New Delhi: Days after France lodged its complaint with Israel over the Pegasus Project revelations, the Washington Post has reported that top US officials from the White House have raised the issue with senior Israeli officials. While pressure is mounting on Israel, as different countries demand that the government investigate the matter, India continues to remain in denial.
Prior to the latest discussion between the White House and Israeli officials over the issue, Axios had reported that Brett McGurk, US President Joe Biden’s Middle East adviser, discussed the Pegasus reporting during a recent meeting at the White House with Zohar Palti, a senior official with Israel’s defence ministry. It has now emerged that there have been discussions over the last few days between the American and Israeli administrations over the Pegasus Project.
On the other hand, recently, US Congress members have urged President Joe Biden to push forward on new regulations, sanctions and federal investigations into potential spyware abuse. “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,” a letter signed by Congress members Joaquin Castro, Anna G. Eshoo, Tom Malinowski and Katie Porter said.
Senator Ron Wyden also raised the Pegasus Project investigation during a US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing last week. “There’s got to be some accountability for ‘spies for hire,’” Wyden said.
Stacey Dixon, Biden’s nominee for principal deputy director of national intelligence, said, “We need to have a better whole-of-government approach to dealing with things like this.”
With pressure mounting, Israel has launched a probe and is “taking the matter seriously”, according to a senior Israeli security official. However, the official said, a proper investigation would take time, and it would be “irresponsible and premature” to make any statements before the investigation had concluded.
On Wednesday, July 28, officials from Israel’s security wings visited NSO’s office in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya for investigation.
An employee of NSO Group told NPR on Thursday that the company has “temporarily blocked several government clients around the world” from using Pegasus as it investigates possible misuse. The suspensions come as a direct consequence of the reports published by the Pegasus Project consortium, NPR said.
Meanwhile, France defence minister, Florence Parly, on Wednesday, July 28, once again pressed Israel about “the knowledge [it] had of the activities of NSO’s clients” and measures that were in place to prevent misuse of its “highly intrusive” tools. In response, Israel defence minister Benny Gantz said, “Israel is investigating the matter with the utmost seriousness.”
With news emerging that the Israeli government has been involved in approving spyware licenses for autocratic regimes, Israeli diplomats globally have been facing uncomfortable questions. The New York Times has recently reported that the Israeli government had indeed requested the NSO Group and other surveillance firms to continue working with Saudi Arabia after the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by alleged government-sanctioned Saudi assassins.
As Israel has been trying to build new alliances across the Persian Gulf, its tech companies are selling some of the world’s most sought-after surveillance technology to various governments. However, with revelations pointing out that the Pegasus spyware technology had indeed been misused – as against NSO’s stated objective of putting surveillance on criminals and terrorists – the government of Israel has said that it will cancel export licenses of NSO in cases where human rights are found to be violated.
In a major expose, an international consortium of 17 media organisations along with The Wire has revealed that phones of heads of state, journalists, rights activists, among other eminent people from across the globe have either been hacked or attempted to be hacked using Israeli NSO group’s military-grade Pegasus spyware tool. France President Emmanuel Macron was among 14 heads of state who figured on the spyware list. From India, Union ministers and their aides; prominent politicians; journalists; judges; among others have figured on the list.
The Pegasus Project is a collaborative investigation that involves more than 80 journalists from 17 news organisations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Read all our coverage here.