazon CEO’s personal data at the time. The Saudis denied the hacking allegations
  • The Guardian on Tuesday revealed that Bezos’ phone had been hacked by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That raises a question: How did the Enquirer get hold of the material?
  • Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Enquirer owner David Pecker have a years-long business relationship. Pecker’s company recently produced a 97-page magazine extolling the “magic” of the new Saudi Arabia.
  • There is no hard evidence so far, however, that MBS passed Bezos’ intimate data to the Enquirer.
  • Scroll down for a timeline on the Bezos hack, the Enquirer’s alleged blackmail, and their relationship to the Saudi Crown Prince.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In January 2019, the National Enquirer tabloid exposed that Jeff Bezos was having an affair by publishing the Amazon CEO’s intimate texts and threatening to publish more photos.

The paper, owned by American Media Inc (AMI), at the time claimed the source was the brother of Bezos’ girlfriend Lauren Sanchez. Bezos wasn’t convinced, and tasked his private investigator, Gavin De Becker, to dig deeper.

One year later, the scandal is back in the public eye.

On Tuesday, The Guardian reported that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had hacked into Bezos’ phone with spyware via a WhatsApp video message on May 1, 2018. This would have been eight months before the Enquirer’s exposé.

Over several months, dozens of kilobytes of data was downloaded from Bezos’ phone, the Financial Times reported, citing the results of a forensic investigation on the phone.

Khashoggi mbs
A composite image of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Associated Press/Virginia Mayo; Nicolas Asfouri – Pool/Getty

In a February 2019 blog post, Bezos hinted that he suspected Saudi involvement in the Enquirer’s sourcing, and accused the tabloid of blackmail. (The Saudi government had grown to dislike Bezos because the Washington Post, which Bezos owns, was publishing a series of articles by a critic of the kingdom, Jamal Khashoggi.)

Bezos said the Enquirer told him to stop investigating how it got its information, and deny any political motivation or else have intimate photos of himself leaked.

In March 2019, De Becker wrote in a story for The Daily Beast that he had concluded Saudi Arabia had accessed Bezos’ private information, before the Enquirer’s story, and that he had informed law enforcement.

There is no hard evidence proving that as of now. Both the Saudi embassy in Washington DC and AMI deny Saudi involvement.

But the relationship between the Enquirer’s proprietor, David Pecker, and the Saudi regime is inviting questions.

Pecker has cultivated ties with Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed since 2016, when President Donald Trump – a key ally of Pecker’s – won election to the White House.

In March 2018, Pecker’s AMI produced 200,000 copies of a 97-page glossy magazine extolling the “magic” of the crown prince’s reformed Saudi Arabia.

The timeline below hints at a connection between the Enquirer, Saudi Arabia, and the hack of Bezos’ phone.

David pecker
David Pecker. Marion Curtis via AP, File

Here’s a timeline of how the scandal has played out:

  • The meeting: Crown Prince Mohammad meets National Enquirer owner David Pecker in Saudi Arabia, according to The New York Times. September 2017.
  • The magazine: AMI publishes a glossy magazine called “The New Kingdom” in the US, about the crown prince’s new Saudi Arabia. It mentions nothing about the kingdom’s human rights abuses or role in the war in Yemen. March 19-26, 2018.
  • The denial: An AMI spokesman tells the Associated Press they have “absolutely not,” collaborated, or been paid by the Saudi state. April 2018.
  • The infected video: Crown Prince Mohammed and Bezos meet in Los Angeles and trade numbers. The crown prince later sends Bezos a video file, according to The Guardian, who added that a forensic study of the phone revealed it likely released spyware. May 1, 2018.
  • The assassination: Jamal Khashoggi, a regular critic of bin Salman writing in the Bezos-owned Washington Post, is killed by Saudi state agents in Istanbul. Crown Prince Mohammed likely ordered the hit, UN investigators and the CIA have since said. October 2, 2018.
  • The affair: National Enquirer exposes Bezos’ affair with Sanchez, and publishes texts it says were from Sanchez’s estranged brother. January 10, 2019.
  • The naked photos: An AMI lawyer sends Bezos a letter saying he must announce he has no knowledge “that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces” or AMI will publish naked photos of him,” according to Bezos’s blog published two days after that. February 5, 2019.
  • The brother:The Wall Street Journal reports that Sanchez’s brother was the source of the Bezos texts and was paid $US200,000 by the Enquirer. March 18, 2019.
  • The source of the data: Bezos’ security chief says he found that Saudi Arabia had got Bezos’ private data, and says he’s told law enforcement. March 30, 2019.
  • The hack: The Guardian, citing a forensic investigation into Bezos’ phone, Crown Prince Mohammed’s phone was used to hack it, via Whatsapp. January 21, 2020.
  • A taunt: Crown prince Mohammed sent WhatsApp messages to Bezos in November 2018 and February 2019 “in which he allegedly revealed private and confidential information about Mr. Bezos’ personal life that was not available from public sources,” the UN said on January 22.