Israel’s special relationship with the United States has given it a free pass for atrocities in Gaza. But, beyond this, in an era of legal gray zones in the area of online disinformation operations, the country’s private spy community has been given carte blanche to covertly meddle in a host of nations.
Private Israeli spy companies have been meddling in other countries, including their elections, at previously unknown levels. The private intelligence firm Psy-Group went to great lengths to pitch the Trump presidential campaign on its services and nakedly meddled in a small-town California election, according to a new report published in the latest issue of The New Yorker. Meanwhile, a number of people associated with lawsuits against NSO Group, infamous for its Pegasus spyware, have become targets of another spying group, according to an AP exclusive.
Hacking and meddling: those are two of the terms underpinning allegations against Russia that have captivated American audiences and lawmakers alike for the past two years. But while Russian hacking has not been conclusively linked to the leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers, nor is there any evidence, or indictments, that the “Russian troll farm” operated by the private Internet Research Agency is secretly run by the Kremlin, there is ample evidence that bands of self-styled spies for hire have used such tactics to undermine American institutions.
Israel’s special relationship with the United States has given it a free pass for atrocities in Gaza. But, beyond this, in an era of legal gray zones in the area of online disinformation operations, the country’s private spy community — which is comprised mostly of former Mossad and former military intelligence officers — has also been given carte blanche to covertly meddle and engage in black-ops missions in a host of nations.
Psy-Group, which is legally based in Cyprus, was stacked with former Israeli intelligence agents. The company expanded on the tactics pioneered by Terrogence, the first major private Israeli spying company, which disrupted alleged terrorist networks with fake online personas.
But Terrogence’s success inspired new companies, staffed similarly with former Mossad agents, that were “less risk-averse,” according to The New Yorker. Such companies include Black Cube, a firm that boasts about its ties to Mossad and Israeli military intelligence and recently worked on behalf of serial sexual abuser and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to spy on his accusers. Black Cube also compiled dossiers of “dirt” on Obama officials who had worked on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran Nuclear Deal) and their spouses, on behalf of President Donald Trump’s aides in order to undermine the agreement.
Terrogence’s Vice President for Business and Development, Royi Burstien, wanted to use the fake online personas, or avatars, in situations beyond counter-terrorism, including on behalf of commercial clients. But after less than a year at the company, with it refusing to budge on taking on such clients, Burstien went back to join Israel’s military intelligence. Come 2014, he founded Psy-Group alongside owner Joel Zamel, an Australian native whose father made a fortune in mining.
Before it closed, Psy-Group used oppositional research, doxxing, sockpuppet accounts, fake companies and think tanks, and “honey traps” to secure its objectives. Honey traps refer to the use of sexually attractive agents to butter up sources so they release information.
Pitching the Trump Team
In early 2016, Rick Gates, a deputy to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, was put in touch with Psy-Group, prompting Burstien to draft a plan for a covert influence campaign to promote Trump’s candidacy, counter other Republican challengers, and furnish opposition research on Hillary Clinton.
In May 2016, Zamel emailed GOP heavyweight Newt Gingrich, telling him that he could provide the Trump campaign with powerful social media tools. Gingrich forwarded the email to Jared Kushner. The Trump campaign says it did not hire the company then, either. But Zamel was resolute, and wound up getting a meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Blackwater founder Erik Prince at Trump Tower. That pitch also failed, according to the parties involved.
However, George Nader — a Lebanese American, consultant to Erik Prince, and adviser to United Arab Emirates Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan — sings a different tune. Nader was at the Trump Tower meeting with Prince, Zamel and Trump Jr. A spokesperson for Nader told The New Yorker “that [Zamel] had conducted a secret campaign that had been influential in Trump’s victory.”
“Here’s the work that we did to help get Trump elected,” Zamel allegedly told Nader.
Nader is a major negotiator for Washington and Israel on Middle East affairs. He is also convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys in the Czech Republic and on child pornography charges in Virginia — charges that were put under seal “due to the extremely sensitive nature of Mr. Nader’s work in the Middle East.”
