The news that special counsel Robert Mueller dispatched FBI agents to the Middle East to interview witnesses and worked with the Israel Police to seize computers affiliated with a company that specializes in "social media manipulation," hit Israel like a bombshell.
The name thrust into the spotlight by Saturday’s New York Times report is that of Joel Zamel, described as an “Israeli social media expert.” His company, Psy-Group, the article said, developed “an online manipulation campaign that involved usage of thousands of fake social media accounts to help Trump get elected.”
Zamel, the Times reported, met Donald Trump, Jr. together with George Nader, a special adviser to the leadership of the United Arab Emirates three months before the 2016 election and allegedly pitched his company expertise to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton and discussed ways to help the Republican candidate’s campaign through social media manipulation.
It wasn’t the first time Zamel’s name has arisen in connection with the Mueller probe, which is looking into alleged foreign meddling in the 2016 elections. On April 3, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Mueller team was examining the nine-year-old company owned by Zamel and his business partner Daniel Green, then a consulting firm called Wikistrat.
The Journal said that Wikistrat was contracted by the UAE beginning in 2015 to conduct war game scenarios on Islamist political movements in Yemen and had developed close relationships with the Emirate’s security establishment and business community. According to the newspaper, the work included Wikistrat putting together a war game concerning the political situation in Yemen for the UAE and then briefed top Emirati national security officials on the results.
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That job, it said, had “morphed into what one person close to the company referred to as ‘intelligence lite’—using local on-the-ground sources to anticipate threats.”
Zamel’s two companies appear to be radically different.
PsyGroup has a minimal footprint - a one-page website that gives a Cyprus address and a slogan “Shape Reality.” A Hebrew language job recruiting site lists it as being a small “media, marketing and advertising company” and says it has between 11 to 50 employees.
A more detailed picture of PsyGroup was painted in a Wall Street Journal story published the same day as the Times report. The Journal described the company as engaging in “private intelligence gathering work.” It said “one of its main rivals was Black Cube—another Israeli firm which achieved notoriety after it was used by Harvey Weinstein to counter probes into his alleged sexual abuse of actresses. Several people linked to the firm are veteran Israeli intelligence officials, with experience in areas that include psychological operations. According to the firm’s marketing materials reviewed by the Journal, Psy-Group offered clients an array of services—including “honey traps,” a term used by spy agencies for an intelligence-gathering tactic using romantic or sexual relationships to extract information.
The article included a link to a Psy-Group company brochure online showing the services they advertise - including honey traps - as well as “deep web and Darknet capabilities.”
By contrast, Wikistrat is a large, established company with a much higher and extremely public profile. It was founded in Israel in 2010 and is now based in Washington, D. C. It bills itself as “the world’s first crowdsourced consultancy. We leverage a worldwide community of several hundred strategic thinkers to run simulations of likely international events and unfolding global trends, wargame future conflict or crisis scenarios, and conduct strategic planning exercises.”
Wikistrat’s list of clients on its website includes numerous U.S. government and intelligence agencies. Its advisory council includes many former U.S. intelligence officials, as well as familiar names like Dennis Ross, former Middle East peace negotiator, Elliot Abrams, former Deputy Director of the National Security Council and John P. Hannah, former National Security Advisor to then U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. While his name doesn’t appear on the company website, a Bloomberg online biography lists Zamel as Wikistrat’s founding director and chief executive officer, relating that he “developed the strategic planning methodology of Collaborative Competition, on which Wikistrat’s flagship system is based. He has a Bachelor of Mining Engineering from the University of New South Wales and a Masters Degree in Government, Diplomacy and Strategy from the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, specializing in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security.”
In 2011, the company courted publicity by sponsoring a “Grand Strategy Competition” that it said would provide participants with a “Wikipedia meets Facebook collaborative space for generating content” aimed at “bringing together leading analysts of the future, who will be challenged to come up with long-term national strategies for selected countries based on five issues: global energy security, global economic “rebalancing,” Jihadist terrorism, the Sino-American relationship and nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.”
In an article about the event in The Jerusalem Post, Zamel and his Wikistrat co-founder Daniel Green are described as “Australian expats” in Israel.
A third company, with an even lower profile than Psy-Group was mentioned in the Times article, which said that in December 2016, Nader utilized another company “linked” to Zamel, one called WhiteKnight and based in the Philippines. He reportedly bought from them “a presentation demonstrating the impact of social media campaigns on Mr. Trump’s electoral victory.”
The Times said that when asked about the purchase, “a representative of WhiteKnight said: “WhiteKnight delivers premium research and high-end business development services for prestigious clients around the world. WhiteKnight does not talk about any of its clients.”
Speaking for Zamel and Wikistrat in April, attorney Marc L. Mukasey, chairman of white collar defense at the law firm Greenberg Traurig, said in April to The Wall Street Journal that the company has said they possess “only a tenuous connection to the special counsel’s investigation and are cooperating fully.”
Regarding the more recent revelations regarding Psy-Group, Mukasey said that Zamel “offered nothing to the Trump campaign, received nothing from the Trump campaign, delivered nothing to the Trump campaign and was not solicited by, or asked to do anything for, the Trump campaign.” He said reports that Zamel had engaged in “social media manipulation” were incorrect and that his client’s companies “harvest publicly available information for lawful use.”
Much has been made across social media regarding the fact that among Zamel’s company’s clients include Russian oligarchs implicated in other parts of the Mueller probe. The Times reported that one of Zamel’s firms “had previously worked for oligarchs linked to Mr. Putin, including Oleg V. Deripaska and Dmitry Rybolovlev, who hired the firm for online campaigns against their business rivals. Mr. Deripaska, an aluminum magnate, was once in business with the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has pleaded not guilty in the special counsel investigation to charges of financial crimes and failing to disclose the lobbying work he did on behalf of a former president of Ukraine, an ally of Mr. Putin. Mr. Rybolovlev once purchased a Florida mansion from Mr. Trump.”
In the political blog, Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall pointed out the interconnectedness when it came to legal representation in the Trump probe.
“Zamel is represented by a man named Marc L. Mukasey,” Marshall wrote. “You may recognize the name because he’s the son of the former Attorney General Michael Mukasey. For our present purposes what is important is that Mukasey has been the deputy and the law partner of Rudy Giuliani for years.”
For over a decade, Mukasey and Giuliani worked together at the law firm of Bracewell and Patterson. In January 2016, Giuliani moved to Greenberg Traurig.
In June 2017, Giuliani travelled to Israel to attend a cybersecurity conference in his role as as a Senior Advisor to Greenberg Traurig’s Executive Chairman and as Chair of Cybersecurity, Privacy and Crisis Management Practice. During that visit, he said one of the reasons he chose the firm was because it was the “only international law firm with an office in Tel Aviv” and praised Israel’s “capitalist free market economy” saying it was “one of the most innovative countries in the world” with “cutting edge technology in cybersecurity.”