Israel’s Top Defense Panel to Discuss Cyberarms After NSO Scandal

Classified intelligence subcommittee meeting will be held in wake of NSO scandal and growing backlash after Israeli spyware found on U.K., French phones

Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv
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The Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense committee convening, in June.
The Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense committee convening, in June.Credit: Emil Salman
Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv

Israel’s top defense committee will convene for a special session dedicated to offensive cyberarms in the wake of the global investigation into NSO Group and the subsequent international backlash to the apparent misuse of the Israeli-made Pegasus spyware.

The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee will convene for a closed session to discuss not just NSO and the string of revelations about its spyware’s potential targets, exposed as part of the Project Pegasus project. The session, which will not be open to the public, will also focus on other Israeli offensive firms that have made headlines in recent months, like Candiru and Quadream, after it was exposed they too sell their spyware to non-democratic regimes.

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The session of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is not on their official agenda, and it will be sealed off from the public and its minutes kept off the record. The reason is that the session will be held by a subcommittee dedicated to “intelligence issues and other special issues.”

The meeting is currently set for August 9, though the committee chair, lawmaker Ram Ben Barak, has denied its existence. “Check your sources,” his office said when asked for a response about the planned discussion.

MK Ram Ben Barak, chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense committee, last monthCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The subcommittee dedicated to intelligence is a small forum comprising only four lawmakers: Ben Barak (who in the past was the deputy head of the Mossad), Eli Avidar (who served in the agents department within Israel’s military intelligence), Eitan Ginzburg and Zvi Hauser. It is unclear who will represent the defense establishment and what security bodies will be present.

MK Eli Avidar in the Knesset, last monthCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

On Monday, it was revealed that the phone of a prominent British human rights lawyer and close associate of Princess Latifa of Dubai was infected by NSO's Pegasus software. An Amnesty International forensic analysis revealed yesterday that the phone of David Haigh bore signs of Pegasus, in what was the first confirmed targeting of a U.K. number by the Israeli-made spyware. The analysis also confirmed an additional U.K. phone, belonging to a Muslim activist, was also actually targeted, alongside the phones of three others: A journalist from Hungary, a journalist from Turkey and a legal official in India.

Hungarian journalist David Dercsenyi, allegedly targeted by surveillance, in Budapest, last monthCredit: Marton Monus / Reuters

Meanwhile, also on Monday, Le Monde reported that a French intelligence service confirmed that three phones belonging to journalists in the country were also targeted and showed signs of either the Pegasus software or attempts to have it installed, further straining tensions with France. Paris has been up in arms after the Project Pegasus investigation - led by the nonprofit Forbidden Stories together with Amnesty and 17 media outlets, including Haaretz - suggested a phone used by French President Emmanuel Macron was also selected for potential targeting, very likely by the Moroccan intelligence services, which are known to be an NSO client.

French president Emmanuel Macron in Brussels, last monthCredit: John Thys / AP

Another report in France, from Monday, said the French government has asked Israel to ban the use of the Pegasus spyware in France. A source close to NSO told the Washington Post in wake of their report about the British numbers on Monday that as of six months ago the firm blocked the spyware being deployed on U.K. phone numbers. It has long been reported that U.S. numbers cannot be entered into the system.

Closed meeting

Meanwhile, the Israel Democracy Institute issued a severe warning on the issue of cyberarms and the planned meeting, taking issue with the fact it will be closed off for the public. 

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior researcher at the think tank, sent lawmaker Ben Barak a letter urging him to allow “the public to get answers they deserve about this burning topic.”

In her letter, she said that the “diplomatic crisis [caused by the Project Pegasus revelations] have wide implications for Israel and its allies, as well as Israel’s standing and the standing of its cyber industry in the world; and even Israel's ties with tech giants.” Writing in Haaretz last week, Shwartz Altshuler explained that the NSO scandal may have serious implications for Israel’s plans to work with Google and Amazon to set up a national cloud, called Project Nimbus.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, 2014Credit: Nurit Yahalomi

“These are not only the concerns of the defense establishment,” she said. “The oversight of defense exports is done behind a black curtain of concealment,” she said, lamenting lack of transparency and calling out the use of the Israeli military censor to keep information relating to Israel's cyber industries under wraps.

“When do these firms serve their interests? And when do they serve the state’s interest?  And who decides?” she asked, adding: “This is simply not just a security issue but rather a normative one.”

Haaretz reported this week that a leading Israeli law firm organized an “emergency meeting” for offensive Israeli cyber firms. Shwartz Altshuler said in response that “these firms are now reportedly setting up their own lobby and will attempt to use their power to influence decision makers - and only the public is being excluded.” Therefore, she urged the defense committee to open the meeting to the public.

Judging by Ben Barak’s past statements, this seems like an unlikely outcome and the chairman of the defense committee is very likely to keep the meeting sealed off.

In 2018 Ben Barak participated in a conference alongside Edward Snowden (who participated remotely via video). After Snowden assailed state snooping of citizens through private firms like NSO, Ben Barak responded by saying: “I was very impressed by this talented man [Snowden] but he is young and suffers from lack of attention to detail. If you listen to him, you would think everything he did was because he thought NSO was making the world a more dangerous place.

Edward Snowden being broadcast in Honolulu, in 2015.Credit: אי־פי

“For that he stole half a million documents and risked the lives of secret agents and America’s biggest secrets? He’s lucky he betrayed America and not Russia, because if it was the Russians from whom he had stolen the documents, he would have quickly discovered a plutonium pill deep in his stomach.”

When asked about state surveillance, Ben Barak said at the time that “in the past, people’s private letters were opened, and we could see for example what instructions a certain agent got. Today, there’s no way to combat this with the tools we had 20 years ago. I don't think people who don't have something to hide have something to fear.”

In the same conversation, he also seemed to justify mass surveillance. “If there is some IP number in the U.S. that is contacting an IP in Pakistan that is of interest to those charged with protecting American citizens’ safety, though 99 percent of such communications are harmless - it is still of some interest. Do we want to give security forces the ability to examine such communications? Ask yourself: If after they open a certain email and see it's nothing, they close it, is that ok? The answer is yes. So maybe that breaks some American law put on the books 200 years ago, but de facto there’s a bigger chance this communication may actually lead to an attack and therefore needs to be examined.”

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