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Why the UN thinks Saudi crown prince helped to hack Jeff Bezos’ phone

United Nations investigators have unveiled an extraordinary charge: that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia may have been personally involved in hacking Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s richest men. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to Agnès Callamard, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, about the evidence behind the assertion and what should happen next.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, two United Nations investigators unveiled an extraordinary charge: that the powerful crown prince of Saudi Arabia was possibly personally involved in the hacking of one of the world's richest men and the owner of The Washington Post.

    Nick Schifrin is back with that story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, here's the story the U.N. allege.

    In May 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met Washington Post owner and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and started messaging Bezos on the phone application WhatsApp.

    Salman sent Bezos an MP4 video that contained software allowing Bezos' phoned to be hacked. Hours later, the phone started uploading all of Bezos' private data and messages.

    Five months later, Saudi agents murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. When The Post started investigating, Salman once again sent Bezos messages, this time about Bezos' affair that hadn't yet gone public. Bezos described it as — quote — "blackmail."

    And, today, the U.N. described it as Salman's likely personal attempt to — quote — "influence, if not silence" The Washington Post.

    One of the investigators is the U.N. special rapporteur on summary executions and extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, and she joins me now.

    Welcome back to "NewsHour." Thank you very much.

    Why do you believe that Mohammed bin Salman would likely personally be involved with this?

  • Agnès Callamard:

    Well, that's what the evidence is pointing to.

    The forensic investigation conducted by the FTI consultancy firm and backed up by four independent cybersecurity experts that we contacted reached a similar conclusion. The likelihood that the hacking originated from the WhatsApp account of — owned by Mohammed bin Salman is very high, and it is, in fact, the only hypothesis that could explain the hacking.

    So our conclusion was reinforced through the very robust process that we undertook in order to check the conclusion by the initial forensic expert. And that led us today to release this information to inform the public, but also to send a warning to ensure that the wakeup call is being made that we are working, confronting, facing a technology that we are not controlling.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I want to get to that technology a little bit later, but I do need to read you what the Saudi government has said.

    As you have seen, the Saudi official told us the kingdom rejected your conclusions and that — quote — "Saudi Arabia doesn't conduct illicit activities."

    And here's what the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan had to say earlier:

    Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud: The idea that the conference would hack Jeff Bezos' phone is absolutely silly.

    And my understanding of the U.N. report, it's not actually a report. It's a statement based on a report by a private company that has not been vetted by an independent agency, and that, in its own conclusions, no hard evidence to substantiate the claims it's making.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So do you have hard evidence to substantiate the claims?

  • Agnès Callamard:

    Absolutely.

    First of all, the FTI consultancy firm is composed of some of the best experts. It was vetted, because investigation into Mr. Bezos' phone is part of an ongoing FBI investigation. Therefore, the work by the team and the team was vetted by the FBI.

    I have already described to you the process that we followed to check the information and the conclusion of the FTI.

    I should add that, because the FTI review to have the phone was part of an investigation, it was conducted under the most stringent conditions, including with regard to the chain of evidence.

    I have very — I have no doubt that FTI and our independent expert looked at, considered all the options before concluded that the hacking originated from the WhatsApp account owned by the crown prince.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So let's talk about the context for this a little bit.

    You write that this is part of a broader crackdown launched by the kingdom against its critics. We have certainly interviewed people in this country also who described some of that crackdown.

    But the kingdom itself says Khashoggi's murder was done by rogue actors, that they're punishing those people, and that this won't happen again.

    Do you acknowledge those Saudi steps?

  • Agnès Callamard:

    No, I don't.

    As I — when I noted in the report I produced in June, this — the king of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi was a violation of international law. First of all, it's not a domestic matter.

    Second of all, a range of international legal standards were violated, none of which have been taken care of through the Saudi investigation.

    Thirdly, and most importantly, the Saudi investigation completely failed to tackle the issue of the mastermind behind the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. They only focused on the hit men. And, indeed, even though they had originally charged some of the people that were higher up in the chain of command, they ended up not finding them guilty of anything.

    So, all in all, the investigation and the prosecution by the Saudi authorities failed to meet international standards and certainly didn't deliver justice.

    The killing of a journalist uncovers usually a web of corruption, a web of lies, and that can go all the way to the highest level of a government.

    It is not unique to the case of Jamal Khashoggi, but it is a pattern that we found in many other killings. This web of corruption, of lies have not been untangled through the Saudi investigation.

    And this is why I'm calling for — you know, the allegation that we have released today, one more element demonstrating the centrality of the state of Saudi Arabia, the centrality of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia in the campaign — and it is this campaign against dissident that ultimately resulted into the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I only have about 45 seconds left, so I do want to get back to the technology that you mentioned at the top.

  • Agnès Callamard:

    Yes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In your statement today, you call for a moratorium on the global sale and transfer of private surveillance technology.

    But it seems to me that we have already crossed that Rubicon. Is there really anything we can do to try to rein in this kind of technology?

  • Agnès Callamard:

    Well, we — we don't have a choice. We have to rein it in, in the same way we have tried and sometimes succeeded in reining it — some of the weapons that were found to be unlawful and illegal.

    Look, this technology is extremely difficult to trace, almost impossible to control. We have here an example of the richest man on Earth, with unlimited resources, and yet it took him several months to realize his phone was hacked, and it took three months of work by top-notch expert to uncover the source of the hacking.

    So this technology is a danger to all. It's a danger to national security and democratic processes in the United States. It targeted through Jeff Bezos' First Amendment, and, therefore, the American Constitution.

    It targeted a central economic actor in the American system. Therefore, we have no choice. We need to control that technology. We must impose a moratorium.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Agnes Callamard, U.N. special rapporteur, thank you very much.

  • Agnès Callamard:

    Thank you very much.

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