We’ve been looking into the relationship between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and American tech entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, and how that ties into the recent scandal over leaked images of Bezos, the Saudi media campaign against the Washington Post, and more. Here’s our run-down, which will be regularly updated as more comes to light.
So what actually happened?
On 9 January, Bezos, CEO of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post, and his wife MacKenzie announced that they were divorcing. Hours later, the National Enquirer, a US tabloid owned by American Media Inc (AMI), published private texts and photographs revealing an affair between Bezos and another woman.
In the aftermath, Bezos hired a team of investigators to look into how the Enquirer got hold of his private communications. Last Thursday – February 7th – he publicly accused AMI of blackmailing him, claiming they threatened to publish embarrassing photos of him if he doesn’t drop his investigation into them. They also demanded that Bezos publish a written statement saying that AMI had no political motivations – something he asserts is a lie.
Rather than cave to the threats, Bezos decided to call their bluff. You can read Bezos’s account of all of this on his original Medium post.
I’ve written a post about developments with the National Enquirer and its parent company, AMI. You can find it here: https://t.co/G1ykJAPPwy— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) 7 February 2019
In his post, Bezos points several times to a Saudi connection, without providing further detail. It was almost as though he was pointing to where reporters and investigators should be looking – and that’s what we did here.
The AMI-Saudi Relationship
Some may remember this mysterious magazine that flooded newsstands in the US just before MBS’s 2018 visit. It appeared on American shelves in March 2018, and it was basically a 100-page MBS promotional brochure. There were no ads in the magazine, and upto 200,000 copies were distributed. The magazine’s publisher were none other than AMI.
Bezos’s Medium post directly links to material about the “mystery magazine” from 2018, and mentions that AMI have already been investigated “for various actions they’ve taken on behalf of the Saudi Government”.
AMI somehow sunk money to print & distribute this, but claimed the Saudis neither compensated them to produce the magazine, nor directed them on its production. They also claimed that they didn’t share the magazine with the Saudis ahead of its publication. But it was in fact revealed that AMI sent digital copies of the magazine to Saudi officials a whole three weeks before publication. These Saudi officials in turn forwarded them to others1.
Still, both sides continue to insist there was no coordination. Why was it so important for them to claim no coordination? Well, had AMI published such a glowing profile on behalf of a foreign government, they’d have to register as a foreign agent under the Federal Agents Registration Act (FARA) – which they didn’t. AMI would have broken the law.
During MBS’s visit to the United States, David Pecker, chairman of AMI, attended several of the events with the Crown Prince’s. It didn’t take long for the NYT to publish reporting that showed that Pecker had, the previous year, received help from Trump to woo the Saudis.
The timeline they uncovered can be summarized as follows. In July 2017, Trump introduced Pecker to Kacy Grine, a Saudi-linked French businessman. In September 2017, Pecker traveled to Saudi Arabia and had a joint meeting with Grine and MBS. By January 2018, Pecker was attempting to use Saudi money to buy Time magazine.
Extending the timeline further – in February, AMI had created that mystery magazine and shared it with the Saudis; and in March, it was published, and Pecker was at several events with the Crown Prince during his US visit.
AMI’s Deal with Federal Prosecutors
Now the thing is, AMI was involved in another scandal – the one involving Trump’s ex lawyer Michael Cohen’s coverup of the relationship between adult actress Stormy Daniels and Trump. In fact, AMI had signed a deal with US federal prosecutors who were investigating this.
As part of this agreement, AMI disclosed certain illegal activities, but also provided info on Cohen, in return for a promise from the government not to prosecute them. But that deal came with a caveat – if AMI commits any crime subsequent to this deal, or if it’s discovered they had failed to disclose past crimes, then the government can take all their statements to court. Basically, they become liable for everything, including all the statements they made as part of the Cohen investigation.
Now initially, it seemed to us that this is what AMI is freaking out about – that further probing would reveal that they did break the law on this occasion. But then, AMI’s deal with federal prosecutors pertained to subsequent crimes, not past ones.
