The biggest bombshell of this young year not related to Donald Trump detonated on Thursday. Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon and The Washington Post, accused the National Enquirer of attempting to blackmail him into stopping The Post’s investigation into how the Enquirer got its hands on a raft of Bezos’ text messages. Those texts included some very lurid pictures Bezos sent to his mistress.
Last month, the Enquirer included these texts in a lurid story about Bezos cheating on his wife. Bezos retained security consultant Gavin de Becker to find out how the Enquirer obtained the texts. On Tuesday, lawyers for the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media (AMI), warned Bezos that unless he called off both de Becker’s investigation and a separate investigation by The Post, the Enquirer would publish more lurid texts.
When Bezos refused, AMI threatened to publish the photos unless Bezos stated that he had “no knowledge or basis” for claims that AMI uses the Enquirer for political reasons. Never mind that multiple investigations by the media and the federal government have indeed proven that AMI and its owner, David Pecker, have indeed used the Enquirer to serve the interests of Pecker’s longtime friend, Donald Trump.
By any reasonable standard, this is extortion. Indeed, federal prosecutors in Manhattan already want to know whether AMI breached a nonprosecution agreement it reached after being busted for helping suppress stories about Trump. And Bezos may not be the only target. Indeed, just hours after Bezos went public with his claims, Ronan Farrow claimed that he “and another prominent journalist” got nastygrams from AMI threatening to wreck their reputations unless they backed off Trump.
If this is true, it would be many, many, many times worse than the phone hacking scandal that shuttered News of the World. But believe it or not, it may be even worse than that. How do you get worse than trying to extort critics into silence? Quite easily, as it turns out. It’s very possible that the Enquirer got Bezos’ pictures through means with the help of international espionage.
On Thursday’s edition of MSNBC’s “The Last Word,” The Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia revealed that Bezos and de Becker believe that the Enquirer got its hands on Bezos’ texts with foreign help. Watch here.
Roig-Franzia told host Lawrence O’Donnell that de Becker doesn’t believe this was a case of phone hacking, but a case of something much more sinister. De Becker reportedly believes that “a government entity” got its hands on those texts.
When veteran national security strategist and former National Security Agency analyst John Schindler saw this, his ears perked up. In a column published hours later at the Observer, Schindler minced no words about the implications of de Becker’s findings.
If any state entity is spying on Jeff Bezos and leaking his purloined communications to third parties in the media, that’s legitimately alarming for privacy and personal liberty in America. Because if they can do it to the richest guy on earth, they can do it to anybody.
It’s tempting to conclude that “state entity” is our own government. After all, Trump has made no secret of his distaste for Bezos. Last spring, for instance, he relentlessly trashed Bezos and Amazon on Twitter. Richard Painter, Bush 43’s ethics counsel, believes Trump did so in a way that may have crossed the line into securities fraud.
But Schindler was quick to knock that prospect down. That would entail a rogue American spy funneling information to Trump’s brownshirts in the White House–running counter to the Trumpian shibboleth that the deep state is working hand in glove with Bezos and the rest of the “fake news media.” But the only agencies in a position to get that kind of information are the NSA or the FBI. Schindler doubts that either would have reason to peer into Bezos’ affairs.
The NSA would not get involved unless Bezos were somehow involved in illicit foreign activity, and the texts published by the Enquirer have almost no intelligence value. As for the FBI, there’s no evidence Bezos has crossed the line into criminal conduct in a bid to become even wealthier than he is now–and hence, there would be no reason for the FBI to even be involved.
To Schindler’s mind, that leaves the possibility that the Enquirer got those emails from a foreign “state entity” whose agents are active in the United States. He believes the most likely suspects are Russia, China, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Russian involvement would come as no surprise, given the too-cozy-for-comfort relationship between the Kremlin, Trump and many members of Trump’s inner circle. As we all know, The Post is hopping mad over the murder of Saudi dissident and Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi–a crime that was almost certainly ordered by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Bezos has made no secret about his efforts to plant flags in China–a gambit that could potentially make Beijing queasy. A number of Trump’s close advisers have close ties to Israeli intelligence.
Whatever the case, if it does turn out that the Enquirer obtained those texts from a foreign power, then calling it an outrage would be being too kind. The Enquirer would not be engaging in journalism. It would be engaging in espionage.
But even if there was no espionage involved, the Enquirer has some explaining to do. If it turns out Bezos and Farrow are telling the truth, then it would not be out of line to ask whether the Enquirer and AMI should be allowed to exist. When this could merely be the best-case scenario, it doesn’t look good for Pecker.
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