Saudi Arabia dismisses claim it hacked Amazon CEO’s phone

(CBS News) — The United Nations released a report Wednesday saying senior investigators had received information “suggesting” a WhatsApp account belonging to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had sent a file carrying digital spyware to The Washington Post owner and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Agnes Callamard, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on summary executions and extrajudicial killings, and David Kaye, U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, said in a statement that the findings should prompt further investigation.

“The two experts — who were appointed by the Human Rights Council — recently became aware of a 2019 forensic analysis of Mr. Bezos’ iPhone that assessed with ‘medium to high confidence’ that his phone was infiltrated on 1 May 2018,” said the U.N. statement released Wednesday. The U.N. did not say who conducted the analysis of Bezos’ phone, but according to the Wall Street Journal it was Washington-based advisory firm FTI Consulting. It wasn’t clear who requested or paid for the analysis.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister called the claims “absurd,” CBS News correspondent Errol Barnett reported.

The alleged hacking traces back to Bezos and bin Salman exchanging phone numbers in Los Angeles in 2018. Weeks later, The Guardian reported, Bezos and the crown prince were engaged in a “seemingly friendly WhatsApp exchange” when bin Salman purportedly sent an unsolicited malware-infected file. It’s unclear what information was then taken.

Questions about who has access to the tech executive’s phone were first raised last year after the National Enquirer leaked photos and intimate text messages between the then-married Bezos and former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez with whom he was having an affair. The Enquirer said Sanchez’ brother Michael was the original source of the information.

But in a blog post a month after the scandal, Bezos suggested that the photos leaked by the Enquirer were obtained illegally through its publisher’s connection to the Saudi government.

In an op-ed for The Daily Beast, Bezos’ security consultant Gavin De Becker, confirmed that the Saudi government had “access to Bezos’s phone, and gained private information.” He said the government was “intent on harming Jeff Bezos since… the Post began its relentless coverage” of the murder of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul five months after the alleged hack. U.S. officials have told CBS News that the murder was likely ordered by the crown prince.

When asked by “CBS Evening News” anchor and managing editor Norah O’Donnell last September if he ordered the murder of Khashoggi, bin Salman said, “Absolutely not. This was a heinous crime, but I take full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia. Especially since it was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government.”

Last December, a Saudi court convicted eight people for their involvement in Khashoggi’s death.

“MBS’s personal role in potentially compromising Jeff Bezos I think raises additional questions about MBS’s defense of the Khashoggi murder that it was simply rogue actors within his state,” said Andrew Miller, the deputy director for policy of the Washington-based think tank Project On Middle East Democracy.

Miller believes The Washington Post’s aggressive reporting on Khashoggi’s murder put a target on Bezos’ back.

“That’s the way things work in Saudi Arabia. That’s the way things work in MBS’s world,” he said. “It was a clear attempt to blackmail Bezos into changing Washington Post coverage and relieving scrutiny on Mohammad bin Salman’s reckless actions.”

Callamard, one of the U.N. experts behind the report, told CBS News’ Pamela Falk that she and Kaye would release more extensive findings regarding the allegations as part of a larger report they were expected to produce in May or June.

The Washington Post, Amazon and Jeff Bezos’ team did not immediately return CBS News’ requests for comment.

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