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Journalist who broke police spyware story defends reporting amid growing doubts

Calcalist reporter Tomer Ganon says ‘I checked the facts,’ swears to protect his sources, after investigations reportedly turn up no evidence of wrongdoing

An Illustration of a man holding his phone with an NSO Group logo with a computer screen in the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An Illustration of a man holding his phone with an NSO Group logo with a computer screen in the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Israeli journalist who has led reporting on the police’s alleged illicit use of spyware on civilians defended his reporting on Saturday, amid growing doubts about its veracity.

The Calcalist business daily has made bombshell allegations about Israeli police using spyware without proper oversight, which were initially met with calls from across the political spectrum for investigations.

However, government officials have backpedaled recently, with separate probes by the police and deputy attorney general said to largely debunk the unsourced newspaper claims.

Calcalist reporter Tomer Ganon said on Twitter on Saturday, “I swore to my sources: I will protect you until the full truth comes out. I pledged: I will protect everything that is dear to you — freedom, family, careers — because you chose not to be silent and to uncover the truth.”

“I have risked my good name not as a result of gullibility, but only because I checked the facts,” he said.

Shortly after issuing the statement, Ganon’s Twitter account was disabled. It wasn’t clear whether he took it down himself, or the platform removed it.

Police and justice officials have so far said their probes have not found evidence of any widespread wrongdoing by police, and some have called on Ganon to provide more information to back up his claims.

Politicians and other media outlets have also called on Calcalist to provide evidence supporting the allegations.

Police chief Kobi Shabtai visits at roadblock outside Jerusalem during a COVID-19 lockdown, on January 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Reports have swirled over the past two weeks that the Israel Police used spyware by the NSO Group surveillance company without judicial approval to target many public officials and activists, including figures central to Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial.

Current and former senior police officers have denied the claims. The police have acknowledged mistakes hacking the phone of Shlomo Filber, a state’s witness in Netanyahu’s trial, and say they have targeted the phones of criminal suspects with judicial authorization.

An internal police probe whose results were handed to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last week claimed that out of the 26 people named by Calcalist to have been illicitly spied on by police, only three of them had been targeted, only one successfully, and all with judicial oversight.

An investigation being overseen by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari, aided by former officials from the Shin Bet and Mossad and with input from the NSO Group, has also found that most of those named in the newspaper report were not targeted, Channel 12 reported.

Calcalist said police had illicitly targeted three former directors of government ministries — Shai Babad, Keren Terner and Emi Palmor — but Marari’s probe reportedly found police did not deploy spyware against them. The allegation that police used spyware to target the three former senior civil servants — none of whom is suspected of any criminal activity — was among the most incendiary elements of the Calcalist report.

The prime minister’s son, Avner Netanyahu, also named in the Calcalist report, was also not spied on, the Marari probe has reportedly established.

According to Channel 12, there were some individuals named by Calcalist who were subjected to police phone hacking via spyware, but they were suspected of criminal activity and the use of spyware was given judicial approval.

The network reported Friday that the Shin Bet and Mossad team working with Marari had completed its work, and that Marari had presented the probe’s findings to Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara on Thursday.

The report said investigators checked 8,000 phone numbers and looked at evidence going back to 2015.

In yet another probe, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said Thursday he was carrying out an “in-depth” investigation into the claims against police.

In an interview with Channel 13 news on Thursday, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar suggested that there is not enough evidence to support establishing a state commission of inquiry into the allegations of police hacking.

The allegations have also caused complications for Netanyahu’s corruption trial.

Prosecutors in Netanyahu’s ongoing trial told the Jerusalem District Court on Wednesday that spyware was used by police to hack Filber’s phone, but that no material discovered was used and that trial proceedings should continue as scheduled.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the Jerusalem District Court for a hearing in his ongoing corruption trial, on November 22, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

Prosecutors claim that the spyware was activated on Filber’s phone for about a day, but that no material relevant to the case was found.

Lawyers for the defendants and associates of Netanyahu rejected the state prosecutors’ claims and demanded a state commission of inquiry.

Netanyahu is currently on trial in three corruption cases. He faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and in Case 2000, and charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in Case 4000.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, and says the charges were fabricated by a biased police force and state prosecution service, overseen by a weak attorney general, in league with political opponents and the media.

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