Will the Real Jeff Bezos Stand Up?
Is Jeff Bezos just an unfaithful horndog? Or is he also an international provocateur? The answers to these questions are important, because Bezos is not only the richest man in the world; he’s also one of the world’s most powerful corporate and media chieftains. Through his many holdings—including Amazon, Amazon Web Services (which works in cloud-computing, including for the CIA), Alexa, his Ring home-surveillance system, and the Washington Post—he has reach into just about every corporate suite, every national capital, and billions of homes. And if one adds his Blue Origin space exploration company, his ambitions stretch far beyond this globe.
Yet if Bezos has this much financial and political power, we should know the whole truth about him, so that we can know whether he is exercising it responsibly.
So now, turning to a recent Bezos-inspired news story, let’s ask ourselves:
Which headline is true? Is it the Guardian’s header on January 21, “Revealed: the Saudi heir and the alleged plot to undermine Jeff Bezos”? Or is it the Wall Street Journal’s header three days later, on January 24: “Prosecutors Have Evidence Bezos’ Girlfriend Gave Texts to Brother Who Leaked to National Enquirer”?
As we can immediately see, there’s a big difference between the Guardian’s story, which alleges that Saudi Arabia “apparently” hacked Bezos’s cell phone, and the Journal story, which suggests that Bezos’s girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, having received racy texts and photos from Bezos, in turn “gave” them to her brother, Michael Sanchez—and Michael then sold them to the National Enquirer for a reported $200,000.
These two diverging headlines are the latest in a long skein of allegations and insinuations stemming from the steamy news of photos and texts that ran in the National Enquirer back in January 2019. According to the Guardian, it was international skullduggery, involving the leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and perhaps the Israeli digital firm NSO; the allegation is that the Saudi royal and the Israeli company jointly conspired to hack Bezos’s phone. (The Saudi government immediately denied the accusation, as did NSO.)
By contrast, according to the Journal, the truer and simpler story is that this was a case of Bezos carelessly “sexting”—sextings that went badly, and embarrassingly, awry.
It matters, of course, which journalistic account is true—or at least which is more true. If the Guardian is correct, then we have the stuff of a serious international incident—involving major players in Saudi Arabia, in Israel, and maybe also in the United States. And if all that’s true, then one can only guess at the laws that might have been violated, norms trampled, and torts committed. But if the Journal version is right, then we just have a . . . salacious sex scandal.
Flashback to 2019
Who can forget the story of Bezos, and of siblings Lauren and Michael Sanchez? That story blew up Bezos’s marriage; he settled with his now ex-wife for $35 billion, a matrimonial record.
Indeed, in the annals of raunchy tabloid items, the Enquirer stories of the Amazon tycoon and his love life—adultery! texts! pictures! divorce! billions!—seemed to have everything that a scandal-lover could hope for. Even Donald Trump, no stranger to tab news, jumped in, zinging Bezos, owner of the Post—which is not, of course, the president’s favorite newspaper.
So for a little while there, in early 2019, the Bezos story seemed be nothing more than juicy spice.
Yet soon, new elements entered into the picture. In February 2019, the month after the Enquirer stories ran, Bezos escalated the story by telling his version of it; he posted an article under his own name, declaring that the Enquirer had tried to use “extortion and blackmail” on him. That allegation was hot enough right there, but then Bezos got even hotter. Citing the work of his hired security expert, Gavin de Becker, he intimated that perhaps Trump and the government of Saudi Arabia were in cahoots with the Enquirer, as part of some larger nefarious plot against the Seattle mogul.
The Trump angle seemed possibly pertinent, because he and the Post had long been at odds over the Post’s caustic coverage of him. And the Saudi angle seemed relevant because the year before, in 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi-born columnist for Bezos’s Post—or, as wiseguys call it, the Bezos Post—was apparently murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
To be sure, Khashoggi’s death was a shocking crime. And in response, the Post had, understandably, taken a hard reportorial and editorial line against the Saudi government. So the implication of Bezos’s article was that perhaps the Saudis had something to do with the original leak from Bezos’s phone, because they wanted to hit back at him for his newspaper’s pursuit of the Khashoggi story.
In this December 15, 2014, file photo, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a news conference in Manama, Bahrain.(Hasan Jamali/AP Photo)
Intrigued by these many spidery lines of inquiry, Virgil first wrote about the Bezos story on March 10, 2019. In particular, he quoted various media observers who said that one result of Bezos’s published escalation was to reposition himself in the public eye. That is, if he was attacking Saudi Arabia and Trump, he was no longer a billionaire who just got caught in the dirty. Instead, his escalation was elevation: elevating himself, that is, so that he was now a champion of the free press, the First Amendment, and the protection of journalists. (In that piece, Virgil couldn’t help but notice, also, that Bezos bears a resemblance to Ernst Blofeld, a fictional villain from the James Bond movies.)
