The Washington Post

White House, Israel speak on Pegasus spyware concerns

- BY DREW HARWELL AND SHANE HARRIS drew.harwell@washpost.com shane.harris@washpost.com Souad Mekhennet, Rick Noack and Shira Rubin contribute­d to this report.

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.

 ?? JACK GUEZ/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES ?? A woman uses her phone in 2016 in front of the building housing Israeli surveillan­ce giant NSO Group, whose phone-hacking tool was used to surveil human rights activists and journalist­s around the world.
JACK GUEZ/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES A woman uses her phone in 2016 in front of the building housing Israeli surveillan­ce giant NSO Group, whose phone-hacking tool was used to surveil human rights activists and journalist­s around the world.

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