The NSO hack – Biden’s NSO dance

Michael Arria 

Mondoweiss  /  November 11, 2021

If you’re reading this newsletter there’s a good chance you’re aware of the NSO Group, the Israeli technology firm that developed something called Pegasus spyware. That spyware has been used by multiple authoritarian governments to spy on journalists and dissidents. Targets have included the family of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by Saudi agents in 2018. They were apparently surveilled, before and after his death, by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The French nonprofit Forbidden Stories coordinated “The Pegasus Project”, which was an investigation into the data leak of over 50,000 phones. This summer they revealed their findings: Pegasus was found on the phones of over 180 journalists. They had been spied on by governments of at least 20 countries.

“The Pegasus Project lays bare how NSO’s spyware is a weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent, placing countless lives in peril,” said Secretary General of Amnesty International Agnes Callamard at the time. “These revelations blow apart any claims by NSO that such attacks are rare and down to rogue use of their technology. While the company claims its spyware is only used for legitimate criminal and terror investigations, it’s clear its technology facilitates systemic abuse. They paint a picture of legitimacy, while profiting from widespread human rights violations.”

Earlier this month the Biden administration slapped sanctions on the NSO group (along with another Israeli company called Candiru) for acting “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.” It was a welcomed step, as the spyware market has remained virtually unchecked for years.

If you’re reading this newsletter you have probably also heard that the Israeli government recently declared that six Palestinian human rights groups are actually terrorist organizations. It’s a move that’s generated global condemnation and an obvious attempt to stifle the invaluable work that these courageous people do. Earlier this month Israeli officials showed up in Washington with a dossier that allegedly proved these bold charges. +972, Local Call, and The Intercept obtained copies of the dossier and discovered that there was nothing there. Here’s some of +972’s article on the subject:

The classified dossier, which features the Shin Bet logo, is titled: “Findings of Inquiry: Foreign Funding for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine through a Network of ‘Civil Society’ Organizations.” The document opens with background on the PFLP — which Israel, the United States, and the European Union deem a “terrorist organization” — and its armed operations since the 1970s, and goes on to argue that the PFLP established civil society organizations to serve as front groups. According to the document, while some of these NGOs have humanitarian goals, a portion of the donations made to them “have reached the terrorist organization itself.”

The dossier mentions Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Sweden, Spain, and the European Union as countries and bodies that financially support the six NGOs, and its aim was most likely to persuade them to cut off money to the groups. Yet both the Dutch foreign minister and the Belgian economic development minister have publicly stated that the dossier did not contain “even a single concrete piece of evidence.” Following the dossier, Belgium and Sweden said they conducted independent audits on the financial conduct of the six organizations in question and their connection to the PFLP. Neither country found any evidence for the Shin Bet’s claims.

The NSO developments and the terrorist designations were two separate stories involving Israel, or so most people thought. However, just days ago we found out that they are very much connected.

The investigative group Frontline Defenders shared some big news. Back on October 16 the group was contacted by the Jerusalem-based human rights organization Al-Haq. They were concerned that one of their members had been hacked. A forensic investigation was carried out and, lo and behold, Pegasus spyware was on the phone.

On October 17 Front Line Defenders met with representatives from the six organizations that had been targeted by the Israeli government. They collected a number of devices to investigate for Pegasus.

On October 19 Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz issued an executive order designating the six Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations. One of those groups was Al-Haq. By the end of the month, Front Line Defenders reported that they had found the spyware on multiple phones of activists connected to the six organizations.

You don’t have to implement a lot of deductive reasoning to figure out what probably happened here.

Like most policy decisions connected to Israel, the Biden administration is going through the challenges of threading a needle. The NSO Group revelations were enough to inspire action, but they can’t really publicly acknowledge that the company has any connection to the Israeli government.

This was already kind of tough, as Israel’s government sold NSO its export license. Now it’s even trickier, as it seems Israel’s government probably used Pegasus to spy on Palestinians.

Earlier this month State Department spokesperson Ned Price was asked if there would be any punitive measures taken against Israel. Price cited the actions that were taken against the company and pointed out that there had been restrictions placed on the NSO Group. He got a follow-up question about whether any action would be taken against Israel specifically and drew a distinction between the actions of a business and the actions of individuals.

“Every responsible country has an obligation to take action against criminals operating within their territory,” Price explained. However, “in this case we are talking about conduct of private companies that we see as contrary to our national security interests. We have had conversations with our Israeli partners about the conduct of the NSO Group. We will continue to have those conversations in private to make clear our concerns.”

