Israeli spy firm sought info from Obama aides on Iranian assets — report
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Israeli spy firm sought info from Obama aides on Iranian assets — report

Efforts by Black Cube to target advisers of former US president, Haaretz reports, were aimed at tracking down funds that could be seized for relatives of terror victims

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, right, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office on September 10, 2014. (White House/Pete Souza)
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, right, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office on September 10, 2014. (White House/Pete Souza)

An Israeli private intelligence firm tied to efforts to discredit the Iran nuclear deal and accusers of disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein also worked to obtain information from Obama administration officials on Iranian assets that could be seized as part of terror lawsuits, an Israeli newspaper reported Friday.

Black Cube, which has been described as an “almost privatized wing” of the Mossad intelligence agency, was reported earlier this year to have targeted senior White House officials to gather compromising information that could be used in US President Donald Trump’s decision to exit the 2015 international nuclear accord with Iran, which was negotiated under his predecessor Barack Obama.

According to sources and documents leaked to the Haaretz daily, Black Cube also sought to gain intelligence from Obama aides on Iranian assets that could be seized under US court rulings granting billions of dollars in compensation to victims of Iran-backed terror attacks.

One official who was reportedly targeted by Black Cube was Caroline Tess, a former adviser to US ambassadors to the United Nations Susan Rice and Samantha Power who was later appointed to the National Security Council to work with Congress on legislation regarding the Iran nuclear deal.

Caroline Tess (Penn Biden Center)

Having found a picture of Tess on the Facebook page of a scuba diving group called “Diving Divas,” Black Cube set up a fake diving club in Argentina called the New Porto Ocean Club to create an opening with the former Obama administration official, according to the report, which was based on conversations with past and present Black Cube employees and internal company documents.

“Hello Ms. Tess, My name is Beatrice Royce and I’m the president of the swimming club,” a Black Cube operative reportedly wrote in an email to Tess.

“I came across the Diving Divas group on Facebook and I was curious about the possibility of cooperation. We are a non-profit group and all our trips are funded. It would be wonderful if we could work together. I hope to organize a telephone call in order to provide a little information. We would be happy to also offer you a trip to us. Please check out our website.”

The report said Tess did not respond to the email.

Black Cube’s internet homepage (screenshot)

According to the newspaper, the efforts to track down Iranian assets was ostensibly a private initiative by Black Cube but was funded by Taiwanese shipping mogul Nobu Su, who had hired the firm in the past and would receive a percentage of the recovered money.

In addition to Tess, the report said Black Cube also sought to obtain information from senior Obama officials Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl on Iranian assets in the Gulf states and Far East, as well as map Iranian efforts to conceal assets that violated American and international law.

One such target was an Iranian bank account in Oman holding some $5.7 billion in Omani rials earned from oil sales.

Iran sought to convert the money into euros but was unable to do so directly due to the reluctance of banks to work with the country, leading it to instead seek to exchange the money into dollars with an American bank and then swap it for euros.

Despite secret Obama administration efforts to facilitate the exchange, which would require bypassing US sanctions, the currency swap never came to fruition due to concerns among American banks of legal exposure, according to a Senate probe released in June.

Having learned of the Iranian accounts, Black Cube tried to gather information on the money from senior US bank officials and even the management of the Omani bank, the report said, but these efforts did not bear fruit.

Following this, Black Cube began targeting Kahl and later his wife, according to the newspaper, but these efforts were also unsuccessful.

Kahl wrote Friday on Twitter that the Haaretz story “makes no sense and smacks of an effort by sources to deflect what the op was really about.”

“Why target low level Obama officials who weren’t responsible for any of the relevant decisions & with no biz interests to go after Iranian cash?” he wrote.

Then Vice President Joe Biden, center, flanked by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, left, and National Security Adviser to the Vice President Colin Kahl, at the Blair House in Washington, February 24, 2016. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

In response to the report, Black Cube told Haaretz it “never discusses its clients with any third party, nor does it confirm or deny any speculation about its work.”

“Black Cube works only to gather evidence in the world’s largest law suits and not on other issues. It should be emphasized that Black Cube always works in accordance with the law, in every country in which it operates, and in accordance with the legal opinion of the world’s leading law firms,” it said.

According to earlier reports, Black Cube began gathering information on Rhodes, Kahl and other officials days after Trump’s visit to Israel last May. A source told NBC the undercover campaign was initiated “for Trump,” but there was no evidence directly linking his administration to the agency.

Sources familiar with Black Cube’s work have told news outlets the firm was hired to uncover evidence of unflattering behavior, such as financial or sexual impropriety, by the Iran deal’s architects, including Obama administration aides Kahl and Rhodes.

The reports said the operation was part of wider efforts to justify Trump’s decision earlier this month to withdraw the US from the deal.

Harvey Weinstein enters State Supreme Court, October 11, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Separately, Black Cube was also reported to have tracked alleged victims of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Last November, the New Yorker reported that Weinstein hired Black Cube for $1.3 million to suppress allegations he sexually assaulted and harassed dozens of women.

The report said an Israeli woman named Stella Penn Pechanac befriended Rose McGowan, an American actress who accuses Weinstein of raping her, claiming to be a women’s rights advocate — and secretly recorded their conversations.

Days later, a Black Cube board member apologized for working with Weinstein, saying the firm would not have assisted the disgraced producer if it had known it was helping suppress sexual assault allegations against him.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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