Gantz dismisses Russia hack claim; intel firm says criticism is ‘crude slander’

CGI Group head says company identified unspecified Eastern European actor as behind breach that affected 4 or 5 phones; claims Blue and White sought info on political rivals

Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, during an elections campaign event in Petah Tikva on March 13, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, during an elections campaign event in Petah Tikva on March 13, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Blue and White Party leader MK Benny Gantz on Thursday rejected a television news report of a massive Russian hack of phones and computers belonging to himself and top campaign officials, suggesting it was just spin by political rivals.

However, the president of the CGI Group intelligence company that found the alleged security breach defended his firm’s work, saying attacks were “crude slander” and that four or five phones belonging to the party were “infected,” probably by an Eastern European actor.

Yaakov Peri, a former head of the Shin Bet and former Yesh Atid MK, also revealed that in addition to being hired to identify the source of media leaks from the centrist party’s top ranks, Blue and White also asked CGI to provide information on rivals.

When asked by Army Radio about the existence of information identifying a Russian hack of his party, Gantz said Thursday “there was no such thing.”

At the time a member of Knesset, Yaakov Peri, also a former head of the Shin Bet, at a meeting in the Knesset, on January 15, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There are more than a few political figures who are trying to harm us. I don’t want to think that the Russians are acting against us and I don’t want to think that there is an entity here that is activating them against us and there are no findings to support that,” he added.

Gantz said CGI presented a report showing a suspicion of a security breach but “it was checked and found to be incorrect.”

“The report that we received did not point to Russian involvement,” Gantz told Army Radio.

He confirmed that another company had been hired to check CGI’s work and said it had found that there was no breach and that “no one was impacted.”

“It could be that CGI didn’t do good work,” Gantz said. “We are expected to check our information security and that is what we did — I know where all the noise is coming from and we will deal with it.”

Gantz declined to further discuss his dealings with CGI, saying only that his party’s work with the company would be completed in the coming days.

On Wednesday Channel 12 TV news reported CGI had compiled a report for the party which included information about a major Russian hack.

However, CGI president Yaakov Peri, a former Shin Bet head and former Yesh Atid MK, told the Kan public broadcaster on Thursday that his company’s report did not specify Russia as the perpetrators of the hack.

“We notified them about 4-5 ‘infected’ telephones and advised contacting the police. We didn’t specifically talk about Russia. We spoke of a hostile entity — almost certainly from Eastern Europe. You need to ask the client why they haven’t contacted the police.”

Blue and White, Peri said, “is trying to shoot the messenger,” and suggestions that the report was fabricated are “crude slander.”

Peri also revealed that part of his company’s brief from Blue and White was to obtain information on the party’s rivals.

“When Blue and White hired our services, which are still ongoing, they asked about the leaks and also for information which would help their campaign — information about rivals.”

He stressed that it was Blue and White that initiated contact with the company.

“They asked us to provide information related to information security and if possible bring more material that can serve them, and could be corporate espionage against others.”

However, he noted that CGI was not asked to obtain information on Blue and White MK Omer Yankelevich, who was named in media reports earlier this year as being targeted by Likud to possibly switch allegiances and join Likud.

Citing the CGI Group report handed to Blue and White leaders last week, Channel 12’s political reporter Amit Segal reported Wednesday that a sustained, “intense and unusual” cyberattack was underway against the centrist party, and had already delivered to the attackers the entire contents of the personal phones of Gantz, his chief of staff Hod Betzer, campaign manager Ido Har-Tov and campaign adviser Ronen Moshe.

Within an hour of the broadcast, Blue and White officials savaged the report, claiming CGI’s conclusions were wrong and that the company’s founder and CEO Zvika Nave had leaked the report to Channel 12 in order to pressure the campaign to pay CGI’s bill, estimated by the TV station at between NIS 100,000 and 500,000 ($28,000-$142,000).

“The [CGI] report raised the suspicion that there was an attempt to obtain information [via the purported Russian hack], but that turned out to be an utter and complete lie,” a party official told Globes business journal political reporter Tal Schneider on Wednesday night.

CGI Group founder and CEO Zvika Nave. (Courtesy)

The unnamed Blue and White officials said the phones in question were taken to a different company specializing in cybersecurity after party leaders received CGI’s report last week. “No devices were found to be compromised,” an official said.

Speaking to Globes, CGI did not explicitly deny the accusation, but said its bill had been paid in full.

According to the Channel 12 report, CGI also claimed that Blue and White’s internal computer network had been hacked, and urged the party to file a police complaint.

Blue and White has so far refrained from doing so, the network said.

Blue and White was formed ahead of the April elections by a union of Gantz’s Israel Resilience party, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party. Reports have surfaced in the ensuing months of tensions between the different factions.

One unnamed Yesh Atid official slammed Gantz’s faction on Wednesday over the CGI fracas, telling Channel 12, “This is yet another buffoonish move by Gantz’s people. In the middle of an election campaign, to hire a company whose profession is corporate espionage is to invite these sorts of troubles into your home. Lapid will meet with the quartet [of Blue and White leaders, consisting of Gantz, Lapid, Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi] tomorrow and demand in the strongest terms that this whole event be brought to an end.”

(L-R) Gabi Ashkenazi, Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz and Moshe Ya’alon of the Blue and White party during a tour in Sderot, August 6, 2019. (Elad Malka)

According to reports, it was Gantz’s chief of staff Betzer who had hired the CGI Group, an Israeli firm that prides itself on employing veterans of Israel’s intelligence services, to sniff out alleged “moles” in the party’s top ranks after leaked audio recordings of Gantz reached the press in the run-up to the April race.

Blue and White had launched an internal probe in March, but it did not identify a culprit.

Gantz has already had to contend with leaked reports earlier this year that said his cellphone was hacked by Iran. The former IDF chief of staff in March confirmed his phone had been compromised a year earlier, but stressed that no sensitive security intelligence or personally incriminating information was on the device.

Netanyahu’s Likud party tried to use the hack, which Gantz was informed about last year by Israeli security officials, to suggest that the fact that hackers could compromise his phone meant he was unfit to lead the country. Gantz charged that the media leak about the breach was politically motivated.

Blue and White tied with Netanyahu’s Likud on 35 seats in the April elections, but most MKs recommended Netanyahu for prime minister. It is currently polling neck-and-neck with the ruling party ahead of the September 17 vote, which Netanyahu initiated after failing to form a government after the last vote.

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