A Psy-Group presentation, which some employees called the “If we had done it” slide deck, “appeared similar” to the document Nader saw that allegedly detailed Psy-Group’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
After Nader and Zamel fell into the crosshairs of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating allegations of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and officials of the Russian Federation, the FBI came knocking at Psy-Group’s door. “The FBI seemed genuinely surprised that this shit [we were doing] wasn’t illegal,” a former Psy-Group employee told The New Yorker.
Before all that, Psy-Group also reportedly pitched the U.S. State Department and had a partnership with the Trump campaign’s main social media advisor — Cambridge Analytica, the company that rocked Facebook with one of its biggest scandals to date after it harvested 50 million Facebook users’ private information without permission to improve its political ad targeting.
Currently, Psy-Group’s only verifiable success with the administration is through Elliot Abrams, who is listed on Psy-Group’s board of directors and was recently appointed by the Trump administration as Special Envoy for Venezuela to oversee its coup policy. Abrams is also on the Advisory Council of Wikistrat, another company owned by Zamel that is in Mueller’s crosshairs.
Small-Town Election Meddling
While it is in question whether Psy-Group meddled in the 2016 presidential elections, it certainly did in a small town’s hospital board election, giving the corrupt doctor in charge of a local hospital in Tulare enough covert influence tools to conduct a regime-change operation in a small- to medium-sized nation.
In 2014, the doctor, Yorai Benzeevi, bragged that the hospital could generate $9 million a year in revenue on top of his $225,000 a month of income from it. When Benzeevi was eventually ousted, it was discovered that he had run the facility into more than $36 million in debt, according to The New Yorker.
Benzevi maintained his hold on the hospital through a sympathetic board, but only one member needed to be unseated to turn the tide. A young activist, Alex Gutiérrez, asked his mother, Senovia, to run against Benzeevi’s main backer. When she did, shady websites started popping up: TulareLeaks.com, TulareSpeaks.com, DrainTulareSwamp.com. The websites “directed visitors to articles that smeared Senovia Gutiérrez,” a Mexican immigrant who had been working full-time since she was 16 but eventually earned a bachelor’s degree and became a social worker.
While Senovia and her son were seeking small contributions from their neighbors, Benzeevi was in Israel meeting with Psy-Group to listen to proposals on how to take them down. Quickly, fake online personas, or “sock puppet” accounts posing as residents, smeared Senovia on social media, questioned whether she was an American citizen, and accused her of taking bribes.
On one occasion, a blond woman knocked on Senovia’s door. Her other son, Richard, answered it and was then given an envelope. Across the street, a man was standing around and taking photographs. Later, he returned taking more photographs. Those pictures started appearing on DrainTulareSwamp.com in a post that asked ““Who Is Pulling Senovia’s Strings?”
Insinuating that she had taken a bribe, the post said “the public should be watching … Senovia closely. This past week a very expensive black car was seen parked in front of the home of Mrs. Senovia [sic] in addition to several other unidentified cars.” Then flyers directing people to visit TulareSpeaks.com started popping up on door handles in the town.
PsyGroup paid a small businessman who distributes fliers in cash under a pseudonym.
And on the eve of the election, Senovia’s son Alex saw his house burn down. While he thought it was related to the election, the local fire department found no evidence of arson and a former Psy-Group official told The New Yorker he “never initiated any physical fire on any project whatsoever.”
Ultimately, the campaign backfired, as residents believed Senovia was being harassed, leading her to a landslide victory. Psy-Group reportedly billed Benzeevi a mere $230,000 for these services.
Covert on Campus
While Psy-Group’s meddling in small-town politics may have backfired, its interference with university politics was likely more effective. Psy-Group worked on behalf of wealthy Jewish American donors in New York, conducting a campaign called Project Butterfly to “destabilize and disrupt anti-Israel movements from within.”
They were referring to pro-Boycott, DIvestment and Sanction (BDS) groups on 10 college campuses. The BDS movement seeks to economically pressure Israel into ending its apartheid policies and respecting Palestinian human rights.
Psy-Group would compile dossiers on activists and lecturers, scouring the dark web, social media, and other resources for dirt. Then, they would “dox” their targets — releasing personally identifiable information about them to the world. Psy-Group was given research on BDS targets by the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. Meanwhile, a former deputy director of Mossad was recruited to help with the project, and a former national security advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was made an advisor.
