Tag Archives: Spying

How Israel spies meddle in elections and hack activists with impunity

Hackers for sale AP_17033705484928_edited

Need an Election Meddled With or an Activist Doxxed? Call on These Israeli Spies

Israel’s special relationship with the United States has given it a free pass for atrocities in Gaza. But, beyond this, in an era of legal gray zones in the area of online disinformation operations, the country’s private spy community has been given carte blanche to covertly meddle in a host of nations.

By Alexander Rubinstein Mint Press News

Private Israeli spy companies have been meddling in other countries, including their elections, at previously unknown levels. The private intelligence firm Psy-Group went to great lengths to pitch the Trump presidential campaign on its services and nakedly meddled in a small-town California election, according to a new report published in the latest issue of The New Yorker. Meanwhile, a number of people associated with lawsuits against NSO Group, infamous for its Pegasus spyware, have become targets of another spying group, according to an AP exclusive.

Hacking and meddling: those are two of the terms underpinning allegations against Russia that have captivated American audiences and lawmakers alike for the past two years. But while Russian hacking has not been conclusively linked to the leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers, nor is there any evidence, or indictments, that the “Russian troll farm” operated by the private Internet Research Agency is secretly run by the Kremlin, there is ample evidence that bands of self-styled spies for hire have used such tactics to undermine American institutions.

Israel’s special relationship with the United States has given it a free pass for atrocities in Gaza. But, beyond this, in an era of legal gray zones in the area of online disinformation operations, the country’s private spy community — which is comprised mostly of former Mossad and former military intelligence officers — has also been given carte blanche to covertly meddle and engage in black-ops missions in a host of nations.

Psy-Group, which is legally based in Cyprus, was stacked with former Israeli intelligence agents. The company expanded on the tactics pioneered by Terrogence, the first major private Israeli spying company, which disrupted alleged terrorist networks with fake online personas.
But Terrogence’s success inspired new companies, staffed similarly with former Mossad agents, that were “less risk-averse,” according to The New Yorker. Such companies include Black Cube, a firm that boasts about its ties to Mossad and Israeli military intelligence and recently worked on behalf of serial sexual abuser and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to spy on his accusers. Black Cube also compiled dossiers of “dirt” on Obama officials who had worked on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran Nuclear Deal) and their spouses, on behalf of President Donald Trump’s aides in order to undermine the agreement.
Terrogence’s Vice President for Business and Development, Royi Burstien, wanted to use the fake online personas, or avatars, in situations beyond counter-terrorism, including on behalf of commercial clients. But after less than a year at the company, with it refusing to budge on taking on such clients, Burstien went back to join Israel’s military intelligence. Come 2014, he founded Psy-Group alongside owner Joel Zamel, an Australian native whose father made a fortune in mining.
Before it closed, Psy-Group used oppositional research, doxxing, sockpuppet accounts, fake companies and think tanks, and “honey traps” to secure its objectives. Honey traps refer to the use of sexually attractive agents to butter up sources so they release information.

Pitching the Trump Team

In early 2016, Rick Gates, a deputy to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, was put in touch with Psy-Group, prompting Burstien to draft a plan for a covert influence campaign to promote Trump’s candidacy, counter other Republican challengers, and furnish opposition research on Hillary Clinton.

In May 2016, Zamel emailed GOP heavyweight Newt Gingrich, telling him that he could provide the Trump campaign with powerful social media tools. Gingrich forwarded the email to Jared Kushner. The Trump campaign says it did not hire the company then, either. But Zamel was resolute, and wound up getting a meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Blackwater founder Erik Prince at Trump Tower. That pitch also failed, according to the parties involved.

However, George Nader — a Lebanese American, consultant to Erik Prince, and adviser to United Arab Emirates Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan — sings a different tune. Nader was at the Trump Tower meeting with Prince, Zamel and Trump Jr. A spokesperson for Nader told The New Yorker “that [Zamel] had conducted a secret campaign that had been influential in Trump’s victory.”

