Israel’s Pegasus Scandal Looked Like the Scoop of the Decade. So Where’s the Proof?

What’s known is that Israel Police bought and used NSO’s Pegasus spyware. However, more and more questions about the reporting by an Israeli financial daily cast a shadow over the allegations

Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob
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An image of the NSO Group logo and a smartphone.
An image of the NSO Group logo and a smartphone.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob

When the news broke that the Israel Police had been using the now-infamous Pegasus spyware to snoop on Israeli citizens without any court orders, it sent shock waves through the country. Indeed, the series of investigative reports by the financial daily Calcalist felt like the scoop of the decade.

However, in the weeks since the first report was published, more and more questions have been raised about the scandal, casting doubt over the story’s more sensational claims.

Israel's dangerous Pegasus scandal – and how to protect your phone. LISTEN

The backlash has been triggered by police denials of any misuse of the NSO Group’s spyware, which allows the user to access the victim’s cellphone without their knowledge; critics calling out what they see as shoddy reporting; the lack of any findings by the initial probe conducted into alleged police use of Pegasus; and also by the newspaper itself, which has doubled down on its reporting without providing any clear evidence for its claims.

In fact, the evidence – or lack thereof – is what has now shifted the focus from the police to Calcalist and its investigation into the alleged use of Pegasus by law enforcement officials. The scandal peaked this week with the reporter at the heart of the investigation, Tomer Ganon, temporarily deleting his Twitter account.

So what do we know about the affair, what are the concerns and what remains unanswered?

The big questions

Calcalist has published seven reports into the police and their purported use of Pegasus. These reports have since been dissected by media critics and experts in Israel and overseas. The main problem is that all of these reports lack any attribution: There is no “based on documents seen by Calcalist” or “say sources knowledgeable about police activities.” Nothing.

This does not automatically mean they are false. It does, however, leave a lot of room for speculation and doubt, since lack of sourcing and attribution make the bombshell claims simultaneously impossible to fully confirm but also impossible to flat-out deny.

As Israeli media watchdog website the Seventh Eye noted, the Calcalist reports can be broken down into three tiers.

The first is the news that the Israel Police purchased the Pegasus spyware in 2013 and has made some use of it since 2015 through a special signal intelligence unit manned by alumni of the Israeli army’s Unit 8200 intelligence division. Despite a lack of any attribution and despite initial denials, the police have since confirmed that they did indeed purchase the system and used it in some capacity.

The second tier is that Pegasus was misused by the police, with officers targeting mayors accused of corruption, activists involved in organizing demonstrations, and suspects and witnesses in the cases surrounding then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without the necessary court orders.

This allegation has yet to be confirmed – and may be impossible to prove: Much time has passed and, without more details from Calcalist such as dates of the hacks, simply cannot be corroborated.

The third tier – and the most problematic one – is Calcalist’s list of suspected Pegasus targets. The financial daily, doubling down following the backlash over its initial reporting, published a list of almost 30 names of those targeted. The list included top officials and even one of Netanyahu’s sons, Avner, but again was not attributed to any source.

Avner Netanyahu at a court hearing in Tel Aviv three years ago.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The police responded that they targeted just three of those names, but that only one actually had their device infected. An initial official investigation into the full list of names also failed to confirm the Calcalist reporting.

While it is possible to be skeptical of any official findings and suspect a cover-up, it is worth remembering that journalists have also been investigating the list and have yet to confirm even a single case of Pegasus being used in Israel.

An Israeli cybertech firm working with the media did find that the cellphones of two of the people on the list – both former directors general of Israeli ministries – were targeted by some form of spyware at some point. However, these findings fell short of naming either NSO or Pegasus.

Do these hacks match the timeline of the police’s usage of Pegasus? They might, we just don’t know enough based on the reporting itself to fully confirm or refute the claims.

Sources and forensics

It is worth remembering that all known cases of Pegasus usage worldwide have been unearthed using digital forensic analysis. The Calcalist report was the first time details of an entire state operation were revealed by what seems like a source with knowledge not of the victims but of the operators.

While forensic analysis has its limitations, it has the benefit of providing some form of actual evidence. Calcalist, as one of Israel’s top investigative journalists noted this week, did not even say if the story came from a source.

“There is a difference between what we know and what we can prove,” wrote renowned investigative journalist Mordechai Gilat in a scathing opinion piece in Haaretz. “Calcalist’s reports are no more than a string of baseless claims and unattributed, generalized statements. This may turn out to be one of the biggest debacles in the history of the Israeli media.”

Calcalist, for its part, has shifted from offense to defense. If the first weeks saw the paper publish more and more details from its investigation, it has now started to walk back the tone of its reporting, writing recently that the stories showcased the lack of proper oversight into spyware usage and had sparked an important public debate.

This is a far cry from its initial claims of massive misuse against activists, officials and innocent civilians.

On Twitter this weekend, Calcalist reporter Ganon published a dramatic thread defending his “good name” and saying, for the first time, that there was a “source” or perhaps even a number of sources behind the reporting.

“I will do everything to defend my sources,” he wrote, adding that he will not allow them to face the same fate as other whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Anat Kamm. The latter leaked classified information to Haaretz from her time as a soldier, and served over two years in prison for it. However, Kamm, now an editor at Haaretz, in turn criticized Ganon for what more and more people are calling shoddy journalism. Later that night Ganon deleted his Twitter account, but has subsequently returned.

Until more details emerge and some form of forensics is found on the phones, Israel may never know the full truth. However, hopefully more will be uncovered during the commission of inquiry set up to investigate the whole affair.

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