Israel’s NSO Group said to lobby unsuccessfully for removal from US blacklist

Lawyers and PR firms hired by embattled spyware company reportedly approached senators and members of Congress and are urging discussion of issue in Lapid-Biden meeting this week

Israel’s NSO Group, creator of the notorious Pegasus spyware, is reportedly leading a widescale lobbying campaign to get off the United States government’s blacklist.

According to a new report in ProPublica — produced in conjunction with Israeli independent nonprofit news organization Shomrim — the efforts by NSO have so far been unsuccessful, and the company has failed get a response or set up a meeting between NSO officials and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

The report said NSO “has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past year in payments to lobbyists, public relations companies and law firms,” citing “public records filed under the Foreign Agent Registration Act and conversations with people familiar with the effort.”

The firms have, in turn, “approached members of the US House and Senate, as well as various media outlets and think tanks across the US, on NSO’s behalf.” In phone calls and letters to members of Congress, those lobbying on behalf of NSO have claimed that the company’s “customers are solely law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and by far are mainly democratic allies of the US and Israel in Western Europe.”

NSO has also reportedly tried to get the issue on the agenda for this week’s meeting between Prime Minister Yair Lapid and US President Joe Biden in Jerusalem.

The Israeli company was placed on a US Commerce Department blacklist in November 2021 following a string of allegations and accusations that its Pegasus spyware was used around the world to target activists, journalists and politicians. The software can switch on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvest its data without the phone user ever being aware that they are under surveillance.

The NSO Group logo is seen on a smartphone placed on a laptop keyboard. (Mundissima/Alamy)

The US Commerce Department said last year that NSO was being blacklisted because it “developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers.”

The NSO Group has repeatedly denied claims that its spyware has been used to target human rights activists, and says that it only sells to government entities and with the approval of the Israeli government. The company is the subject of ongoing probes and investigations in many countries around the world.

Last month, the Axios news site reported that members of the Israeli government were supporting NSO in its bid to be removed from the blacklist and lobbying the US on the company’s behalf.  The report came before Lapid took office earlier this month.

On Sunday, The New York Times reported that an American military contractor was looking into purchasing the embattled NSO Group — with the backing of US intelligence officials.

The contractor in question, L3Harris, was said to have told NSO officials during negotiations that US intelligence officials supported its efforts to buy the controversial company.

Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India and the United Arab Emirates were all said to have purchased the NSO Group’s Pegasus program to target activists, political dissidents and journalists, allegedly including Morocco targeting French President Emmanuel Macron.

It was also reportedly used to track journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was subsequently murdered by Saudi intelligence agents. NSO has denied allegations of wrongdoing.

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