A WhatsApp account belonging to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have been used to hack into the cellphone of Jeff Bezos in an effort to “influence, if not silence” reporting on the kingdom by The Washington Post, two United Nations human rights experts said on Wednesday.
Mr. Bezos, the billionaire chief executive officer of Amazon, who also owns the Washington Post, received an encrypted video from the crown prince loaded with digital spyware that enabled surveillance of his cellphone starting in May 2018, the United Nations experts said in a statement. At the time, the government of Saudi Arabia had grown critical of The Post’s coverage of the kingdom, and particularly the work of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for the paper, whose writing criticized the crown prince.
Six months after the hack of Mr. Bezos’s phone, Mr. Khashoggi was lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was killed and dismembered by a team of Saudi agents. The Central Intelligence Agency has concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed likely ordered the murder.
In their statement on Wednesday, the United Nations experts drew a direct line between the hack, a subsequent social media campaign against Mr. Bezos and Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.
“At a time when Saudi Arabia was supposedly investigating the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, and prosecuting those it deemed responsible, it was clandestinely waging a massive online campaign against Mr. Bezos and Amazon targeting him principally as the owner of The Washington Post,” the experts said.
The United Nations experts, Agnes Callamard, special rapporteur on summary executions and extrajudicial killings, and David Kaye, special rapporteur on freedom of expression, have both been involved in the investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s murder. They based their assessment on a forensic investigation carried out at Mr. Bezos’s request.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that the accusation that the kingdom was involved in hacking Mr. Bezos’ phone was “absurd.” It called for an investigation, but did not say who should carry it out.
The statement on the hack by the United Nations experts adds to the pressure on Crown Prince Mohammed — essentially accusing him of new criminality at a time when the kingdom is still fighting the negative publicity generated by the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.
The revelations also further complicate relations between the Saudi government and the Trump administration, which has stood by Crown Prince Mohammed despite an international outcry over Mr. Khashoggi’s death and the assessment by Mr. Trump’s own intelligence services that the crown prince was likely involved.
The United Nations experts called on the United States and “other relevant authorities” to immediately open an investigation into the hack of Mr. Bezos’s phone, citing a pattern of similar surveillance of perceived critics of the Saudi government.
Their statement cited a 2019 forensic analysis of Mr. Bezos’s phone that assessed with “medium to high confidence” that his phone had been infiltrated on May 1, 2018, via an MP4 video file sent from a WhatsApp account utilized personally by the Saudi crown prince. The report, which was reviewed by The New York Times, indicated that Mr. Bezos continued to receive messages from the crown prince’s WhatsApp account after Mr. Khashoggi’s death.
The report was carried out at Mr. Bezos’s request by the business advisory firm FTI Consulting and given to the United Nations experts by Mr. Bezos’s associates for their assessment. Messages sent by the crown prince’s account throughout 2018 suggested that he had intimate knowledge of Mr. Bezos’s private life.
On Nov. 8, 2018, the report said, Mr. Bezos received a message from the account that included a single photo of a woman who strongly resembled Lauren Sanchez, with whom Mr. Bezos was having an affair that had not been made public. The photo was captioned, “Arguing with a woman is like reading the software license agreement. In the end you have to ignore everything and click I agree.”
At the time, Mr. Bezos and his wife were discussing a divorce, which would have been apparent to someone reading his text messages.
Mr. Bezos and Crown Prince Mohammed, the report said, exchanged phone numbers at a dinner in Los Angeles in April 2018. The crown prince initiated a messaging conversation with Mr. Bezos that same day over WhatsApp.
Sheera Frenkel contributed reporting.