Jeff Bezos’ Hack Inquiry Falls Short of Implicating National Enquirer

Almost a year ago, Jeff Bezos hinted that Saudi Arabia had played a role in The National Enquirer’s 11-page exposé of his affair with the Los Angeles television personality Lauren Sanchez. In making the case in a post on the website Medium, Mr. Bezos noted that his newspaper, The Washington Post, had published the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and had also covered the kingdom’s suspected role in his murder.

In the post, Mr. Bezos said he had retained the security expert Gavin de Becker to investigate how the tabloid had obtained his text messages. This week, a forensic analysis commissioned by Mr. Bezos was made public, and it concluded with “medium to high confidence” that his iPhone X had been hacked after he received a video from a WhatsApp message sent to him from an account reportedly belonging to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, with whom the billionaire had swapped contacts at a dinner in Los Angeles.

The Bezos report, compiled under Mr. de Becker by the digital security firm FTI Consulting, was so juicy that it overwhelmed traditional journalistic skepticism at some news outlets. The details were hard to resist: an allegedly murderous crown prince, the world’s richest man and his intimate texts splashed across the pages of a supermarket tabloid that has ties to Prince Mohammed and a longtime Bezos detractor, President Trump.

In the swirl of coverage, Mr. Bezos’ allegations took on a life of their own, with some news coverage veering into speculation. “The report offers one explanation of how The National Enquirer, a tabloid, obtained and published text messages Bezos had sent to his mistress,” CNBC reported. The BBC asserted that information extracted from Mr. Bezos’ phone was “leaked to the American tabloid.”

In fact, the report did not definitively link the hacking to the Enquirer exposé. Months of reporting by The New York Times and other publications, including information that has emerged in recent days, appears to refute the notion that The Enquirer, owned by American Media Inc., received the information for the exposé from a foreign hack of Mr. Bezos’ phone.

The hacking of an American by a foreign leader would count as an affront to national sovereignty and security under normal protocols. It also has legal implications: American Media is under the watch of federal law enforcement officials in New York, who have agreed not to prosecute the company for its role in aiding President Trump’s 2016 campaign as long as it does not break the law.

The widespread coverage of the report also has personal implications for Mr. Bezos, who has achieved something of a coup in this latest bit of news.

On Feb. 7, weeks after The Enquirer’s exposé appeared in supermarket racks, Mr. Bezos published the Medium article suggesting a possible connection between Saudi Arabia and the tabloid scoop. He noted that The Post was energetically covering Mr. Khashoggi’s murder by Saudi assassins weeks after he wrote the last in a series of columns sharply critical of the crown prince, who the Central Intelligence Agency has concluded had ordered his death.

About two weeks after Mr. Bezos’ Medium post, Mr. de Becker hired FTI Consulting to do the forensic analysis of the billionaire’s iPhone. In March, Mr. de Becker said he had “high confidence” that Saudi Arabia had hacked Mr. Bezos’ phone. The FTI Consulting report that was made public this week did not offer evidence of a link between the hacking and the Enquirer story.

American Media has said that it obtained information about the affair from Ms. Sanchez’s brother, Michael Sanchez, a Hollywood talent agent whom people at The Enquirer have described as a longtime source of information and tips.

Mr. Sanchez and American Media executed a nondisclosure agreement on Oct. 18, 2018, “concerning certain information, photographs and text messages documenting an affair between Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sanchez,” according to a contract between the two parties reviewed by The New York Times.

Eight days later, Mr. Sanchez granted American Media the right to publish and license the text messages and photographs he had provided in exchange for $200,000, according to the contract and four people with knowledge of the arrangement.

“The single source of our reporting has been well documented,” American Media said in a statement. “In September of 2018, Michael Sanchez began providing all materials and information to our reporters. Any suggestion that a third party was involved in or in any way influenced our reporting is false.”

After federal agents and prosecutors examined allegations of wrongdoing by American Media in connection with the Bezos story last year, the company provided evidence showing them that Ms. Sanchez had provided text messages and compromising photos of Mr. Bezos to her brother, who passed them along to the tabloid, according to four people with knowledge of the situation.

