NSO Scandal: 'Judges Don't Know What Spy Tools They're Approving'

Senior cops say they were not aware of NSO's Pegasus spyware being used in any investigation, while Israel Police vehemently denies tapping into phones without a warrant

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
Israeli police and activists face off during a demonstration against Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, last year.
Israeli police and activists face off during a demonstration against Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, last year.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Judges who sign warrants for police wiretaps don’t know what tools police intend to use to carry them out, senior police officers said Tuesday, responding to a report that police were using NSO’s controversial Pegasus spyware without a warrant to hack into Israelis’ cellphones, including Israelis who aren’t criminals or even suspected criminals.

One senior police officer said that when police request a warrant from a judge, they specify the purpose of the wiretap and the specific actions they intend to take, but not the tools they will use.

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But police vehemently denied the report's claim that some wiretaps were conducted without a warrant signed by a district court president or deputy president.

“Technological tools are never used without a reasonable suspicion, and only for the purpose of searching for evidence of a felony,” one police source said. Another added, “Every use of these tools is done with a judge’s supervision, oversight and warrant.”

According to police data, the vast majority of its requests for such warrants are approved. Out of 3,692 requests submitted in 2020, only 26 were rejected.

Both current and former senior police officers, among them a former head of the police’s intelligence department and a former head of the investigations department, said Tuesday that as far as they knew, their departments never used Pegasus in any investigation.

The only department that did use Pegasus, they said, was the SIGINT department, which was in direct contact with the police commissioner and other top officers. They were not kept in the loop about its use or about the information gathered through it.

The police first bought Pegasus in December 2013. According to the report, published Tuesday morning in the financial daily Calcalist, they began using it on a limited basis in 2014 and more widely after former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich entered office.

Guy Nir, who is now retired but headed the intelligence department when Pegasus was purchased, said he didn’t know the police had bought it or put it into use.

Guy Nir, former police intelligence chief.

Nir has warned in the past about police’s improper use of intelligence collected on Israelis. On Tuesday, he said, “I was surprised not just by the fact that they were doing illegal things with existing systems, but also by the fact that they bought a system like Pegasus and also that they’re using it improperly against Israelis.

Uri Machluf, a retired officer who headed the investigations and intelligence branch until 2017, also said he was unfamiliar with Pegasus.

“I wasn’t familiar with this software, and there was no such thing as not working under a court warrant,” he said. “As head of the investigations department, I dealt with quite a few investigations, and not only didn’t I know about this software, I also don’t know of anyone who listened in on anyone without a court’s warrant. That’s a red line, in my view.

“In any case, if you obtain material from someone’s phone without a warrant, that violates the law,” he added. “People have a right to privacy, and it doesn’t matter whether the person is a criminal or not. I very much hope this didn’t happen.”

Former senior law enforcement officials said Tuesday that the police’s use of Pegasus was authorized by the force’s legal advisor and also by the State Prosecutor's Office, for the purpose of catching criminals involved in serious crimes. Nevertheless, they added, police were never authorized to use it without a warrant.

In exceptional cases, the Wiretapping Law does allow a wiretap to be carried out without a warrant for the purpose of preventing a serious crime, as long as the police commissioner approves it. But a senior police officer said the last time that loophole was used was 30 years ago.

Haaretz has obtained a copy of the invoice for the police’s initial purchase of Pegasus from NSO. It is dated December 2013, which is when police bought the basic system for use by the investigations and intelligence branch. The product number is listed as 000, and there is no description of it other than that number. The quantity is listed as “one unit,” and the price was 2.7 million shekels ($860,000).

The person who signed on behalf of NSO was Shirley Shochat, while the person who signed for the police was Hadas Biton of the investigations and intelligence branch. It was also signed by someone from the branch’s budget department.

According to one person involved in the issue, this initial price covered only the purchase of the basic system. Every year thereafter, upgrades were purchased at a cost of additional millions of shekels.

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