Then, the following month, March 2019, de Becker—the man whom Bezos had hired as his security consultant—himself published a piece, boldly bannered, “Bezos Investigation Finds the Saudis Obtained His Private Data.” De Becker acknowledged that Michael Sanchez had gotten hold of Bezos’s saucy cell-phone stuff, but in addition, de Becker declared, “Our investigators and several experts concluded with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone, and gained private information.”
So there we had it, from both Bezos and de Becker: Yes, Michael Sanchez was a lowlife—in the wake of the leak, he and his sister were “estranged,” wrote de Becker—but the Saudis, too, were lowlifes, if not worse.
In other words, in the Bezos/de Becker telling, the whole messy saga was more than just what it seemed to be at first—that is, a sorry tale of infidelity, indiscretion, and perhaps intra-family treachery. Instead, maybe it was more of a spy-thriller epic: an international conspiracy, reaching from the Saudi capital of Riyadh, to the Enquirer’s offices in Manhattan, to the president in the White House.
Virgil wrote on April 5, 2019, and again on April 20 that Bezos’s escalated allegations were, indeed, sensational and astounding—if that is, they were true. Still thinking of Bezos’s resemblance to Bond-villain Blofeld, Virgil added that the story “could well be remembered as some fantastic tale, like something that Ian Fleming might have written for his character James Bond.”
Yet once again, to say that the allegations are sensational and astounding is not the same thing as saying that they are true.
So there the matter sat, for nearly a year. The Post has continued to pursue the Khashoggi story, peppering the Trump administration with criticism of its still warm relationship with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the Post worked with other journalistic and activist groups to further chorus the criticism of the Saudi government.
2020: The Rumble Resumes
Then as we have seen, this January 21 came a new eruption—that Guardian story, citing a technical report, damning the Saudis, from a firm called FTI Consulting, which had been retained by Bezos. That Guardian piece was followed by a flood of other stories in the Main Stream Media, all of which echoed, at least at first, the basic Bezos/de Becker storyline, namely that Michael Sanchez notwithstanding, the Saudis are the real nogoodniks.
In fact, even the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights weighed in, deploring the situation and demanding an investigation of Saudi Arabia’s supposed hack. (Yes, the hacking case might seem to be more of a technical issue than a human rights issue—and the U.N. might not seem credible for its expertise on human rights, either—but that’s a topic for another time.)
The Post, of course, covered the resurgent Saudi story heavily, and on January 23, the newspaper put its weight behind a ponderous editorial, which sought to weave together many strands of suspicion, including not only of Trump and the Saudis, but also of White House aide Jared Kushner.
Yet then came the next turn of the news cycle, as the quality of FTI’s technical forensics came under challenge. On January 24, the Wall Street Journal published an article headlined, “Bezos Hack Report Puzzles Cyber Experts.” In the Journal’s careful—and no doubt well-lawyered—language, the FTI tech report “relied heavily on circumstantial evidence to make the case that a WhatsApp account associated with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was probably used to hack into the iPhone of Mr. Bezos.” The story quoted experts who relayed, “The audit left several major technical questions about the incident unexplained and in need of more examination.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 23, 2018. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
Meanwhile, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz went even further, headlining its piece, “The Question Isn’t Whether NSO Hacked Jeff Bezos’ Phone—but Whether It Was Even Hacked at All.” The article quoted one expert as saying, “There is zero information and 100 percent conjectures. We don’t know if there was even an infection, we simply suspect it. There is zero information that allows us to determine if it is NSO, NSA [U.S. National Security Agency] or the paranoia and fears of Jeff Bezos.”
So now the narrative tide turned, as still more tech experts challenged the FTI findings. Thus that January 21 Guardian story, the one that kicked off this renewed flurry, started to look a little, uh, questionable.
And then, as a kind of capper, later in the day, on January 24, came that latest Journal article, the one we saw earlier, the one that reported, “Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have evidence indicating Jeff Bezos’ girlfriend provided text messages to her brother that he then sold to the National Enquirer for its article about the Amazon.com Inc. founder’s affair, according to people familiar with the matter.”
In response, what say the parties in question? As the Journal put it, “Ms. Sanchez didn’t respond to requests for comment. An attorney for Mr. Bezos declined to comment.”