That does not preclude the possibility that Saudi Arabia could have sent other useful information to The Enquirer. Nor were Mr. Bezos and his investigators off-base in suspecting a possible link between the tabloid and the kingdom. American Media and Saudi Arabia had both tried to build relationships with Mr. Trump, and one way to the president’s heart could have been an attack on Mr. Bezos, whom Mr. Trump once referred to as “Jeff Bozo” in a Twitter post.

At the same time, the American Media chairman David J. Pecker sought business opportunities and financing in Saudi Arabia. He met with Prince Mohammed in Saudi Arabia in 2017 after attending a White House dinner with a well-connected contact of the crown prince. In March 2018, American Media published a 97-page glossy magazine, “The New Kingdom,” essentially a promotional brochure for the crown prince and the nation.

Starting in September 2017, The Post had published columns by Mr. Khashoggi in which he excoriated Prince Mohammed for “unbearable repression,” “behaving like Putin” and “squeezing” the Saudi news media.

Mr. Bezos, who had sought to build data centers in the desert kingdom before Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, met Prince Mohammed in person at a dinner in Los Angeles in April 2018. The two chatted and exchanged contacts. Mr. Bezos’ forensic team said that Prince Mohammed sent Mr. Bezos the suspect video shortly afterward.

The relationship between Mr. Bezos and the Saudis deteriorated after Mr. Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. The Post demanded answers amid a growing consensus in the intelligence community that Prince Mohammed was involved.

Mr. Sanchez has said that The Enquirer was already onto the story about the affair before he discussed it with the tabloid, suggesting there was another source. Saudi Arabia has said it had nothing to do with it and has also called suggestions it hacked Mr. Bezos’ phone “absurd.”

Two people with knowledge of The Enquirer’s reporting process said that its staff started trailing Mr. Bezos after one of its reporters received a tip on Sept. 10, 2018, from Mr. Sanchez that a well-known billionaire was having an affair with an actress. Mr. Sanchez didn’t disclose their identities, but the tabloid staff suspected he was referring to Mr. Bezos.

On Oct. 18, The Enquirer’s photographers snapped pictures of Mr. Bezos with Ms. Sanchez. That same day Mr. Sanchez and American Media executed their agreement to prevent him from shopping the story elsewhere.

The following month, according to the FTI Consulting report, which was reviewed by United Nations experts, Mr. Bezos received another message on his phone from the crown prince, this one featuring a photograph of a woman with a resemblance to Ms. Sanchez and a misogynistic joke: “Arguing with a woman is like reading the Software License agreement. In the end you have to ignore everything and click I agree.” FTI interpreted the message as a veiled suggestion that the crown prince knew about his relationship with Ms. Sanchez, which had not yet been made public, according to the report.

At the time, American Media had just emerged from a cloud of suspicion for its role in buying and burying information from the former Playboy model Karen McDougal about an affair she said she had with Mr. Trump. After American Media executives admitted that they had effectively paid her hush money to help Mr. Trump’s campaign — in violation of federal election law — they cooperated with an investigation into the payment. Federal prosecutors in New York agreed not to prosecute, at least as long as the company did not break the law again.

The Enquirer’s story about the Bezos affair, including intimate text messages sent by Mr. Bezos and photographs of the couple on the terrace of what the tabloid described as Ms. Sanchez’s “love nest,” upset the company’s majority investors, according to two people with knowledge of American Media.

In his Medium post, Mr. Bezos revealed that his team had received threatening emails from American Media’s chief content officer, Dylan Howard, that described revealing photos of Mr. Bezos that the tabloid had yet to publish.

In the letter from Mr. Howard and a second letter from an American Media lawyer that Mr. Bezos included in his account, the company said that it would not publish the compromising selfies if Mr. Bezos publicly stated that he did not believe that the tabloid publisher was politically motivated in publishing the exposé.

Mr. Bezos called the offer “extortion and blackmail” in his Medium post. He added that he was motivated “to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out,” and Mr. de Becker went to work.

The evidence in the resulting report shows evidence of Saudi intrusions into his iPhone X. But a direct link from the kingdom to the tabloid tale remains elusive.

William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting.

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