“Here’s the work that we did to help get Trump elected,” Zamel allegedly told Nader.

Nader is a major negotiator for Washington and Israel on Middle East affairs. He is also convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys in the Czech Republic and on child pornography charges in Virginia — charges that were put under seal “due to the extremely sensitive nature of Mr. Nader’s work in the Middle East.”

Black Cube | Israel Hackers

A Psy-Group presentation, which some employees called the “If we had done it” slide deck, “appeared similar” to the document Nader saw that allegedly detailed Psy-Group’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

After Nader and Zamel fell into the crosshairs of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating allegations of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and officials of the Russian Federation, the FBI came knocking at Psy-Group’s door. “The FBI seemed genuinely surprised that this shit [we were doing] wasn’t illegal,” a former Psy-Group employee told The New Yorker.

Before all that, Psy-Group also reportedly pitched the U.S. State Department and had a partnership with the Trump campaign’s main social media advisor — Cambridge Analytica, the company that rocked Facebook with one of its biggest scandals to date after it harvested 50 million Facebook users’ private information without permission to improve its political ad targeting.

Currently, Psy-Group’s only verifiable success with the administration is through Elliot Abrams, who is listed on Psy-Group’s board of directors and was recently appointed by the Trump administration as Special Envoy for Venezuela to oversee its coup policy. Abrams is also on the Advisory Council of Wikistrat, another company owned by Zamel that is in Mueller’s crosshairs.

Small-Town Election Meddling

While it is in question whether Psy-Group meddled in the 2016 presidential elections, it certainly did in a small town’s hospital board election, giving the corrupt doctor in charge of a local hospital in Tulare enough covert influence tools to conduct a regime-change operation in a small- to medium-sized nation.

In 2014, the doctor, Yorai Benzeevi, bragged that the hospital could generate $9 million a year in revenue on top of his $225,000 a month of income from it. When Benzeevi was eventually ousted, it was discovered that he had run the facility into more than $36 million in debt, according to The New Yorker.

Benzevi maintained his hold on the hospital through a sympathetic board, but only one member needed to be unseated to turn the tide. A young activist, Alex Gutiérrez, asked his mother, Senovia, to run against Benzeevi’s main backer. When she did, shady websites started popping up: TulareLeaks.com, TulareSpeaks.com, DrainTulareSwamp.com. The websites “directed visitors to articles that smeared Senovia Gutiérrez,” a Mexican immigrant who had been working full-time since she was 16 but eventually earned a bachelor’s degree and became a social worker.

While Senovia and her son were seeking small contributions from their neighbors, Benzeevi was in Israel meeting with Psy-Group to listen to proposals on how to take them down. Quickly, fake online personas, or “sock puppet” accounts posing as residents, smeared Senovia on social media, questioned whether she was an American citizen, and accused her of taking bribes.

On one occasion, a blond woman knocked on Senovia’s door. Her other son, Richard, answered it and was then given an envelope. Across the street, a man was standing around and taking photographs. Later, he returned taking more photographs. Those pictures started appearing on DrainTulareSwamp.com in a post that asked ““Who Is Pulling Senovia’s Strings?”

Insinuating that she had taken a bribe, the post said “the public should be watching … Senovia closely. This past week a very expensive black car was seen parked in front of the home of Mrs. Senovia [sic] in addition to several other unidentified cars.” Then flyers directing people to visit TulareSpeaks.com started popping up on door handles in the town.

PsyGroup paid a small businessman who distributes fliers in cash under a pseudonym.

And on the eve of the election, Senovia’s son Alex saw his house burn down. While he thought it was related to the election, the local fire department found no evidence of arson and a former Psy-Group official told The New Yorker he “never initiated any physical fire on any project whatsoever.”

Ultimately, the campaign backfired, as residents believed Senovia was being harassed, leading her to a landslide victory. Psy-Group reportedly billed Benzeevi a mere $230,000 for these services.