Think about what Price is trying to argue here. Pretend that there was a Chinese technology company that had been granted export licenses by the Chinese military. A blockbuster report reveals that dozens of despotic governments have used this technology to spy on activists, including the Chinese government itself. What do you think the Biden administration would say? Does anyone actually believe they would make these kinds of distinctions when framing the problem?

After news of the hacked Palestinian phones broke, Price was asked about the company again. Here he is:

I’ve seen those reports. I don’t have a response to them. What I can tell you is to reiterate that we had a constructive discussion with an Israeli delegation that was visiting last week. The delegation provided a verbal briefing on information that they had on certain groups. They also provided written materials. We’ve provided those written materials to our counterparts in the administration. We’re going to take a very close look at them as wewe intend, and we are, together with our partners throughout the interagency, to take a very close look at the information that was provided to us in written form, to cross-reference that information with what we may have in our own holdings, and from that we’ll form an informed judgment.

It doesn’t ultimately matter whether the Biden team makes an informed judgement about all this. Chances are they won’t make it public and it won’t alter U.S. policy in the region one iota.

So Long Brian Williams

Longtime anchor Brian Williams is leaving NBC after 28 years with the network. A look back at his career reveals a six-month gap in 2015. That’s when he was suspended for lying about an incident that occurred during the Iraq War. Williams claimed that he was in a helicopter that had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. He had been in a helicopter and a helicopter had been hit by a grenade, just not his.

Williams offered an apology at the time where he claimed that his story was a “bungled” attempt to honor the troops. Here he was trying to explain it a bit more: “Looking back, it had to have been ego that made me think I had to be sharper, funnier, quicker than anybody else, put myself closer to the action, having been at the action at the beginning.”

Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn wrote Williams’ suspension at the time and pointed out that he was hardly an outlier.

“(Williams) wasn’t the only journalist to be carried away by the idea that his life was in imminent danger at that time,” wrote Cockburn. “I was then in Irbil, the Kurdish capital, and used to enjoy visiting a hotel called, so far as I recall, the Irbil Tower. Fox News was based on an upper floor of the hotel, the entrance to which, opposite the lift, was protected by a sandbag emplacement though not a shot was fired in Irbil during the conflict. In fact, the Fox team really was in some danger – a nervous receptionist at the front desk told me – because the weight of the sandbags was such that it might lead to the collapse of the shoddily built hotel.”

Looking back at the Williams saga, I immediately thought about the recent media meltdown over the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan. Many pundits seemingly fancied themselves as part of the action and felt betrayed when some of that was taken from them.

Williams had another helicopter controversy that probably isn’t remembered as often. Tagging along with Israeli general during a mission in 2006, he watched Katyusha rockets land on an uninhabited hillside and emit smoke. “They lack the accuracy to hit the chopper we were in, but it was quite a vantage point,” he explained after landing.

He had a very different version of the story when he was a guest on the Daily Show years later.  “Here’s a view of rockets I have never seen, passing underneath us, 1,500 feet beneath us,” he told Jon Stewart. “And we’ve got the gunner doors on this thing, and I’m saying to the general, some four-star: ‘It wouldn’t take much for them to adjust the aim and try to do a ring toss right through our open doors, would it?’” The interview ends with him telling Stewart, “Anytime you want to cross over to the other side, baby, travel with me.”

There were red flags with this version of the tale. The doors of Israeli military helicopters generally remain shut and the IDF doesn’t have four-star generals. It’s worth noting that the Israel’s military is a viable option if a U.S. reporter wants to put themselves closer to the action or cross over to the other side.

The J Street Delegation

 J Street certainly wasn’t welcomed to Knesset when Netanyahu was in power, but that’s changed with the new government. This week the liberal pro-Israel group brought a delegation of Democrats to the country. This included Reps. Rosa DeLauro, Mark Pocan, Barbara Lee, Melania Stansbury, Jamaal Bowman, and Mondaire Jones.

Pocan and Bowman are frequently targeted by pro-Israel groups, and they’re co-sponsors on Betty McCollum’s historic bill, but you’ll recall that they both voted in favor of additional Iron Dome funding in September.

“This evening at the Knesset, I met with a delegation of Democratic members of Congress,” tweeted Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. “I thanked them for supporting the replenishment of the Iron Dome missile defense system, and we discussed the importance of continuing to strengthen the US-Israel relationship.”

The group also met, and posed for a picture, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Bowman later tweeted a picture of himself with children in the West Bank. “Had the honor of meeting with children today in the occupied West Bank city Hebron,” he said. “There are streets they cannot walk and places they cannot go, simply because they are Palestinian. When I asked about their dreams, their answer was simple: freedom. The occupation must end.”

