United Nations experts were quick to weigh in Wednesday on explosive allegations that Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader ordered the hack of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — but the White House, so far, has stayed silent in his defense.
The episode underscores the unusual camaraderie between President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s rulers, as well as Trump’s fraught relationship with Bezos, who owns the Washington Post.
On Wednesday, UN experts said they are “gravely concerned” by information they have received suggesting that a WhatsApp account belonging to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was used to deliver spyware to a mobile phone belonging to Bezos.
The Saudi embassy in Washington said in a statement posted online that “recent media reports that suggest the Kingdom is behind a hacking of Mr. Jeff Bezos’ phone are absurd.”
The White House has declined comment on the episode. But it raises further questions about Trump’s past deference to Riyadh and the security of his own team’s communications with Saudi leaders.
Trump has calculated that Saudi Arabia remains his best ally in a volatile region, particularly as tensions persist with Iran. He’s also suggested he is unwilling to throw a wrench into the oil markets should a rift emerge between the US and Saudi Arabia.
He has been slow or just unwilling to cast blame on the kingdom, including when a Saudi Air Force officer shot and killed three people at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida, last month or after the grisly murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. US intelligence findings closely linked the murder to the crown prince, who has denied involvement.
Bezos on Wednesday tweeted a photo of himself attending a memorial service for Khashoggi. The photo marked Bezos’s first public remark since reports of the WhatsApp breach came to light.
Among bin Salman’s closest allies in the American government is Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and senior adviser. CNN has previously reported that Kushner and the prince used WhatsApp to communicate, according to a source close to the Saudi royal court.
An administration official told CNN at the time that the White House counsel’s office had determined that WhatsApp is permitted under certain conditions, and that Kushner is aware of those rules and complies.
But his use of the messaging service still raised security concerns, including that sensitive national security information communicated by him may be vulnerable to hackers and foreign governments.
Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent Bezos a letter on Wednesday requesting further information about the hack.
UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamard, who specializes in extrajudicial killings and conducted an investigation into the murder of Khashoggi, and David Kaye, a UN special rapporteur focused on freedom of expression, suggested the hack of Bezos’s phone could have indicated an effort to influence coverage at the Washington Post, the newspaper Bezos owns and for which Khashoggi worked, and called for an investigation into the allegations.
“The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Mr. Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia,” Callamard and Kaye said in a statement Wednesday.
The UN experts released their statement after media outlets including CNN Business reported that a forensics team hired by Bezos had concluded that the CEO’s mobile phone had been compromised and that the hack originated from an account controlled by bin Salman. A source told CNN that the forensics team had reached its conclusion with “medium to high” confidence. The story was first reported by The Guardian.
Amazon deepened its ties to Saudi Arabia in September by launching its cloud computing business, Amazon Web Services, in the kingdom. Among AWS’s first Saudi customers was Abdul Latif Jameel, a commercial development company that operates in roughly 30 countries.