The Washington Post
White House, Israel speak on Pegasus spyware concerns
The White House has raised concerns about the Israeli surveillance giant NSO Group in meetings with senior Israeli officials, according to three people familiar with the matter, in a reflection of diplomatic tensions between the allies following revelations by The Washington Post and other news organizations that NSO spyware has been used to target journalists, human rights activists and private citizens.
In addition, members of Congress have called on the Biden administration to push forward on new regulations, sanctions and federal investigations into potential spyware abuse. In a letter this week signed by Reps. Joaquin Castro (Tex.), Anna G. Eshoo (Calif.), Tom Malinowski (N. J.) and Katie Porter (Calif.), the House Democrats said: “Enough is enough. The recent revelations regarding misuse of the NSO Group’s software reinforce our conviction that the hacking for hire industry must be brought under control.”
The Israeli government approves the export licenses for sending NSO’S Pegasus phonehacking tool to governments for the surveillance of terrorists and criminals.
A senior Biden administration official declined to offer further detail about the discussions but confirmed that U.S. officials had voiced their concerns on the matter. Axios first reported the discussion. An Israeli security official also told The Post that there had been contact in the last few days between the American and Israeli administrations over the reporting by the paper and an international consortium of news organizations.
The consortium reported last week that phone numbers for world leaders, lawyers, activists and journalists were found on a list that included some people targeted by governments believed to be NSO clients. None of the world leaders’ devices were forensically examined, but tests of other phones on the list turned up evidence of attempted or successful Pegasus hacks.
NSO has repeatedly disputed the investigation and said the inclusion of numbers on the list does not prove the phones were selected for surveillance. But the revelations have sparked uncomfortable questions for the company as well as Israeli diplomats now facing international criticism on multiple fronts.
Israel has launched its own investigation and is taking the matter seriously, said the Israeli security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. The official said that both U.S. and Israeli leaders believe that a proper investigation will take time and that it was “irresponsible and premature” to make pronouncements before the investigation has finished.
Officials from several Israeli security branches visited NSO’S office in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya on Wednesday as part of the investigation.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz was questioned Wednesday by his French counterpart about “the knowledge the Israeli government had of the activities of NSO’S clients” and what measures were in place to prevent misuse of its “highly intrusive” tools, a French government spokesman told The Post. Gantz said in the meeting that “Israel is investigating the matter with the utmost seriousness,” according to a statement by Israel’s Defense Ministry.
In an interview with The Post, Malinowski said that he and other lawmakers are exploring legislation and a dedicated sanctions regime that could strengthen U.S. export controls and punish the business or government operatives behind confirmed reports of improper surveillance.
“Imagine if the Defense Department was working with a private company to develop some sophisticated new drone technology or a laser system or a hypersonic missile. We would never tolerate that company taking the fruits of that collaboration and selling on the open market to the highest bidder a technology that could be used against Americans,” Malinowski said.
“We need to establish a similar set of rules in the cyber realm,” he added. “We have to clean up our own house, even as we work with allies including Israel and Europe to establish some rules that we all agree to play by.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D- Ore.) also discussed the Pegasus investigation in a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing last week, saying, “There’s got to be some accountability for ‘spies for hire.’ ” Stacey Dixon, Biden’s nominee for principal deputy director of national intelligence, added that “we need to have a better whole-of-government approach to dealing with things like this.”
The investigation has also sent shock waves through other countries. French President Emmanuel Macron called an emergency cybersecurity meeting last week to discuss the revelations. Other French government inquiries are ongoing.
The Israeli government also has faced growing questions over its involvement in approving spyware licenses for autocratic regimes. The New York Times this month reported that Israel had urged NSO and other surveillance firms to continue working with Saudi Arabia after the murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi assassins.
Israel has sought to forge new alliances across the Persian Gulf, and Israeli tech companies make some of the world’s most soughtafter surveillance tools.
Israeli officials said they cancel export licenses in cases where the tool has been found to violate human rights. NSO officials have also said they have canceled contracts in recent years with government clients because of human rights concerns.