Project Butterfly seems to operate similarly to the more widely known Canary Mission, which compiles blacklists of BDS activists and doxxes them online. In late 2018, the Canary Mission was revealed to be bankrolled by at least two Jewish-American charities.
Psy-Group closed shop in 2018 after it fell into Mueller’s crosshairs. But, another shady Israeli company — similarly based out of Cyprus and with a similar name — continues to conduct its business. The outfit, called NSO Group, manufactures a hacking tool called Pegasus, which gives hackers the ability to look at text messages, detect calls, collect passwords, pinpoint GPS locations, and suck up information from applications like Gmail, Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp and more.
NSO Group hawks its product to governments supposedly for counter-terrorism purposes, but more often than not the victims of Pegasus spyware turn out to be journalists and human rights workers.
NSO lets its clients hack 10 Android phones for $650,000 in addition to a $500,000 installation fee. The company also cuts deals with governments, allowing them to hack 100 phones for just $800,000, according to internal documents viewed by The New York Times. Commercial proposals for Pegasus tout its ability to gain “unlimited access to a target’s mobile devices” and that it “leaves no traces whatsoever.”
NSO Group’s spyware is suspected to have been used in Israel, Turkey, Thailand, Qatar, Kenya, Uzbekistan, Mozambique, Morocco, Yemen, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Bahrain. NSO also sold Pegasus to Panama in 2015.
The following year, it was revealed that Pegasus was used to target a Saudi national and employee of Amnesty International. It was also used to spy on a human-rights activist in the UAE named Ahmed Mansoor, who was the target of a spear phishing campaign promising him details on torture committed in the country. Emirati officials sought to spy on the Saudi prince in charge of the monarchy’s National Guard and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, as well as the Qataris — and did so.
At one point, when they were offered a more expensive deal, the Emiratis wanted proof of product. So NSO Group hacked the editor of a London-based Arab newspaper, Abdulaziz Alkhamis, whose cell phone call recordings were forwarded to the UAE officials.
Because the Israeli government considers Pegasus a weapon, the NSO Group needed the approval of the Israeli Defense Ministry in order to sell it to the Emirates, a lawsuit against NSO Group notes.
Pegasus spyware was also used by the Saudis to spy on slain columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
And another journalist in Mexico, as well as human-rights activists, have also become targets of NSO Group’s surveillance technology. In 2017, when a coalition formed to investigate the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, its members started receiving spear phishing messages that, if clicked, would install Pegasus on their phones.
Hiring a spy team to smear hacker detractors
These revelations have spawned a number of lawsuits against NSO Group. But since then, six people associated with the litigation have found themselves the target of spies who appear to be with Black Cube, despite previous denials by Black Cube. The only identified individual who participated in the campaign has previous ties to the company. He was, however, “one of many.”
Black Cube has been described by people familiar with its work as the “almost privatized wing of Mossad,” and it is staffed, like NSO Group and Psy-Group, with ex-agents.
Earlier this year, two cybersecurity researchers were lured by agents into meetings at luxury hotels in an effort to discredit their research on NSO Group. Then, on Monday, AP revealed the existence of four other victims, three of whom were lawyers working on lawsuits against NSO, in addition to a journalist based in London who has been writing about the cases.
“The targets told the AP that the covert agents tried to goad them into making racist and anti-Israel remarks or revealing sensitive information about their work in connection with the lawsuits,” the outlet reports.
As AP was “preparing to publish” its story, doctored and de-contextualized footage of two of the targets — the journalist and one of the lawyers — meeting with undercover agents was broadcast on Israeli television. Almost comically, if not so tragically, that report claimed the lawsuits against NSO Group were part of a “smear campaign” against the private spy shop.
Top Photo | Am Israeli student attending a class how to investigate a computer network that has been hacked in Beit Shemesh, Israel. In its quest to become a world leader in cybersecurity and technology, Israel invests heavily in tech education. Daniel Estrin | AP
Alexander Rubinstein is a staff writer for MintPress News based in Washington, DC. He reports on police, prisons and protests in the United States and the United States’ policing of the world. He previously reported for RT and Sputnik News