Wyden calls on NSA to examine White House cybersecurity following Bezos hack
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Friday pressured the National Security Agency (NSA) on efforts to secure personal devices of government employees from foreign hackers and surveillance following news that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s phone was allegedly hacked by Saudi officials.
Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone asking for an update on a commitment made by former NSA Director Michael Rogers in 2018 that the agency would look into how key government institutions like the White House are guarding against hacking and surveillance operations.
He also singled out senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, who in 2018 reportedly communicated via WhatsApp with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sometimes referred to as MBS.
“Until the White House takes security seriously, the most sensitive secrets of this country will end up in enemy hands,” Wyden told reporters on Friday while discussing the letter. “So today, I am writing to the National Security Agency and asking them to evaluate the security risks of Jared Kushner, and other White House officials who may have messaged MBS, particularly on their personal devices.”
Bezos’s phone was allegedly hacked by Saudi officials through a compromised file sent to his phone from the WhatsApp account of the crown prince.
In Friday’s letter, Wyden pointed to comments made by Dimitrios Vastakis — the former chief of computer network defense at the White House — who wrote in a memo announcing his resignation in October that “the White House is posturing itself to be electronically compromised once again.”
The Washington Post reported in 2014 that White House computers were hacked by individuals linked to Russia, leading to ramped-up cyber efforts under the Obama administration. But the cybersecurity coordinator position at the White House was eliminated in 2018.
Wyden asked Nakasone whether the NSA believed that the White House had the capabilities to defend against cyberattacks on President Trump and his staff.
In relation to the alleged hacking of Bezos’s phone — which two senior United Nations officials this week tied to efforts to silence The Washington Post’s coverage of Saudi Arabia — Wyden also asked about the security of devices of White House officials that are known to communicate with the crown prince over WhatsApp, such as Kushner.
“If the Saudi government had access to Jared Kushner’s phone, it’d be practically like putting a bug in the Oval Office,” Wyden told reporters on Friday.
The NSA did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for comment on Wyden’s letter.
Wyden has been vocal in the wake of the alleged hack of Washington Post owner Bezos’s phone, sending a separate letter to Bezos earlier this week strongly urging him to disclose anything he knew about the Saudi surveillance and hacking in order to protect others from a similar threat.
While Bezos has not put out a statement in response to the alleged hacking, which Vice News linked to an analysis of Bezos’s phone done by FTI Consulting, Bezos on Wednesday tweeted a picture of himself standing with Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where Khashoggi was killed, commenting “#Jamal.”
Saudi Arabia has denied any involvement in the hacking of Bezos’s phone, with the Saudi Embassy in the U.S. calling for the claims to be investigated.
The FTI report said Bezos’s phone was compromised using tools potentially tied to Saud al Qahtani, a close friend of the crown prince and the former president and chairman of the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones. Al Qahtani is among the 16 individuals the State Department has accused of being involved in Khashoggi’s 2018 killing.