This week, New York Times Beirut bureau chief Ben Hubbard announced that he was targeted with surveillance software sold by the Israeli company NSO Group, and deployed by hackers working for Saudi Arabia. Hubbard’s report was published on the heels of news that Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman allegedly directly hacked Washington Post owner and Amazon founder Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosMichael Strahan headed for space aboard next Blue Origin flight Why science and religion come together when discussing extraterrestrial life Sanders vows to oppose defense bill: 'We need to get our priorities right' MORE’ personal phone.
At the Committee to Protect Journalists, these developments come as no surprise. CPJ has documented numerous attempts by government actors to hack and surveil journalists and has called for greater oversight of these sophisticated surveillance technologies. What is shocking is that despite growing awareness of the Saudi regime’s attacks on journalists and dissidents, U.S. policymakers remain largely reluctant to reexamine the U.S. alliance with Saudi leadership.
In order to ensure U.S. security and protect global human rights, this must change. Just consider what we’ve learned in the past few weeks.
We learned that bin Salman allegedly hacked Bezos’ personal phone in May 2018 — just months before Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in a plot that the CIA and U.S. Senate determined was headed up by none other than bin Salman. We learned that, one month later, hackers working for Saudi Arabia targeted Hubbard. We learned that, weeks after Khashoggi’s murder, a suspected agent of the Saudi government allegedly attempted to kidnap a regime critic on American soil. And we learned that U.S. intelligence authorities believed the Saudis had the “ambition and intention” to monitor Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of Jamal Khashoggi, in London last May.
These anecdotes are only individual examples of the Crown Prince’s orchestrated repression. Since bin Salman became Crown Prince in June 2017, Saudi authorities have imprisoned at least 22 journalists. The journalists represent an array of viewpoints and modes of expressions and include Nouf Abdulaziz, who blogged about women’s rights and other sensitive topics; Bader al-Ibrahim, a dual-U.S. citizen who wrote about identity and sectarian issues; and Saleh al-Shehi, a friend of Jamal Khashoggi who criticized the Saudi government over corruption.
Though all very different, all of them shared one thing in common: producing journalism that challenged bin Salman’s narrative and undermine his vision of power. And all of them are in jail because of it.
There have been two very different responses to these developments. Experts at the UN have called for an independent investigation into the Bezos hack, a demand that civil society organizations have echoed.
Yet in Washington, belief that the Saudi regime is an important ally continues to maintain its grip on policymakers. Following the Bezos development, a White House spokesperson told reporters that “Saudi Arabia is obviously an important ally,” while the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), simply said “that’s the world we live in today, people really need to be cautious with the cyber stuff.” As far as we are aware, only a handful of members of Congress—Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) — issued statements relaying concern or seeking additional information.
Important allies do not surveil, threaten, and murder the citizens and residents of their supposed allies. It is time that U.S. policymakers recognize that the Saudi leadership at the highest levels has repeatedly been directly implicated in attacks on journalists and dissenters, and take action.
First, U.S. policymakers must dispel the notion that Saudi Arabia is special and commit to using sanctions programs and other levers to hold them to account, as the U.S. does with so many other governments known to be human rights violators. Anything less sends a message to allies and adversaries alike the world that U.S. values — including fundamental human rights — are negotiable, and can be bought and sold for the right price.
Policymakers should also join UN experts in calling for an independent investigation. As Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, told The Daily Beast: “There is a pattern of the Saudi authorities, particularly over the last two years, targeting individuals—high-profile people with a big Saudi audience, either because they’re critical of MbS or the government or not just for what they say but what they don’t say, if they’re insufficiently supportive.” While the FBI is reportedly investigating the Bezos hack, this broader pattern must also be investigated for culpability.
In addition, members of Congress must hold the Trump administration accountable. Under amendments to the recently passed national defense funding package, the U.S. director of national intelligence (DNI) is required by law to provide an unclassified report to Congress on Khashoggi’s murder. However, the DNI missed the deadline, prompting inquiries from some members of Congress.
The last time the Trump administration ignored a deadline on the Khashoggi case, lawmakers slammed the administration, but there was little followup. That cannot happen again, or else both the Saudi regime and the Trump administration will see they can continue to get away with this. If lawmakers don’t follow their rhetoric with action, the Saudi leadership will continue to behave with immunity, with the Trump administration’s tacit blessing — and with grave implications for the safety of journalists, democracy, and human rights worldwide.
Michael De Dora is Washington advocacy manager at the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent press freedom advocacy organization. Justin Shilad is CPJ’s senior researcher for the Middle East and North Africa.