Pocan tweeted this: “Today ⁦@JamaalBowmanNY & I visited w/ Nasser of Susia in Palestine today to discuss Israeli settler violence to his village. We will be watching to make sure no violence occurs this weekend or anytime. Thanks ⁦@jstreetdotorg⁩ @BtSIsrael⁩! @Israel⁩ ⁦@IDF”

Many Twitter users thought Pocan was thanking and Israel and the IDF, but he points out that he was actually thanking J Street and Breaking the Silence. He says he tagged Israel and the IDF after his punctuation to put them on notice. Here he is responding to a critique of the original tweet: “I don’t mean to suggest you don’t understand punctuation marks, but perhaps you missed the exclamation mark after thanking two organizations. After that the other two were mentioned to put them on notice. Perhaps don’t just assume everyone’s doing the wrong thing.”

There’s probably a reason why people were confused beyond the tweet’s wording. Like J Street, Pocan and Bowman seemingly believe that one can be pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and pro-peace. Just look at the Iron Dome vote. Both lawmakers say they support conditioning military aid to Israel and, in fact, they do. Sometimes. However, when Israel said it needed an extra billion to replenish its defense system, they weren’t on the shortlist of House members who came forward with some conditions.

When pose for pictures with a guy who said “I’ve killed many Arabs in my life, and there’s no problem with that” and then tweet support for Palestine, it’s probably inevitable that your message will come off as muddled to some.

Odds & Ends

Politico ran a piece about Sheldon Adelson widow, Miriam, getting back into politics i.e. GOP funding. At Responsible Statecraft Eli Clifton points out that the article doesn’t mention foreign policy at all, a huge omission if you’re talking about the Adelson’s spending record.

“Indeed, foreign policy has been the key-defining issue-area of the Adelsons’ political giving,” writes Clifton. “The Adelsons helped to support the ultra-hawkish pro-Likud, anti-Iran echo chamber, including, among other groups, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Israeli American Council, United Against Nuclear Iran, and the  Zionist Organization of America — all of which the couple financially supported over the last two decades. They also provided tens of millions of dollars to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee over the years, but abruptly withdrew their backing in 2007 because of its support in Congress for an economic aid package for Palestinians.”

Last week the Biden administration approved a $650 million sale of missiles to Saudi Arabia. The State Department insists that the sale is “fully consistent with the Administration’s pledge … to lead with diplomacy to end the conflict in Yemen while also ensuring Saudi Arabia has the means to defend itself from Iranian-backed Houthi air attacks.”

Students at Boston University are fighting to end the partnership between their school’s police department and the Israeli military. “Why would BUPD need to learn how to surveil and gather intelligence?,” reads a petition being circulated by the students. “Why would they need to learn crowd control, and other so-called ‘security” tactics’? Why would they need to learn from an army which in a single year killed over 250 unarmed protesters and injured over 29,000 just in the Gaza Strip? Is this the type of campus security we want?”

The Ainsworth United Church of Christ in Portland, Oregon just pledged to be a Pillsbury-Free-Church in support of Palestine. Here’s Catherine Alder, a member of the church, writing at our site:

Why boycott Pillsbury? It seems that cute little Dough Boy got himself nestled into an illegal Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem. The United Nations lists General Mills, owner of the Pillsbury brand, as one of the top seven abusers of international law by producing Pillsbury products in Atarot, an illegal settlement. This Palestinian land was confiscated then annexed by Israel. Pillsbury profits from the theft of this land, use of water, and other resources. Pillsbury is perpetrating and profiting from an inhumane system of segregation by making products in this settlement. If we say we love and follow Jesus, the Bread of Life, then we must reject this Bread of Oppression and Boycott Pillsbury!

At its annual diocesan convention the Episcopal Church of Vermont passed a resolution condemning Israeli apartheid by a vote of 89-25. Here’s Steve France writing about the news at our site:

Rev. Craig Smith, who presented the resolution, said the 30-minute debate was not very contentious and he was pleasantly surprised when a few delegates who unknown to him had lived in Israel-Palestine gave their eye-witness approval to the description of the situation being one of apartheid.

The openness of the other delegates seemed also to show that general awareness of public protests against Israel is rapidly growing despite continued unquestioning support for Israel on the part of most U.S. politicians, media and business groups.

The Washington Post ran investigation into “Blue Wolf”, surveillance technology that the IDF uses to record the personal data of West Bank Palestinians.

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss