- United Nations human rights investigators said they received information suggesting a WhatsApp account belonging Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was used to hack Jeff Bezos in 2018.
- After the hack, the account sent Bezos a picture of a woman who looked like the woman Bezos was having an affair with “months before the Bezos affair was known publicly.”
- The report comes from an analysis of an investigation into how the National Enquirer obtained Bezos’ private text messages and photos that the outlet threatened to leak.
UN Investigator’s Release Statement
United Nations human rights investigators said in a statement Wednesday that they received information suggesting a WhatsApp account belonging Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was used to hack Amazon CEO and Jeff Bezos in 2018.
In the statement, the investigator’s detail alleged efforts by the Crown Prince, also known as MBS, to target Bezos due to his ownership of the Washington Post, which has published extensive coverage of the murder of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
“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,” the investigators said.
“These allegations are relevant as well to ongoing evaluation of claims about the Crown Prince’s involvement in the 2018 murder of Saudi and Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi,” the statement continued.
The investigators also noted that the report was based on forensic analysis from an investigation ordered by Bezos, and called for further investigations of the matter.
National Enquirer & Bezos Leaks
Bezos called for the investigation early last year after the National Enquirer published text messages between himself and a woman named Lauren Sanchez, with whom he was allegedly having an affair.
Following that publication, Bezos published a Medium post where he argued that the leaks were a politically motivated hit job because he owns the Post, and accused the National Enquirer of “extortion and blackmail.”
In the post, Bezos describes the relationship between President Donald Trump and David Pecker, who owns American Media Incorporated (AMI) which in turn owns the National Enquirer.
In 2016, AMI spent $150,000 to buy the story of former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who claimed she had an affair with Trump, so that the story would not be made public— a practice called catch and kill.
Bezos mentions McDougal, adding that Pecker and his company have been “investigated for various actions they’ve taken on behalf of the Saudi Government.”
He also cited an excerpt from a New York Times article that said Trump invited Pecker to a White House dinner, and Pecker brought “a guest with important ties to the royals in Saudi Arabia.”
Bezos argued that because of his ownership of the Post, people the newspaper covers might “conclude I am their enemy.”
“President Trump is one of those people, obvious by his many tweet,” he elaborated. “Also, The Post’s essential and unrelenting coverage of the murder of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi is undoubtedly unpopular in certain circles.”
He noted that there were several investigations into how his texts were obtained and that he was also launching his own investigation.
“Several days ago, an AMI leader advised us that Mr. Pecker is ‘apoplectic’ about our investigation,” he wrote. “For reasons still to be better understood, the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve.”
The Amazon CEO went on to say that AMI told him they had more of his messages and photos and that they would publish them if he did not stop his investigation.
He then provided what appeared to be a series of copy-paste of emails from AMI. One of those emails described the content they would leak, including “a d*ck pick” and “a naked selfie in a bathroom” of Bezos, as well as several personal pictures of Sanchez.
Another email contained a list of “proposed terms” from AMI, which basically said they would not publish the content if Bezos agreed to a number of things.
This included making a public statement “affirming that they have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AM’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”
Bezos refused to end his investigation or back down from the claim that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated.
In March 2019, Gavin De Becker, the man Bezos chose to lead his investigation, published an op-ed in the Daily Beast.
In the article, De Becker said that he had concluded the investigation and handed it over to federal officials, and while he wrote that he would not disclose details, he said he would confirm one key fact from the investigation.
“Our investigators and several experts concluded with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone, and gained private information,” he wrote. “As of today, it is unclear to what degree, if any, AMI was aware of the details.”
But De Becker did note that when AMI was threatening to release the photos and texts, they sent him a contract that would require him to publicly say his investigation had concluded there was not “any form of electronic eavesdropping or hacking in their news-gathering process.”
After both Bezos’ Medium post and De Becker’s op-ed, Saudi Arabia denied the allegations, as did AMI.
Following De Becker’s article, AMI told CNN in a statement that it only had one source, Lauren Sanchez’s brother, Michael Sanchez, and that there “was no involvement by any other third party whatsoever.”
Michael Sanchez, however, has repeatedly denied that gave the Enquirer all of the content they claimed to have.
“I had nothing to do with leak of the dick pics. That’s the important thing,” he told Variety in an interview last year. “I never had access.”
However, the findings released in the UN report once again bring up questions about how AMI obtained the text messages and photos.
The timeline of events after the alleged hack and leading up to the National Enquirer securing the texts and pictures raises some red flags
In an analysis of the report, the UN experts found that in April 2018, Bezos and MBS exchanged phone numbers that corresponded with their WhatsApps accounts.
Then, a month later, a message was sent “from the Crown Prince account is sent to Mr. Bezos through WhatsApp. The message is an encrypted video file. It is later established, with reasonable certainty, that the video’s downloader infects Mr. Bezos’ phone with malicious code.”
The report then continues to go through the timeline of events, noting Khashoggi’s death on October 2, 2018.