Some have speculated that AMI may be in violation of the deal because they didn’t fully disclose past illegal activities – but we don’t think that’s the case. It seems more likely that AMI is in trouble because they have committed new crimes as part of their attempt to blackmail Bezos.
Attempting to extort a thing of value out of an individual through threats of reputation damage is a crime. Is a public statement from Bezos “a thing of value”? Well it obviously is to AMI, if they went that far to get one – and precedent agrees.
Prosecutors are already probing whether AMI violated its deal.
It seems to us that AMI’s actions were clearly politically motivated, and that the impetus behind it wasn’t Trump – but Saudi Arabia.
Note specifically what AMI wanted to blackmail Bezos into: They wanted him to publicly state that AMI had no political motives in exposing his affair. That is, that they weren’t trying to punish or blackmail Bezos on behalf of a political party or government. In his post, Bezos describes that as a “lie”. Furthermore, the very fact that they went this far to ask for such a statement is practically proof that they did have political motives.
On behalf of whom, though? We know that US President Donald Trump dislikes Jeff Bezos (he recently referred to him as “Jeff Bozo”). But Trump is by no means the only political leader who has it in for Bezos.
Bezos himself drops a big hint when in his post he mentions the WaPost/Khashoggi connection.
But here’s the more important point – Bezos said that AMI’s David Pecker specifically went “apoplectic” when he knew that investigators were looking into the Saudi connection.
The above is more than just a wild theory at this point, and several US expert have been weighing in. On February 9th, ex-CIA chief John Brennan gave this statement to MSNBC:
“I have no doubt, given the Washington Post is relentless in appropriate condemnation of MBS for the killing of Khashoggi, that he would try to discredit, embarrass and hurt Bezos financially if he could.”
Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency
Are such incidents of blackmail common?
Some have commented about the audacity of AMI’s attempted blackmail of Jeff Bezos, and whether it’s “crazy” – well, it’s only crazy because it’s being attempted on Jeff Bezos. Dictators (including our dictators) have been doing this – hacking & blackmailing their opponents – for years.
Turkish academic Zeynep Tufekci explains it well here – the target isn’t only the person whose information is leaked, but also his/her family. The message is “Do the right thing, protect your family, cooperate”. They even try to blackmail activists into becoming their spies – we’ll be adding more on this soon.
So is it so crazy that they’d obtain someone’s embarrassing private information and try to blackmail them? No it’s not, it’s standard practice in some circles. Is it crazy they’d try this on the richest man on earth? Yes absolutely. That’s the crazy part.
But what makes this particularly compelling, from our viewpoint, is a conversation that started on October 15 with a Saudi whistleblower, who said that MBS was obsessed with the Washington Post and was – with his right-hand man, Saud Al Qahtani – preparing plans to target its employees. “He won’t target them physically”, he said, but rather, the preferred method is to expose either sexual or financial scandals. He insisted The Washington Post were at the top of MBS’s enemies list at that point.
(October 15 was the same day on which social media accounts tightly controlled by MBS and his close advisers started a smear campaign on Jeff Bezos, linking him to the negative coverage of MBS in the Washington Post. Read more about that in this article.)
“Incredibly Stupid and Incredibly Arrogant”
Could it be that the Saudi government obtained damaging texts and pictures and gave them to AMI (with whom they have an ongoing relationship), in an effort to either punish Bezos, or get him to curb the Washington Post?
Towards the end of this clip, Mika Brzezinski says that to do something like this, “you have to be incredibly stupid and incredibly arrogant”. Guess who fits the bill? Mr. Pecker – but also, the guy who thought he’d murder a Washington Post columnist in an overseas embassy. Mohammad bin Salman.
This is an evolving story. Some of our investigations are speculative – as is the case when covering highly opaque regimes – but all of this isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. Let’s follow the story and see – we’ll keep updating our articles on the topic as we find out more.
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