Israeli Companies Aided Saudi Spying Despite Khashoggi Killing

TEL AVIV — Israel secretly licensed a bunch of cyber-surveillance corporations to work for the federal government of Saudi Arabia regardless of worldwide condemnation of the dominion’s abuse of surveillance software program to crush dissent, even after the Saudi killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, authorities officers and others conversant in the contracts mentioned.

After the homicide of Mr. Khashoggi in 2018, one of many corporations, NSO Group, canceled its contracts with Saudi Arabia amid accusations that its hacking instruments have been being misused to abet heinous crimes.

But the Israeli authorities inspired NSO and two different firms to proceed working with Saudi Arabia, and issued a brand new license for a fourth to do related work, overriding any considerations about human rights abuses, based on one senior Israeli official and three folks affiliated with the businesses.

Since then, Saudi Arabia has continued to make use of the adware to observe dissidents and political opponents.

The indisputable fact that Israel’s authorities has inspired its non-public firms to do safety work for the dominion — considered one of its historic adversaries and a nation that also doesn’t formally acknowledge Israel — is but extra proof of the reordering of conventional alliances within the area and the technique by Israel and a number of other Persian Gulf international locations to affix forces to isolate Iran.

NSO is by far the very best recognized of the Israeli corporations, largely due to revelations in the previous couple of years that its Pegasus program was used by numerous governments to spy on, and finally imprison, human rights activists.

NSO offered Pegasus to Saudi Arabia in 2017. The kingdom used the adware as a part of a ruthless marketing campaign to crush dissent inside the dominion and to seek out Saudi dissidents overseas.

It will not be publicly recognized whether or not Saudi Arabia used Pegasus or different Israeli-made adware within the plot to kill Mr. Khashoggi. NSO has denied that its software program was used.

Israel’s Ministry of Defense additionally licensed for Saudi work an organization known as Candiru, which Microsoft accused last week of serving to its authorities shoppers spy on greater than 100 journalists, politicians, dissidents and human rights advocates all over the world.

Microsoft, which carried out its investigation in tandem with Citizen Lab, a analysis institute on the University of Toronto, mentioned Candiru had used malware to take advantage of a vulnerability in Microsoft merchandise, enabling its authorities shoppers to spy on perceived enemies.

Candiru has had at the least one contract with Saudi Arabia since 2018.

Israel has additionally granted licenses to at the least two different corporations, Verint, which was licensed earlier than the Khashoggi killing, and Quadream, which signed a contract with Saudi Arabia after the killing.

A fifth firm, Cellebrite, which manufactures bodily hacking techniques for cell phones, has additionally sold its services to the Saudi government, however with out ministry approval, based on the newspaper Haaretz.

Israel insists that if any Israeli adware have been used to violate civil rights that it might revoke the corporate’s license.

If the Defense Ministry “discovers that the purchased item is being used in contravention of the terms of the license, especially after any violation of human rights, a procedure of cancellation of the defense export license or of enforcing its terms is initiated,” the ministry mentioned in an announcement in response to questions from The New York Times.

The ministry declined to reply to particular questions concerning the licenses it gave to the Israeli corporations, however mentioned that “a wide range of security, diplomatic and strategic considerations are taken into account” when contemplating whether or not to grant a license to export offensive cyber expertise.

Revelations concerning the abuses of NSO merchandise led the corporate to rent a bunch of outdoor consultants in 2018 to supply recommendation about which new shoppers NSO ought to tackle and which to keep away from. The group included Daniel Shapiro, the previous Obama administration ambassador to Israel, and Beacon Global Strategies, a Washington strategic consulting agency.

Beacon is led by Jeremy Bash, a former C.I.A. and Pentagon chief of workers; Michael Allen, a former workers director for the House Intelligence Committee; and Andrew Shapiro, a former high State Department official.

While the group’s mandate was to vet potential new shoppers, the worldwide outrage over Mr. Khashoggi’s killing in October 2018 led the group to advise NSO to cancel its Saudi contracts and shut down NSO techniques within the kingdom.

Separately, NSO carried out an inside investigation into whether or not any of its instruments have been utilized by Saudi officers for the Khashoggi operation and concluded that they weren’t. However a lawsuit towards NSO by a pal of Mr. Khashoggi’s claims that his phone had been hacked by Saudi Arabia utilizing Pegasus, and that hack gave Saudi officers entry to his conversations with Mr. Khashoggi, together with communications about opposition initiatives.

Over a number of days in late 2018, executives each of NSO and the non-public fairness agency that owned it on the time, Francisco Partners, met in Washington with the advisory group.

According to a number of folks conversant in the conferences, the NSO executives argued that the Israeli authorities was strongly encouraging the corporate to climate the storm and proceed its work in Saudi Arabia. They additionally mentioned that Israeli officers had indicated to them that the Trump administration additionally wished NSO’s work with Saudi Arabia to proceed.

In the top, NSO administration heeded the recommendation of the surface group and canceled its contracts with Saudi Arabia in late 2018. Mr. Shapiro, the previous ambassador to Israel, ended his work for the corporate shortly afterward.

Months later, nonetheless, after one other non-public fairness agency purchased NSO, the corporate was as soon as once more doing enterprise with Saudi Arabia.

NSO’s new proprietor, Novalpina, rejected the recommendation of the surface advisory group and NSO resumed its work in Saudi Arabia in mid-2019. Around that point, Beacon ended its work with NSO.

The new contract with the Saudis got here with some restrictions. For instance, NSO arrange its system to dam any makes an attempt by Saudi officers to hack European phone numbers, based on an individual conversant in the programming.

But it’s clear that Saudi Arabia has continued to make use of NSO software program to spy on perceived opponents overseas.

In one case that has come to mild, three dozen telephones belonging to journalists at Al Jazeera, which Saudi Arabia considers a menace, have been hacked utilizing NSO’s Pegasus software program final yr, based on Citizen Lab. Citizen Lab traced 18 of the assaults again to Saudi intelligence.

After the revelation of the assault on Al Jazeera journalists, NSO lately shut down the system, and at a gathering in early July, the corporate’s board determined to declare new offers with Saudi Arabia off limits, based on an individual conversant in the choice.

Israel’s protection ministry is at present combating lawsuits by Israeli rights activists demanding that it launch particulars about its course of for granting the licenses.

The Israeli authorities additionally imposes strict secrecy on the businesses that obtain the licenses, threatening to revoke them if the businesses communicate publicly concerning the identification of their shoppers.

An NSO assertion mentioned the corporate couldn’t focus on the identification of its authorities prospects, however added: “As NSO has previously stated, our technology was not associated in any way with the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi. This includes listening, monitoring, tracking or collecting information.”

Officials with Candiru, Verint and the federal government of Saudi Arabia declined to remark. Officials with Quadream couldn’t be reached.

These enterprise ties got here as Israel was quietly constructing relationships straight with the Saudi authorities.

Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s prime minister, met a number of occasions with Saudi Arabia’s day-to-day ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and navy and intelligence leaders of the 2 international locations meet regularly.

While Saudi Arabia was not formally occasion to the Abraham Accords — the diplomatic initiatives through the finish of the Trump administration normalizing relations between Israel and a number of other Arab international locations — Saudi leaders labored behind the scenes to assist dealer the offers.

Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv, and Mark Mazzetti from Washington. Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Beirut.

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