Sa’ar: Report on illegal NSO spyware use was incorrect, no need for state inquiry

Justice minister notes, though, that investigation into claims that police used Pegasus spyware police against dozens of civilians has only published interim findings

Gideon Sa'ar, head of the New Hope party, speaks at a conference in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Gideon Sa'ar, head of the New Hope party, speaks at a conference in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said Tuesday that shocking allegations that came out earlier this month of the Israel Police illegally using spyware on the phones of citizens had been found to be “incorrect,” and that there was therefore no need for a government inquiry into the matter.

“It is now clear that the newspaper report 15 days ago was incorrect and certainly not accurate,” Sa’ar told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, referring to the bombshell report in the Calcalist news outlet.

“It is clear that there is no need for the dramatic step of establishing a state commission of inquiry,” he added.

Sa’ar’s comments came a day after the results of a Justice Ministry probe into the allegations found “no indication” that any such hacking took place.

In a subsequent interview with Ynet, Sa’ar noted, though, that “it is an interim report and we need to continue to examine ourselves, and correct if necessary.”

Interim findings from Justice Ministry investigation into the claims, headed by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari, were published on Monday.

Earlier this month, Calcalist reported, without providing evidence, that dozens of high-profile figures — including former ministry directors, prominent business figures and family members and associates of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — were spied on by police using the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware without any judicial oversight.

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

But interim findings by Marari’s team — which also included two former Shin Bet officials — found no evidence to support Calcalist’s claims. 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.

Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari (Courtesy)

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.

In response to the investigation, a statement from Calcalist said that the results of the probe “require serious consideration and reexamination of the findings and allegations we published.” Such an investigation, the newspaper said, is underway, and “when we finish it, we will not hesitate to correct as much as necessary.”

While former Israel Police commissioner Roni Alsheich denied last week that police have access to Pegasus, the investigation by Marari made it clear that police do indeed hold a license to use the software, as well as an additional, unnamed spyware tool.

The investigators said they had collated a list of potential phone numbers of individuals who were allegedly hacked, and that NSO Group officials had cooperated with police to assist in the investigation. Marari noted that her team conducted “a technological investigation only,” and did not look into any information gathered nor investigate any of the individuals affected.

The statement did not name any of the individuals who police said were targeted by the Pegasus spyware with court approval, but prosecutors in Netanyahu’s corruption trial said last week that former Communications Ministry director turned state’s witness Shlomo Filber was spied on by police using Pegasus, and that police also attempted unsuccessfully to spy on Iris Elovitch, a defendant in the case.

Hearings in Netanyahu’s trial have been suspended for the past week while the court awaited the prosecution’s response to the allegations. This week’s hearings were canceled because one of the judges contracted COVID-19.

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