The security chief of Jeff Bezos has accused Saudi Arabia of obtaining private information from the Amazon chief executive after allegedly gaining access to his phone.
Gavin de Becker, a security specialist who has worked closely with Bezos for 22 years, says that he was directed by the Amazon boss to "spend whatever is needed" to find out who was responsible for leaking his messages to Lauren Sanchez, a former television anchor who is reported to have been dating the world's richest man.
"Our investigators and several experts concluded with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos' phone, and gained private information," de Becker wrote in an article for The Daily Beast website on Saturday.
In January, US tabloid The National Enquirer published a series of messages between Bezos and Sanchez shortly after he announced his planned divorce from wife of 25 years, MacKenzie Bezos.
The Amazon chief executive struck back in February, publishing a blog post that alleged The National Enquirer's parent company, American Media Inc (AMI), had attempted to blackmail him. Bezos said it had threatened to publish intimate photographs allegedly sent to Sanchez unless the investigation into the leaked messages was dropped.
De Becker, who has worked closely with the CIA and FBI during his career, said he was surprised to find AMI allegedly had been "in league with a foreign nation that's been actively trying to harm American citizens and companies".
His initial investigation found that Sanchez's brother, Michael Sanchez, was paid to reveal details of their relationship by The National Enquirer. At the time, Michael Sanchez told a number of media outlets he had not supplied the most explicit images, but acknowledged he may have done "something".
But after interviews with current and former AMI executives, advisers to US President Donald Trump, associates close to those at the heart of Saudi Arabia's government, Middle East intelligence experts and cyber security specialists, de Becker claims he found the hacking was a "key part of the Saudis' 'extensive surveillance efforts'".
Bezos had become a target of the Saudi regime after the Washington Post, which he owns, fiercely criticised Riyadh following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, de Becker suggested. US intelligence officials said they believed that Khashoggi's killing, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, was ordered by the crown prince himself. The allegation was strongly denied by the Saudi government.
Experts told de Becker of the Saudi government's capability to "collect vast amounts of previously inaccessible data from smartphones in the air without leaving a trace - including phone calls, texts, emails", he wrote.
The security specialist claimed AMI wanted the investigation into the Bezos story to conclude that it was not "instigated, dictated or influenced in any manner by external forces, political or otherwise" and hadn't relied on "any form of electronic eavesdropping or hacking in their news-gathering process".
In his article, de Becker documented some of the methods allegedly employed by the Saudi government to "attack" people, such as creating artificially trending hashtags online. He claimed it had also used a "cyberarmy" of bots to attack Bezos.
The regime was previously reported to have sent an operative to work for Twitter to gather information. Twitter later fired the suspect employee and later advised certain users that their accounts may have been targeted by state-sponsored actors.
"Some Americans will be surprised to learn that the Saudi government has been very intent on harming Jeff Bezos since last October, when the Post began its relentless coverage of Khashoggi's murder," de Becker wrote.
Evidence from the investigation has been turned over to federal officials, de Becker said, while noting that it is "unclear to what degree" AMI is aware of the Saudi government's involvement.
The Saudi government's minister of state for foreign affairs denied all accusations against the state, saying it had "absolutely nothing to do" with the National Enquirer's story.
The Saudi embassy in Washington DC has not yet responded to a request for comment.
De Becker's claims about the Saudi government will be difficult to verify, as he has said he will not speak again publicly on the issue. Few details were offered in his article as to the evidence for his accusations.
Responding to de Becker's allegations, an American Media spokesperson said: "Despite the false and unsubstantiated claims of de Becker, American Media has, and continues to, refute the unsubstantiated claims that the materials for our report were acquired with the help of anyone other than the single source who first brought them to us.
"The fact of the matter is, it was Michael Sanchez who tipped the National Enquirer off to the affair on September 10, 2018, and over the course of four months provided all of the materials for our investigation. His continued efforts to discuss and falsely represent our reporting, and his role in it, has waived any source confidentiality. There was no involvement by any other third party whatsoever."