Amidst these “no comments,” we might surmise this much: If it’s the case that Lauren Sanchez simply gave, or otherwise transferred, the naughty Bezos items to her brother Michael—and prosecutors seem to have evidence that it was just a simple hand-off— then it’s harder to believe that the Saudis, or that Israeli company, or any other larger force, were also involved.
Indeed, if we apply the timeless wisdom of Ockham’s Razor (if everything else is equal, then choose the simpler explanation), we are left with an uncomplicated case of pillow talking—make that pillow-texting—gone wild.
We can also add that on January 28, Bezos’s newspaper, the Washington Post, dipped a careful toe into this murky pool; its reporter, perhaps mindful of her career, was careful to print both sides of the story: “Three people close to AMI [owner of the Enquirer],” she wrote, “say that Lauren Sanchez’s brother Michael Sanchez—a talent manager in Hollywood who had previously placed stories in AMI publications—is the only source for their report on the Bezos affair.”
Okay, so that’s not so good for Team Bezos, the idea that the Saudis had nothing to do with the hack. Then the Post added, covering itself, at least a little, with the big boss, “But the Bezos investigation, as echoed by the U.N. report, asserts that it has evidence of a Saudi hack of his phone.”
And we might also add that on January 31, the Guardian–which seems to be Bezos’s go-to journalistic outlet–reported that in 2019, the FBI interviewed Bezos about his allegations of a hack, as part of, the newspaper said, a larger investigation of that Israeli company, NSO. So while it’s possible that Team Bezos is just blowing more smoke, it’s also possible that there’s some fire there, somewhere.
In the meantime, The Daily Beast reports that also January 31, Michael Sanchez filed suit against Bezos alleging defamation. And on February 3, Jeff Bezos counter-sued, formally accusing Michael Sanchez of “extortion.” That’s a heavy legal concept, extortion. Interestingly, the Saudis don’t seem to be accused of being involved here. The absence of the Saudis, we can observe, supports the idea that the elaborate scenario of Saudi involvement, was just a red herring–a diversion–thrown on the trail by Team Bezos, as a way of shifting attention from simpler scenario of family feud.
As the New York Post reported on February 6, Michael Sanchez’s lawsuit against Bezos suggests that he had been conspiring with his sister Lauren–who is now, he suggests, engaged to Bezos–back in 2018 to leak the news of the romance. And so the idea that he leaked the story to the Enquirer is all just a big misunderstanding.
Bezos’s Responsibility to the Truth
So at least for now, maybe we’re back to square one on this story—which is to say, the basic facts as they could be known back in January 2019. That is, Bezos did things he shouldn’t have done; his actions were harmful to his personal dignity and professional reputation. Moreover, his deeds cost him his marriage and that $35-billion divorce settlement. And yes, perhaps Amazon’s suitability for sensitive government contracts–especially contracts involving the CIA and similar institutions—might need to be examined.
As for whatever might have been done by, or happened to, Lauren and Michael Sanchez, well, there are probably laws about that. And yet the violations, while perhaps egregious, are still, in the larger scheme of things, small potatoes.
Yet at the same time, there’s a more serious possibility at play here: much more serious. Big potatoes.
That is, it’s possible that Bezos knew, or should have known, that he was just in the midst of a stinky situation, and yet as part of a sort of cover-up, he chose to escalate his accusations, as a way of, in effect, changing the subject. Away from him as an adulterer, and toward others alleged to be aggressors.
By this possible reckoning, Bezos raised serious allegations about the Saudi government, that Israeli company NSO, the National Enquirer, and the Trump administration. And maybe possibly, in so raising those allegations, Bezos legally defamed someone.
Moreover, it also seems obvious that Bezos stirred up an international hornet’s nest. Using the big megaphone afforded to him by his enormous fortune and clout, Bezos has potentially jeopardized American security relationships in the Middle East, as well as perhaps undermined American foreign policy overall.
In fact, given what we know of Bezos’s behavior, and misbehavior, Virgil thinks it’s a fair question to ask: whether or not any entity connected to Bezos should be entrusted with state secrets. That question would, in fact, be a good one for Congress to take up in oversight hearings. In particular, perhaps we should examine why Amazon Web Services, Bezos’s cloud-computing company, is allowed to be a major player in the cloud-computing space, including for American national security agencies.
So yes, let’s investigate all this. Let’s find out if this was just a sordid affair that got amplified globally, because Bezos wanted to drown out the noise of his own misbehaving. Let’s find out if Bezos is a victim of global heavyweights—or just of his own hot-bloodedness.
If it turns out that Bezos is just a cheating husband who got caught, then, you know, he might want to have a long talk with lovebird Lauren about how the public came to learn of his lust.
In the meantime, the rest of us have enough to worry about without having to worry about fake news from a fatcat.