Then, about a month later, “A single photograph is texted to Mr. Bezos from the Crown Prince’s WhatsApp account, along with a sardonic caption. It is an image of a woman resembling the woman with whom Bezos is having an affair, months before the Bezos affair was known publicly.”
Because the details of the affair were not public yet, these allegations indicate that MBS could have gotten the information from Bezos’ texts with Sanchez.
While this does not directly tie AMI or the National Enquirer to the hack or to the Saudi’s, if true, it would mean that MBS had in his possession text messages and photos sent between Bezos and Sanchez, including potentially incriminating photos like the ones mentioned in the AMI email.
Of course, that does not rule out the possibility that AMI did, in fact, receive the texts from Sanchez’s brother as they claim. But it does call into question Pecker’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially when paired with Bezos’ allegation that AMI was trying to kill the Saudi Arabia angle of the story.
Regardless, the claim that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia hacked Jeff Bezos because of the Post’s coverage of the Khashoggi killing is chilling on its own.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, denied the allegations in a tweet on Tuesday, when the story first surfaced before the UN report was released.
“Recent media reports that suggest the Kingdom is behind a hacking of Mr. Jeff Bezos’ phone are absurd,” the Embassy said. “We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out.”
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Guardian) (The Daily Beast)
Supreme Court Sides With High School Cheerleader Punished for Cursing on Snapchat
The justices ruled that the student’s year-long suspension from her school’s cheer team over an expletive-filled Snapchat was too severe because her post was not disruptive.
SCOTUS Rules in Free Speech Case
The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a Pennsylvania school district violated the First Amendment when it handed a cheerleader a year-long suspension from her team after she sent friends an expletive-filled Snapchat outside school grounds.
The case in question centered around a snap sent in 2017 by now-18-year-old Brandi Levy in which she expressed frustration at not making her high school’s varsity cheer squad. The snap, sent on a Saturday from a convenience store, shows Levy and a friend flipping off the camera with the caption: “F— school, f— softball, f— cheer, f— everything.”
That post was sent to around 250 people, including other cheerleaders at her school. When her coaches were alerted to the post, they suspended her from cheerleading for a year.
Levy and her family, represented by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the school district, arguing that it had no right to punish her for off-campus speech.
A federal appeals court agreed with that argument, ruling that schools could not regulate speech outside school grounds. That decision marked the first time that an appeals court had issued such a broad interpretation of the Supreme Court’s landmark 1969 student speech ruling.
In that case, SCOTUS allowed students to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War, declaring that they do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
The high court did specify that disruptive speech on school grounds could be punished.
Off-Campus Speech Questions Left Unresolved
In Wednesday’s decision, the justices agreed that Levy’s punishment was too severe because her speech did not meet the test of being disruptive. However, they did not uphold the appeals court decision that schools never have a role in disciplining students for off-campus speech.
“The school’s regulatory interests remain significant in some off-campus circumstances,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the opinion for the court’s majority. “Thus, we do not now set forth a broad, highly general First Amendment rule stating just what counts as ‘off campus’ speech and whether or how ordinary First Amendment standards must give way off campus.”
Breyer also added that specific question would be left for “future cases.”
In the sole dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas objected to that approach, arguing that Levy’s language met the threshold for speech that is disruptive and thus can be regulated off-campus based on past precedent. His colleagues’ ruling, he wrote, “is untethered from anything stable, and courts (and schools) will almost certainly be at a loss as to what exactly the court’s opinion today means.”
Both opinions are significant because while the majority decision focused more narrowly on whether the speech, in this case, was disruptive, the justices appear to be opening up space for a case that centers more specifically around the power of schools to regulate student speech off-campus.
Still, Levy and the ACLU cheered the decision as a victory for student speech off-campus, despite the court’s lack of ruling on the subject.
“Young people need to have the ability to express themselves without worrying about being punished when they get to school,” Levy said in a statement.
“The school in this case asked the court to allow it to punish speech that it considered ‘disruptive,’ regardless of where it occurs,” ACLU’s legal director David Cole added in separate remarks. “If the court had accepted that argument, it would have put in peril all manner of young people’s speech, including their expression on politics, school operations, and general teen frustrations.”
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (The Associated Press)
Biden To Outline Actions Aimed at Combatting the Recent Rise in Violent Crime and Gun Violence
The president’s orders come the same day the Associated Press released data showing that a record number of gun sales were stopped last year because of background checks.
President Biden Issues Orders on Violent Crime Rise
President Biden will outline several actions on Wednesday that his administration plans to take to curb the recent rise in violent crime and gun violence.
That includes tougher enforcement policies for federal gun control laws, as well as new guidelines for how cities and states can use COVID-19 relief funds to combat gun violence. For instance, those guidelines will allow for the hiring of more police officers, paying officers overtime, buying equipment, and funding additional “enforcement efforts.”
Biden’s plan also includes investing in community-based intervention programs for both potential perpetrators and potential victims of gun violence and helping felons adjust to housing and work after leaving prison.
