In an excerpt from his upcoming book “Catch and Kill,” New Yorker journalist Ronan Farrow recounts how he turned an investigator working for the Black Cube private intelligence agency into his own source of information for his own probe into the firm and film producer Harvey Weinstein.
With Farrow’s assistance, the investigator eventually turned to the legal authorities and volunteered to be a witness regarding Black Cube’s U.S. operations. The firm was founded and is staffed with former Israeli intelligence operatives from the Mossad and other agencies, and is based in London and Tel Aviv.
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The account includes the story of a botched escapade involving what appears to be work done for the Israeli cyberintelligence company NSO Group, regarding charges by the Canadian research institute Citizen Lab that NSO software was used in the Jamal Khashoggi killing in October 2018.
In the excerpt published Monday, Farrow cites sources “close to the Black Cube operation” claiming that the company was initially misled by the now-disgraced Weinstein as to his intentions when he hired it in October 2016. They believed they had been “hired to counter a negative campaign against Weinstein, and expected that the work would concentrate on his business rivals.”
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It was only later that the intelligence agency “began to receive assignments to spy on women with sexual-harassment and assault accusations against Weinstein, and on reporters investigating those accusations,” using their tactics of setting up false front companies and giving agents fake identities.
The first of three excerpts from Farrow’s book (out October 15) tells the story of Igor Ostrovskiy, a Ukrainian immigrant to the United States and small-time private investigator who, Farrow writes, was hired by Russian émigré Roman Khaykin to tail and follow targets and report on their whereabouts for an unnamed client. It turned out that in fact Khaykin was a contractor for Black Cube, and he in turn hired Ostrovskiy as a subcontractor.
One of the prime targets was Farrow himself, along with Jodi Kantor of the New York Times. Both journalists were working on separate investigative stories about claims of sexual harassment against Weinstein, who had hitherto enjoyed a storied Hollywood career as the producer of such hits as “Shakespeare in Love,” “The King’s Speech” and the films of Quentin Tarantino.
After several months on the job, Ostrovskiy only realized whom he had been working for when Farrow published a piece reporting on Black Cube’s work for Weinstein. He later contacted Farrow and began feeding him information on the targets he was given and the tactics being employed, which included hacking and secret recordings.
Ostrovskiy told Farrow he was moved to cooperate with him — and, later, the authorities — out of concern that what he was participating in was illegal and that the harassment of journalists reminded him of his former homeland.
The final dramatic chapter in Ostrovskiy’s relationship with Black Cube, Farrow writes, took place last January when he was surveilling a lunch meeting between a Black Cube agent using a false identity and a researcher for the Canadian Citizen Lab. The Toronto-based digital rights group tracks the misuse of internet surveillance and had issued a damning report connecting NSO Group software to the Saudi assassination of Khashoggi.
NSO is a Herzliya-based company that developed the Trojan horse program Pegasus, which Forbes magazine in 2016 called “the world’s most invasive mobile spy kit.” It allows almost unlimited monitoring, even commandeering, of cellphones: To discover the phone’s location, eavesdrop on it, record nearby conversations, photograph those in the vicinity of the phone, read and write text messages and emails, and more. The reports about Pegasus prompted MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) and human rights lawyer Eitay Mack to go to court in 2016 with a request to suspend NSO’s export permit. At the state’s request, however, the deliberations were held in camera and a gag order was issued on the judgment.
A year ago, Haaretz published a comprehensive investigation into how Israeli companies, including NSO, have sold technology to a long list of countries — even when they have no way to ascertain whether the items sold were being used to violate the rights of civilians.
Farrow wrote: “At the lunch, the Black Cube operative started asking about Citizen Lab’s reporting on NSO Group. He asked whether there was a “racist element” to Citizen Lab’s focus on an Israeli company. He pressed [Citizen Lab researcher John] Scott-Railton for his views on the Holocaust,” as the meeting was being recorded and photographed by Ostrovskiy.
Unbeknownst to Black Cube, noted Farrow, the Citizen Lab researcher was already suspicious. As well as recording the meeting himself, he had also allowed an Associated Press cybersecurity journalist, Raphael Satter, to observe the lunch. Satter confronted the agent, and reported on the confrontation.
While helping him flee, Ostrovskiy saw the agent’s luggage tag with an Israeli name and address that led him to be identified as “a retired Israeli security official named Aharon Almog-Assouline, who was later reported to have been involved in a string of Black Cube operations,” including what seemed to be an operation that “appeared to target figures who had criticized NSO Group or argued that its software was being used to hunt journalists.”
Farrow’s book does not present Black Cube’s alleged hired hands in a flattering light, saying that at times the investigators were “hapless. One day, Ostrovskiy and Khaykin spotted one of my neighbors, to whom I bore a passing resemblance, coming out of my apartment building. They gave chase. ... On a later day, when Ostrovskiy was alone on duty, he followed the same man again, drawing near enough to touch him. Sensing that something was wrong, Ostrovskiy dialled my number.
“Upstairs, in my apartment, I picked up a call from a number I didn’t recognize. ‘Hello?’ I said, and heard a brief exclamation in Russian before the line went dead. I put down the phone confused and unnerved. Downstairs, my neighbor walked on, unaware that Ostrovskiy had been following him.”
The excerpts continue in the New Yorker on Tuesday and Wednesday.