Levin demands AG allow coalition to hire private attorneys in spy tech inquiry

Justice minister says Gali Baharav-Miara has conflict of interest in matter, since panel will investigate her; denounces efforts to limit scope of inquiry

Justice Minister Yariv Levin seen during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
File: Justice Minister Yariv Levin seen during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Justice Minister Yariv Levin on Friday demanded that he and other government members be allowed to hire private attorneys for a committee inquiry set up by the cabinet to examine law enforcement’s use of spyware technology.

In a letter to Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon, Levin wrote that Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who is meant to represent the government and its members in legal matters, has a conflict of interest in this case because her activities would be investigated by the panel.

“The attempt to restrict the committee’s efforts and to derail its ability to carry out a comprehensive examination of an issue so fundamental to civil rights and the protection of privacy is extremely serious, especially since it was done by one of the bodies itself under investigation,” he added, referencing calls by the attorney general’s office to limit the scope of the probe.

Levin stressed that the panel will operate without restrictions that might impact its search for the truth and that its mandate should not be altered.

Granted investigative powers by the government last month, the panel will examine the conduct of police and the State Attorney’s Office in matters touching upon procurement of, surveillance with, and data collection through cyber tools, such as the Pegasus software.

Levin, who first requested the committee inquiry a month ago, said that the matter is directly connected to the police spyware scandal that broke in 2022, which revealed police usage of sophisticated cellphone hacking technology to obtain unfettered — and possibly, illegal — access to citizens’ devices.

Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon speaking during a hearing of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on a bill to severely limit the use of the reasonableness standard, July 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A previous inquiry found that nearly all cases of the use of Pegasus were court-approved, but that police had overstepped the bounds of their permits in a number of instances. The use of spyware by police has been largely frozen since then, except in certain cases and with the approval of the attorney general.

The attorney general’s office has expressed opposition to the upcoming panel over concerns that it may interfere with ongoing cases. According to leaked quotes reported in Hebrew media, Limon pressed Levin to restrict the committee’s access to open cases.

A source close to the justice minister claimed that there would be no such interference, because the inquiry would only look at whether police investigators made use of spyware technology, rather than looking at the cases more broadly.

In a letter sent last month to Levin, Baharav-Miara wrote that the minister does not have the authority to form a panel that probes into open legal cases, and particularly expressed concern that the committee may interfere with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial. An unstated implication was that spyware may have been used by the police and/or state prosecution in gathering material related to the charges against Netanyahu.

According to Hebrew media reports, Baharav-Miara is expected to be called to testify in front of the panel’s first meeting, in order to explain her legal opposition to its proceedings.

Netanyahu has steadfastly maintained his innocence and blamed the charges on a biased police force, a weak attorney general, and the media. Levin is the architect of the government’s controversial plan to loosen judicial checks on political power.

Given his perceived conflict of interest, Netanyahu recused himself from voting on the panel and removed himself from the room during the discussion.

Former District Court judge Moshe Drori will lead the new panel. He is a staunch supporter of the government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary and previously voiced strong criticism of former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit, who oversaw the indictment against Netanyahu.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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