Background Checks Stop Record Number of Sales
Hours ahead of Biden’s announcement, the Associated Press reported that background checks blocked a record 300,000 gun sales last year, according to newly obtained FBI data provided by a nonprofit that advocates for gun control.
In fact, the numbers are staggering compared to previous years. For example, background checks that successfully blocked gun sales last year amounted to nearly twice that of 2019.
Notably, about 42% of those blocked sales were explicitly because would-be buyers had felony convictions on their records.
Still, it’s important to note that these stats don’t necessarily mean less guns are being successfully bought. While the rate of barred buyers has increased somewhat from around 0.6% to 0.8% since 2018, the U.S. also saw a record number of gun sales last year.
Nearly 23 million guns were bought in 2020 alone, according to the consulting firm Small Arms Analytics. Alongside that record, the country saw another record when it came to the rate of gun violence.
Because of that, Everytown for Gun Safety — the group that gave the AP the new background check data — reiterated its belief in the need for stronger gun control regulation.
“There’s no question that background checks work, but the system is working overtime to prevent a record number of people with dangerous prohibitors from being able to buy firearms,” Sarah Burd-Sharps, the group’s director of research, told the AP. “The loopholes in the law allow people to avoid the system, even if they just meet online or at a gun show for the first time.”
Unsurprisingly, gun rights advocates have pushed against that idea, and some have even pushed against this new data on background checks. As Alan Gottlieb — founder of the group the Second Amendment Foundation — argued, the higher number of denials could be partially because of false positives.
“A day doesn’t go by that our office doesn’t get complaint calls from people who’ve been denied wrongly,” he told the AP.
See what others are saying: (USA Today) (Associated Press) (Reuters)
California Plans Unprecedented $5.2 Billion Rent Forgiveness Program
State lawmakers are also debating on whether to extend the eviction moratorium, which is set to end next week, to ensure that Californians are not evicted before their debts can be paid off by the state.
Rent Relief in the Works
The California State Legislature is in the final stages of negotiating an unprecedented $5.2 billion rent forgiveness program to pay off unpaid rent accumulated during the pandemic.
It is not entirely clear yet who would receive the money, which comes from an unexpected budget surplus and federal stimulus funds. After speaking to a top aide for Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), the Associated Press reported that the $5.2 billion figure would cover all rent.
However, the same aide told The New York Times that the state had federal funds “to help pay the rent of low-income people.”
The outlet also explicitly reported that the program “would be available to residents who earn no more than 80 percent of the median income in their area and who can show pandemic-related financial hardship.”
Newsom offered little clarity, retweeting multiple stories and posts on the matter, including The Times article as well as others that said “all” rent would be paid.
Regardless, the program would be the most generous rent forgiveness plan in American. Still, there remains an unresolved question of extending the statewide eviction moratorium that ends June 30.
Eviction Ban Complications
Starting the new program and distributing all the money will take some time, and California has been struggling to keep up with demand for more modest rent relief programs.
According to a report from the California Department Housing and Community Development, just $32 million of $490 million in requests for rental assistance through the end of May had been paid.
State legislators are debating extending the protections and are reportedly close to a deal, but nothing is set in stone yet.
Tenants rights groups say the move is necessary to ensure struggling Californians are not evicted before their debts can be paid off by the state, and some housing advocates want to keep the moratorium in place until employment has reached pre-pandemic levels.
Landlords, however, have said it is time to end the ban, pointing to the state’s rapid economic recovery, which added 495,000 new jobs since February, as well as Newsom lifting all restrictions on businesses last week.
But according to Opportunity Insights, an economic tracker based at Harvard, while it is true that employment for middle- and high-wage jobs has now surpassed pre-pandemic levels, the rates for low-income workers are down nearly 40% since January of last year.
As a result, many of the people who have months or even a year of unpaid rent have barely been able to chip away at what they owe.
State Recovery Spurred by Revenue Surplus
Newsom’s new program comes as the governor has proposed a $100 billion recovery package — also drawing from the budget surplus and unspent federal funds — that would pour funds into numerous sectors including education, homelessness, and much more.
California is not the only state that has newfound reserves. According to The Times, at least 22 states have surplus revenue after pinching pennies during the pandemic. Some are still deciding what to do with the funding, but others have already begun to invest it into education, construction, the arts, and more.
While many economists have said these funds will be incredibly helpful tools to get economic recovery back on track and aid those hurt most by the pandemic, Republicans in Congress have argued to those surpluses should go towards paying for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan.
The Biden Administration and most Congressional Democrats have remained adamant that the states keep their extra funding to implement recovery-centered programs. White House spokeswoman Emilie Simons reiterated that belief Monday, telling reporters that state surpluses will not alter America’s infrastructure needs and emphasizing that many states are still struggling economically.
“This crisis has adversely impacted state and local governments, and that is not fully captured by one economic indicator,” she said.