Covert on Campus

While Psy-Group’s meddling in small-town politics may have backfired, its interference with university politics was likely more effective. Psy-Group worked on behalf of wealthy Jewish American donors in New York, conducting a campaign called Project Butterfly to “destabilize and disrupt anti-Israel movements from within.”

They were referring to pro-Boycott, DIvestment and Sanction (BDS) groups on 10 college campuses. The BDS movement seeks to economically pressure Israel into ending its apartheid policies and respecting Palestinian human rights.

Psy-Group would compile dossiers on activists and lecturers, scouring the dark web, social media, and other resources for dirt. Then, they would “dox” their targets — releasing personally identifiable information about them to the world. Psy-Group was given research on BDS targets by the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. Meanwhile, a former deputy director of Mossad was recruited to help with the project, and a former national security advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was made an advisor.

Project Butterfly seems to operate similarly to the more widely known Canary Mission, which compiles blacklists of BDS activists and doxxes them online. In late 2018, the Canary Mission was revealed to be bankrolled by at least two Jewish-American charities.

Hacking Away

Psy-Group closed shop in 2018 after it fell into Mueller’s crosshairs. But, another shady Israeli company — similarly based out of Cyprus and with a similar name — continues to conduct its business. The outfit, called NSO Group, manufactures a hacking tool called Pegasus, which gives hackers the ability to look at text messages, detect calls, collect passwords, pinpoint GPS locations, and suck up information from applications like Gmail, Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp and more.

NSO Group hawks its product to governments supposedly for counter-terrorism purposes, but more often than not the victims of Pegasus spyware turn out to be journalists and human rights workers.

Alaa Mahajna | NSO Group

NSO lets its clients hack 10 Android phones for $650,000 in addition to a $500,000 installation fee. The company also cuts deals with governments, allowing them to hack 100 phones for just $800,000, according to internal documents viewed by The New York Times. Commercial proposals for Pegasus tout its ability to gain “unlimited access to a target’s mobile devices” and that it “leaves no traces whatsoever.”

NSO Group’s spyware is suspected to have been used in Israel, Turkey, Thailand, Qatar, Kenya, Uzbekistan, Mozambique, Morocco, Yemen, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Bahrain. NSO also sold Pegasus to Panama in 2015.

Pegasus | Israel hackers

The following year, it was revealed that Pegasus was used to target a Saudi national and employee of Amnesty International. It was also used to spy on a human-rights activist in the UAE named Ahmed Mansoor, who was the target of a spear phishing campaign promising him details on torture committed in the country. Emirati officials sought to spy on the Saudi prince in charge of the monarchy’s National Guard and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, as well as the Qataris — and did so.

At one point, when they were offered a more expensive deal, the Emiratis wanted proof of product. So NSO Group hacked the editor of a London-based Arab newspaper, Abdulaziz Alkhamis, whose cell phone call recordings were forwarded to the UAE officials.

Because the Israeli government considers Pegasus a weapon, the NSO Group needed the approval of the Israeli Defense Ministry in order to sell it to the Emirates, a lawsuit against NSO Group notes.

Pegasus spyware was also used by the Saudis to spy on slain columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

And another journalist in Mexico, as well as human-rights activists, have also become targets of NSO Group’s surveillance technology. In 2017, when a coalition formed to investigate the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, its members started receiving spear phishing messages that, if clicked, would install Pegasus on their phones.

Hiring a spy team to smear hacker detractors

These revelations have spawned a number of lawsuits against NSO Group. But since then, six people associated with the litigation have found themselves the target of spies who appear to be with Black Cube, despite previous denials by Black Cube. The only identified individual who participated in the campaign has previous ties to the company. He was, however, “one of many.”

Black Cube has been described by people familiar with its work as the “almost privatized wing of Mossad,” and it is staffed, like NSO Group and Psy-Group, with ex-agents.

