Report: Barak’s phone breached, info apparently sold to Iran by foreign hackers

Shin Bet and former PM refuse to comment on claim, which comes days after TV report said Benny Gantz’s phone was hacked by Iran

Former prime minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv, on December 22, 2017. (Flash90)
Former prime minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv, on December 22, 2017. (Flash90)

The cellphone of former prime minister Ehud Barak was hacked months ago and its contents were apparently sold to Iran, Channel 12 reported on Sunday.

A source with knowledge of the case told the channel’s “Uvda” investigative program that Iran was not responsible for the security breach, but rather appears to have bought the information from foreign hackers.

According to the report, Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman went to Barak’s house last July and told him there were indications that the former prime minister’s phone and computer had been breached and that information from the device was in the hands of Tehran. At the time, the meeting was reported as a discussion over concerns that Iran may be seeking to attempt to target Barak and other prominent Israelis traveling abroad.

Sources told Channel 12 that the breach was not the result of negligence on Barak’s part, and that no embarrassing materials had been accessed.

Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman attends a Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on November 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Both Barak — a former IDF chief and defense minister who led Israel from 1999-2001 — and the Shin Bet refused to comment on the report.

The revelation came three days after a TV report that claimed Iran had hacked into Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz’s cellphone and accessed its contents. No sensitive security material was on the phone, the report said.

As news broke Thursday of the suspected hack of Gantz’s phone, Barak quickly tweeted that “from personal experience, do not get excited. There is nothing sensitive relating to the security of the state. Iranian hacking? Not sure. More likely — regular phishing from a pool of millions of names.”

The Blue and White party has asked the attorney general to investigate the reported hack of Gantz’s phone and whether the leak of the story to the media came from the prime minister.

Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, has called the leak “political gossip,” noting that the Likud party was jumping on the news as fodder for campaign videos.

Blue and White also noted that if the report about Gantz’s phone was accurate, the information could only have come from intelligence agencies or the civilian National Cyber Directorate, all of which are under the Prime Minister’s Office.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz holds a press conference in Kibbutz Nahal Oz in southern Israel on March 15, 2019. (Flash90)

Netanyahu and his Likud party have roundly denied the accusations, saying in a Saturday night campaign video that the attempt to blame the prime minister for the leak was meant “to distract from the fact that the Iranian regime openly supports” Gantz’s candidacy.

In a press conference on Friday near the Gaza border, Gantz dismissed the news of the hacking of his phone as “political gossip” and questioned the timing of the report, which came as Blue and White has seen its lead over Likud slip in the polls ahead of general elections on April 9.

Asked if there was any embarrassing content on the phone, Gantz said he would not dignify such “ethical nosiness” with a response. His party had earlier said there were “no embarrassing videos” on the phone. Asked if the phone contained material relating to any relationship with a woman that might be used to extort him, he dismissed the notion.

“Someone is pushing this spin, and turning the real problem into one that does not exist,” he said.

The initial Thursday report on Channel 12 news said that Iranian intelligence had hacked Gantz’s personal cellphone and obtained access to all its contents. A follow-up report on Saturday night said that no sensitive security information was housed on Gantz’s phone at the time of the breach.

The reports cited unnamed security officials.

After the news broke, Shin Bet chief Argaman said his agency had not briefed Netanyahu about any such hack.

But Blue and White said the information likely came from the Mossad intelligence agency, now headed by Netanyahu’s former national security adviser Yossi Cohen, and from the National Cyber Directorate, which Netanyahu founded and oversees as part of the Prime Minister’s Office.

In the days since the report, Likud’s campaign has pivoted from accusing Gantz of being a “leftist” to arguing that he is the preferred candidate of the regime in Tehran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (top right) meets with security brass at the IDF’s Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 14, 2019. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

On Saturday night, Lapid accused Netanyahu of “spinning” the phone hack story to distract attention from the corruption allegations against him, from criticism of his Gaza policy amid a new round of tensions with Hamas, and from his “lies.”

Netanyahu “lies as he breathes,” said Lapid. Only the prime minister had the wherewithal and the motivation to spin the phone hack story, Lapid insisted, and now “he’s sitting in his office laughing and laughing.”

In its Thursday report, Channel 12 said that Gantz was approached five weeks ago by officials from the Shin Bet who informed him that his personal phone had been hacked by Iran following his formal entry into politics in December.

The Shin Bet agents reportedly told Gantz that hackers in Iran got hold of his personal details and text messages and that he should assume that any sensitive information in the phone could be used against him in the future. They told him to proceed as he saw fit.

Blue and White has stressed no sensitive information was on Gantz’s phone and noted it was hacked four years after he retired as chief of staff.

Blue and White’s Moshe Ya’alon is seen during a visit to the Gaza border area with other members of the party on March 13, 2019. (Flash90)

On Friday, former defense minister and senior Blue and White candidate Moshe Ya’alon asserted that Iran was not behind the hack of Gantz’s cellphone, while accusing Netanyahu of leaking the story to the media.

Ya’alon did not say explicitly who he believed had hacked the phone, but hinted that Netanyahu was involved.

“The Iranians are not behind the hack, they aren’t the ones attacking the prime minister’s rivals. Someone has debased the political system and is willing to sacrifice all other values for political survival,” Ya’alon said in an interview with Channel 13 news.

Pressed on whether he was suggesting the Shin Bet had invented the story, Ya’alon said he was “convinced” the security service was not behind it.

“I know the defense establishment, and I also know the prime minister’s world,” he said. “This did not come from the Shin Bet.”

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