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Defense Ministry officials ‘visit’ NSO Group in first probe following spy exposé

Move comes as Gantz visits Paris, after reports emerge Macron, French parliamentarians were among those tracked with company’s cyber surveillance technology

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

In this file photo taken on August 28, 2016, a woman walks outside the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya. (Jack Guez/AFP)
In this file photo taken on August 28, 2016, a woman walks outside the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Israel’s Defense Ministry said a number of government officials visited the offices of NSO Group on Wednesday to investigate the claims in a recent global investigation that the firm’s cyber surveillance technology was used to track political activists and journalists around the world.

The move comes as Defense Minister Benny Gantz travels to Paris, apparently to try and reassure the French over reports President Emmanuel Macron and other parliamentarians were among the targets.

“Representatives from a number of offices visited the offices of NSO Group to check the reports and claims that have come up regarding it,” the ministry said in a statement.

The investigation into NSO Group — known as the Pegasus Project — was conducted by a consortium of 17 international news outlets that claimed the firm’s Pegasus program had been used to crack down on political dissent and investigative journalism by autocratic regimes around the world, including Saudi Arabia, Hungary, Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Mexico and others.

Until now Israel’s Defense Ministry has been mum about its plans to investigate the firm and remained laconic about the matter on Wednesday, refusing to elaborate on the nature of the visit, if a formal investigation had been launched, who the officials were and what specific allegations they were checking.

“At this stage, I cannot elaborate beyond the phrasing of the statement,” a Defense Ministry spokesperson said.

The announcement came as Gantz met with his French counterpart, Florence Parly, in part over allegations that NSO Group’s cyber surveillance program, Pegasus, had been used by unidentified Moroccan security services against Macron and a number of French parliamentarians.

Ahead of the meeting, French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said Parly planned to question him about “the knowledge the Israeli government had about the activities of NSO clients.”

Attal said Parly also wanted to know what measures will be taken to prevent such “misappropriations.”

During the meeting, Gantz told Parly that hacking Macron’s phone or that of any other French politician would violate the terms of NSO Group’s export license for its technology. However, a spokesperson for Gantz denied a Channel 13 report that the defense minister had explicitly denied that the hack had occurred anyway.

“Gantz told Parly that today officials investigating the matter visited NSO Group and that Israel is checking the matter with the utmost severity,” his office said in a statement.

The defense minister also reiterated that NSO Group’s export license only permitted the firm to sell its technology to countries using it to “combat terrorism and crime,” according to the statement.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and French Defense Minister Florence Parly are saluted by an honor guard in Paris, on July 28, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

According to the investigation into NSO Group, Morocco used the spyware to track several French journalists, and prosecutors in Paris opened an investigation into the allegations.

The phone numbers of Macron and top members of his government were among those found on a list of 50,000 numbers believed to be potential targets of the Pegasus spyware, although the investigation did not determine if he was actually hacked. Macron reportedly directly called Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last week to demand that Israel investigate the allegations.

Morocco has denied the reports and initiated legal action to counter the claims made against Rabat. NSO has also denied that Macron was targeted.

“There are talks between members of the governments and their counterparts,” Attal said on Wednesday, adding that he had no further comment due to the ongoing investigation, which he said involves “serious, in-depth, very technical” inspections.

For the past week, Israel has been scrambling to reduce international fallout from the exposé on one of its most prominent cyber security firms.

Gantz’s office said his trip to France was scheduled before the reports on NSO Group were published and was meant to focus primarily on the financial and political crisis in Lebanon and the ongoing negotiations toward an Iran nuclear deal.

During the meeting, Gantz told Parly that Israel was “concerned about the transfer of game-changing weapons to Lebanon, but that it was prepared to offer humanitarian aid or assistance” to the country.

However, he stressed that any aid to Lebanon, which is experiencing an unprecedented financial meltdown, should be conditioned on Hezbollah halting its rearmament.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and his team meets with French Defense Minister Florence Parly, right, and her team in Paris, on July 28, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The Israeli defense minister also showed his French counterpart maps of Lebanon with the precise locations of Hezbollah targets in civilian areas.

Regarding Iran, Gantz warned that Tehran was taking advantage of the current impasse in the negotiations to advance its nuclear program.

“Gantz stressed that the Iranian regime represents a threat to the entire world, to the Middle East and to Israel, and that Israel would do whatever is necessary to protect itself,” his office said.

Defense Ministry probe

After the Pegasus Project reports were published, the Defense Ministry said it would take “appropriate action” if it determined that NSO Group violated the terms of its export licenses, but initially refused to comment on whether or not it would launch an investigation into the allegations.

In a statement, the ministry said that Israel only permits companies to export cyber security products to “government figures only for legal purposes and to prevent and investigate crimes and to combat terrorism. And this is dependent upon commitments regarding the end use/user from the purchasing country, which must abide by these conditions.”

NSO refuses to reveal which countries have purchased the software, and has denied the majority of the claims made in the reporting. NSO “firmly denies false claims made in your report which many of them are uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability of your sources, as well as the basis of your story,” the organization told the journalists involved in the project in an email.

Under a 2007 Israeli law, companies looking to sell cyber security-related products must receive export licenses from the Defense Ministry’s Defense Export Controls Agency, which is required to include “considerations regarding the end user or the end use,” but does not expressly forbid arms sales to human rights violators. Only United Nations Security Council arms embargoes, which are exceedingly rare, require the Defense Ministry to block a deal.

Israeli governments — both left- and right-wing — have long faced criticism for providing weaponry to human rights violators.

Israel sold weapons to South Africa throughout the apartheid era; to Guatemala during its 36-year civil war, in which the military allegedly carried out a genocide against the native Mayan population; and to Iran, in the 1980s for its brutal war against Iraq.

Israel is also believed to have sold weaponry to Rwanda and Bosnia during their genocides in the 1990s. Attempts to require the state to release records of these alleged arms sales have repeatedly been blocked by Israeli courts on the grounds that doing so could damage the country’s foreign policies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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