Earlier this year, two cybersecurity researchers were lured by agents into meetings at luxury hotels in an effort to discredit their research on NSO Group. Then, on Monday, AP revealed the existence of four other victims, three of whom were lawyers working on lawsuits against NSO, in addition to a journalist based in London who has been writing about the cases.

AP Exclusive: Spy exposed in NYC is one of many

“The targets told the AP that the covert agents tried to goad them into making racist and anti-Israel remarks or revealing sensitive information about their work in connection with the lawsuits,” the outlet reports.

As AP was “preparing to publish” its story, doctored and de-contextualized footage of two of the targets — the journalist and one of the lawyers — meeting with undercover agents was broadcast on Israeli television. Almost comically, if not so tragically, that report claimed the lawsuits against NSO Group were part of a “smear campaign” against the private spy shop.

Top Photo | An Israeli student attending a class how to investigate a computer network that has been hacked in Beit Shemesh, Israel. In its quest to become a world leader in cybersecurity and technology, Israel invests heavily in tech education. Daniel Estrin | AP

Alexander Rubinstein is a staff writer for MintPress News based in Washington, DC. He reports on police, prisons and protests in the United States and the United States’ policing of the world. He previously reported for RT and Sputnik News

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Brazilian government sees Catholic Church as potential opposition

Heleno-BolsonaroLeft: Augusto Heleno, and right: President Bolsonaro

Estado de São Paulo Tânia Monteiro

The Planalto Palace wants to contain what it considers the advance of the Catholic Church in the leadership of the opposition to the Jair Bolsonaro government in the vacuum of the defeat and loss of space of the left-wing political parties. In the evaluation of the President’s team, the Catholic Church is a traditional ally of the PT (Worker’s Party) and is being articulated to influence debates previously carried out by the party in the interior of the country and in the urban peripheries. The alert to the government came from reports from the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (ABIN) and from the military high command. The reports tell of recent meetings of Brazilian cardinals with Pope Francisco in the Vatican to discuss the holding of the Synod on the Amazon, to be held in Rome in October, bringing together bishops from all the continents.

During the 23 day event, the Vatican will discuss the situation of the Amazon and cover topics considered by the Brazilian government as an “agenda of the left”. The debate will deal with the situation of indigenous peoples, climate change caused by deforestation and quilombolas (lands for ex-slave communities). “We are concerned and want to neutralize this”, said the chief minister of the Office for Institutional Security (GSI), Augusto Heleno, who is leading the counter-offensive.

On the basis of documents circulating in the Planalto, GSI officers have evaluated that sectors of the Catholic Church allied to social movements and parties of the left, members of the so-called “progressive clergy”, intend to take advantage of the Synod to criticise the Bolsonaro government and to have an international impact. “We think this is interference in the internal affairs of Brazil”, said Heleno. ABIN offices in Manaus, Belém, Maraba, in the south-east of Pará (the epicentre of land conflicts), and Boa Vista (which monitor the presence of foreigners in indigenous Yanomami lands and Raposa Serra do Sol) are being mobilized to accompany preparatory meetings for the Synod in parishes and dioceses. The GSI also obtained information from the Military Command in Amazonas, based in Manaus, and from the Northern Military Command in Belém. On the basis of intelligence reports, the Federal government will seek out state governors, mayors and even ecclesiastical authorities who have good relations with the military, especially in border regions, to strengthen their attempt to neutralize the Synod.

The Estado de São Paulo newspaper found that the GSI plans to involve the Itamaraty Foreign Office to monitor discussions abroad, and the Ministry of the Environment to detect any participation of NGOs and environmentalists. Asking to remain anonymous, another military officer from the Bolsonaro team said that the Synod is against “all” policies of the government for the Amazon; which seeks to defend the “sovereignty” of the region. “The meeting will serve to inflame the ideological discourse of the left”, he said.

