The number two official in Israel’s Defense Ministry denied Wednesday that the country spied on nuclear talks between Iran and world powers, but admitted he would not know about such a program if it did exist.
Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan was responding to a report earlier in the day alleging that a virus linked to Israel hacked the computers of the European hotels serving as venues for the ongoing nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers in order to gather intelligence on the closed-door talks.
In an interview with Israel Radio, Ben Dahan flatly rejected the allegations outlined in a Wall Street Journal report which claimed that Duqu, a computer virus widely believed to be used as spyware by Israel, targeted three unnamed hotels in the weeks leading up to the talks.
The deputy defense minister called the allegations “nonsense,” and assured the interviewer that Israel had other ways of gathering intelligence, and didn’t need to resort to hacking.
Shortly after, however, Ben Dahan conceded that if Israel’s intelligence services launched a covert operation of that nature he likely wouldn’t be informed of it.
A former senior US intelligence official who dealt with such matters told The Associated Press that the nuclear talks are a likely espionage target of several countries, including Israel and Russia. The former official said he couldn’t be quoted on the record and demanded anonymity.
The Israeli government declined comment Wednesday.
The allegation coincides with deepening tensions in the US-Israeli relationship, much of it linked to Iran. The Obama administration has rejected much of the hawkish advice of its close Mideast ally in favor of what US officials say would be an accord that removes the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
The Jewish state has aggressively lobbied against the package both internationally and within the United States.
Kaspersky’s cyberspying discoveries are taken seriously by security experts, and the US antivirus company Symantec confirmed Kaspersky’s technical findings Wednesday, though not the source of the campaign.
Citing researchers at the cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab ZAO in Moscow, the Wall Street Journal report claimed that the hotels were all targeted by a version of the Duqu virus roughly two weeks before hosting the negotiations.
According to the report, Kaspersky checked thousands of computers in other European hotels, all of them coming up clean – and it also quoted “current and former US officials and many cybersecurity experts (as believing that) Duqu was designed to carry out Israel’s most sensitive intelligence-collection operations.”
The report did not offer any specific evidence of the allegations.
Israel, the report said, “has denied spying on the US or Israel’s other allies, although they acknowledge conducting close surveillance on Iranians generally. Israeli officials declined to comment specifically on the allegations relating to the Duqu virus and the hotel intrusions.”
The Wall Street Journal reported in March that Israel allegedly spied on the Iran nuclear talks in 2014.
In its own report, Kaspersky does not identify Israel by name as being responsible for the virus, which allows the hacker to eavesdrop on conversations and steal electronic files, and could also enable the hacker to operate two-way microphones in hotel elevators, computers and alarm systems, according to the Wall Street Journal.
However, it does conclude the threat came from the same source as the original Duqu virus, and says it was likely carried out by a nation-state.
Eugene Kaspersky, the chairman and CEO, served in the Soviet military during the 1980s and maintains close ties with Russian intelligence officials.
David Shamah contributed to this report.