Pegasus Scandal: Bennett Is Told Police Tried Hacking Only 3 of 26 Reported Targets

Prime minister orders further examination of Pegasus reports before deciding on a wider investigation. Bennett told police only managed to successfully hack one of the three phones

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Bennett in the Knesset
Bennett in the KnessetCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett ordered a further examination into the allegations that Israeli police used Pegasus against 26 people, among them public officials, journalists, activists and witnesses in the opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu's trial.

The decision comes after the prime minister was presented with information in the meeting that contradicted the Calcalist report on Monday, stating that the police only tried to spy on three of the 26 individuals, and only successfully hacked one of their phones. The attempted hackings were given prior approval by a judge.

The investigative team looking into the accusations is led by Deputy Attorney General Amit Merri, and will be supported by the Shin Bet.

The prime minister was joined by senior government officials – including Justice Minister Gideon Saar, Internal Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev and Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara – to discuss the possibility of an inquiry, after the revelations by the business daily on Monday sparked widespread outrage from across the political spectrum.

In the immediate aftermath of the allegations, Bennett vowed on Monday that the police's use of NSO spyware “won’t go unanswered.”

According to a report published Monday by Calcalist, the police used NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware without getting a court order to break into the phones of the former prime minister’s son, Avner; his media advisers Topaz Luk and Jonathan Urich; Iris Elovitch, the wife of former Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch; and the directors general of the finance, justice and transportation ministries – Shai Babad, Keren Terner and Emi Pa;mor.

“The things that were reported, if true, are very serious. This tool (Pegasus), and similar tools, are very important in the war against terror as well as against serious crime,” Bennett said, “but they are not intended for widespread ‘phishing’ of Israeli citizens or public figures in the State of Israel, therefore we need to learn exactly what happened.

Babad, Turner and Pamor wrote that they feel “insulted, humiliated and helpless” over the report by the Israeli business daily Calcalist, saying that their “basic rights had been trampled upon.” The former officials demanded that any information extracted from their phones that is now in the possession of the police or other officials be immediately destroyed, and they asked to be given a report regarding the scope and content of the material this is destroyed.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu called Israel Police's use of NSO spyware against public officials “a dark day for the state of Israel,” after further revelations surfaced about the scope of police hackings.

Speaking in the Knesset, Netanyahu charged that Israel Police's use of Pegasus tool was “unthinkable” and called for an independent investigation which could be agreed upon “by both sides of this house.”

Earlier, Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev decided to form a government commission of inquiry to investigate the matter, a type of inquiry commission that lacks the wide-ranging investigative powers that a state commission of inquiry holds.

Bar-Lev said the commission would “conduct an in-depth investigation into violations of civil rights and privacy during the years in question," stressing that “from the evidence that has emerged, it appears that the failures, if any, occurred under previous police commissioners, public security ministers and previous governments."

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai has also requested a state commission of inquiry into the report before cutting short his visit to the UAE as his agency is in turmoil over the report, which the force still denies.

In a letter issued to all police officers, Shabtai claimed some of the people reported by the Calcalist financial daily to have been infected with NSO spyware were “mistakenly included” in the report. He also stressed that “so far, no indication has been found of any unlawful activity.”

The diverse list of those targeted with the spyware further includes a host of mayors, journalists for the Walla news site, organizers of protests by Ethiopian Israelis and disabled activists, supermarket magnate Rami Levy and Yair Katz, the chairman of the workers’ union at Israel Aerospace Industries.

The latest Calcalist report comes three weeks after the financial daily first reported that the Israel Police had been using NSO spyware without a court order to hack phones of Israelis not suspected of any crimes. The software was deployed by a special operations team inside the police’s cybersecurity unit.

Since then, other further revelations have been reported by Calcalist, as well as by Haaretz and other media about alleged police misuse of the spyware. The police initially claimed that an internal probe they conducted found no evidence the software was used without a court order. Last month, former Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit appointed a team to investigate the allegations.

The Pegasus spyware allows its operators to remotely access mobile phones infected with the software. Sold to intelligence and law enforcement agencies across the world, the spyware exploits security vulnerabilities in Android and iPhone operating systems to gain access to the device's contents – from messages to photos. The program also enables to remotely activate the phone’s camera and microphone, without the victim's knowledge.

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