As soon as the first reports from ABIN arrived at the Planalto Palace, the generals soon made a connection with the criticisms of the National Bishops Conference of Brazil (CNBB) towards Bolsonaro during the electoral campaign. Bodies linked to the CNBB, such as the Missionary Indigenous Council (CIMI) and the Pastoral Lands Commission (CPT), were not kind in their attacks, and continued after the election and swearing in of Bolsonaro to the Presidency. All of them are historical allies of the PT Worker’s Party. The Prisoner’s Pastoral, for example, issued a press release last week criticising the anti-crime package of the Minister of Justice, Sérgio Moro, who as a judge sentenced ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Lava Jato.

In the campaign, the Land Pastoral published a report from Bishop André de Witte of Bahia that indicated Bolsonaro as a “real danger”. The networks supporting Bolsonaro counter-attacked spreading word on the internet that Pope Francisco was a “communist”. As a result, Bolsonaro gave up on the CNBB and invested incessant support for the evangelical churches. At first, he wanted the ex-Senator and gospel singer Magno Malta (PR-ES) to run as his Vice-President. Once elected, he nominated the pastor Damares Alves, assistant to Malta for the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights.

History. The tense relationship between the military and the Catholic Church began back in 1964 and has remained even in the “de-tension” governments of Generals Ernesto Geisel and João Figueiredo, the last President of the military dictatorship. The CNBB maintained friendly relations with the democratic governments, but was classified as an arm of the PT Worker’s Party by Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The body criticised the agrarian policy of the FHC government and the decision of his PSDB party to end religious education in public schools.

The government of ex-President Lula, who was close to Don Claudio Hummes, ex-Cardinal of São Paulo, was surprised in 2005 by the hunger strike of the Bishop of Barra in Bahia, Don Luiz Cappio, who opposed the transposition of the São Francisco River.

With the arrival of Dilma Rousseff, the relationship between the CNBB and the PT Worker’s Party was damaged. The body held a series of events to criticise the President, especially on questions such as abortion and agrarian reform. However, the CNBB was opposed to the impeachment process, alleging that it “weakened” the institutions.

‘Let’s get right into this’, said Heleno

The Minister of the Office for Institutional Security (GSI), Augusto Heleno Ribeiro, said there was a “concern” in the Planalto about the meetings and preparatory meetings of the Synod on the Amazon, which were held in the Brazilian States. ”There has been influence from the Catholic Church and NGOs on the forest”, he said.

The closest adviser of President Jair Bolsonaro, Heleno criticised the activity of the Catholic Church, but said their capacity for causing problems for the government was not high. ”It will not be a problem. The work of the government of neutralizing impacts of the meeting will only strengthen Brazilian sovereignty and impede that foreign interests are able to prevail in the Amazon”, he said. “The question will be studied carefully by the GSI. Let’s get right into this.”

Both the Minister Augusto Heleno and the ex-commander of the Army, Eduardo Villas Boas, now assistant to the GSI and in charge of the monitoring of the Synod, were military commanders in Manaus. The Vice-President Hamilton Mourão also worked in the region, leading the 2nd Jungle Infantry Brigade in São Gabriel da Cachoeira.

What is the Synod? It is the global meeting of Vatican bishops to discuss the situation of indigenous tribes, riverside populations and other peoples of the Amazon, the development policies of governments of the region, climate change and land conflicts.

Participants 250 bishops.

Synod Calendar

19 January 2019: symbolic opening with the visit of Pope Francisco to Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian jungle;

7 to 9 March: preparatory seminar in the Arch-Diocese of Manaus;

6 to 29 October: final phase in the Vatican, with Mass in the Basilica of Saint Peter celebrated by Pope Francisco.

Theme of the meeting

Amazon: new paths for the Catholic Church and for a whole ecology.

The three directives of the event

“To see” the clamour of the Amazonian peoples;

“To discern” the Gospel in the forest. The cries of the indigenous peoples is like the cries of the people of God in Egypt;

“To act” in the defence of a Church with an “Amazonian face”