Police chief blasts ‘fake news’ media after investigation refutes spyware claims

Kobi Shabtai says false reports of blameless civilians’ phones being hacked ‘infiltrated mainstream media’ and harmed law enforcement, will take years to undo damage

Police chief Kobi Shabtai at a police ceremony in Jerusalem, on September 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Police chief Kobi Shabtai at a police ceremony in Jerusalem, on September 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai blasted the media and talked up law enforcement on Tuesday, after an investigative team refuted allegations that police had illicitly spied on Israeli citizens.

Speaking at a Border Police cadet graduation event Tuesday, Shabtai claimed the reporting had wreaked “unprecedented” damage on public trust in the police, calling for soul-searching in its wake.

“The ease by which the entire police force was slandered must be considered,” he said. “The Israel Police was hit with serious false allegations that critically hurt public trust, not just in the police, but in all law enforcement.”

“Fake news managed to infiltrate the mainstream media and to cause great harm that will take a great deal of time to mend,” Shabtai added.

Earlier this month, the Calcalist news outlet published an unsourced, bombshell report claiming police had spied on dozens of high-profile figures. The reports said police used the powerful Pegasus spyware from the surveillance company NSO Group to access phones, without court supervision.

The alleged targets included former ministry directors, prominent business figures, and family members and associates of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A Justice Ministry investigation into the claims published interim findings on Monday that said there was “no indication” any such hacking took place.

An internal police investigation and a check by prosecutors in Netanyahu’s corruption trial have also turned up no evidence of widespread wrongdoing.

Shabtai said the investigative team led by the state prosecution “left no stone unturned” to check the claims and received “full cooperation” from the force.

“The police do not spy on Israeli citizens. The police do not spy on demonstrators and innocent people,” he said.

He blasted the media for the reports. Calcalist has increasingly come under fire for the explosive report and under pressure to reveal its sources. The reporter, Tomer Ganon, on Saturday said he “checked the facts” and vowed to protect his sources.

The claims of spying, and the ensuing fallout, were widely reported on in Israeli media. Calcalist said Monday it will investigate its own reporting.

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

Police, including current and former leadership, have consistently denied any widespread, unsupervised hacking. They have acknowledged mistakes in accessing the phone of a key witness in Netanyahu’s graft case.

The interim findings published Monday were the result of a probe headed by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari, with help from Shin Bet and Mossad investigators. According to details of the investigation, there was “no indication that the Israel Police used Pegasus without a court order to infect the phone of any of the list of people published in the media.”

Furthermore, a Justice Ministry statement noted that the probe did not uncover any unsuccessful attempts by the police to use Pegasus without judicial oversight, and that it also did not discover any police usage of other similar spyware against the individuals named.

Marari noted that police informed the Justice Ministry that three individuals were subject to a court order allowing such phone hacking, but only two of them had been targeted by the spyware and only one of them was successfully hacked.

The Justice Ministry statement on the investigation said that its probe would continue, and widen to include people not included on the original Calcalist list.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said Tuesday that the reporting was “incorrect” and there was no need for a government or state inquiry into the matter.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who oversees police, said that Marari’s report was a “resounding acquittal for the Israel Police and for those in uniform.”

Barlev added that there are many people who “need to bow their heads and apologize” to police “whose names have been smeared in the mud on every stage in recent weeks.”

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