'Washington Post,' 'National Enquirer' In Spotlight After Bezos Phone Hacking

Jan 23, 2020
Originally published on January 23, 2020 7:01 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Two United Nations officials say they believe that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the hack of a smartphone that belongs to Jeff Bezos. They say it happened in May of 2018.

There is a media angle here, and so NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been looking into it. He's on the line from New York. Hey, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Why would the crown prince of Saudi Arabia want to get into Jeff Bezos' cellphone?

FOLKENFLIK: So the U.N. officials looked into this stuff, and they said that they believed this was an effort not to think about Amazon but an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post's reporting on Saudi Arabia. Bezos owns the Post personally, as we know. And a Saudi national and journalist named Jamal Khashoggi, who lived in the U.S., reported on his native land, Saudi Arabia, with increasing skepticism and criticism about what he felt was the - demonstrably the sort of repressive regime there.

U.N. officials concluded that this was strongly likely the Saudis and, in fact, that it was done in response to Khashoggi's reporting and criticism of the regime and that this was closely linked to Khashoggi's death - murder by Saudis. And the U.N. and others have accused the crown prince of being behind that as well.

KING: OK. That's really interesting - so the Saudis kind of getting back at Jeff Bezos because of coverage published by The Washington Post, which he owns. Do we know anything about how the hack worked? I would imagine a guy like Jeff Bezos has a lot of security (laughter)

FOLKENFLIK: Right. Well, it's amazing. In April of 2018, he meets Mohammad bin Salman, and they exchange phone numbers. You know, great world leaders - right? A month later in May of 2018, from the account of Mohammed bin Salman - MBS as he's known - comes a video. And it is said by the folks who did the technical analysis for these U.N. officials that simply the very sending of the video allowed the folks acting on behalf of the Saudis to extract an extraordinary amount of information from Bezos' phone that day and to continue extracting information for months.

KING: Wow. Now, along with The Washington Post, which Bezos owns, there's another media outlet involved here - the National Enquirer. Where does that fit in?

FOLKENFLIK: So the National Enquirer is a fascinating player around the margins and is dragged in the spotlight by this. It has business ties to the Saudis. It is also close to President Trump - or at least was until federal investigations got - brought too much heat to the parent company and its executives. And it was the publication that, a year ago, revealed Jeff Bezos' extramarital affair. In fact, hours before that happened, Bezos and his wife - or his then-wife - announced that they would be divorcing. And this material, according to the Enquirer - Enquirer insists the material came from the brother of Bezos' romantic partner Lauren Sanchez, the woman with whom he was having the extramarital affair.

All of this is under investigation by the Southern District of New York with federal prosecutors, basically. And it is not unrelated to previous investigations that the federal prosecutors have done about their ties to President Trump and their efforts to keep secret embarrassing things about the president and previous affairs he had.

KING: This brings up some really interesting questions about the intersection of journalism and people with a lot of power, doesn't it?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I'd say that, you know, it shows that Jeff Bezos, you know, claimed that he'd been essentially blackmailed or attempted to be blackmailed by the National Enquirer. He said we're going to hold power to account, and the National Enquirer is shown as being very squeamish about things being revealed about the ties that it had to powerful players.

KING: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.