Shin Bet confident it can thwart foreign meddling in upcoming elections

After agency’s head warns of plans to interfere in April vote, security service says it can ‘locate, monitor and thwart foreign influence efforts’

Illustrative: A voter casts a vote in a ballot box during Knesset elections on February 10, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Illustrative: A voter casts a vote in a ballot box during Knesset elections on February 10, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The Shin Bet late on Tuesday sought to reassure the public it would not allow any outside meddling in upcoming Knesset elections, after the security agency’s director warned a foreign country is planning to interfere ahead of the vote.

“The Israel Security Agency wishes to clarify that the State of Israel and the intelligence community have the tools and capabilities to locate, monitor and thwart foreign influence efforts, if there are any,” the Shin Bet said in a statement, using its official name.

“It is within the ability of the Israeli defense establishment to allow the holding of free and democratic elections in the State of Israel,” it added.

The statement followed a local television report that Shin Bet Nadav Argaman said a foreign state “intends to intervene” through cyberattacks in national elections on April 9.

Head of the Shin Bet security service Nadav Argaman attends the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset on November 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Though Argaman’s statements Monday were made during an event hosted by Friends of Tel Aviv University, Israel’s military censor is barring from publication much of what he said, according to Hadashot TV news.

After the network reported on the gag order, the censor permitted some of Argaman’s comments to be quoted, though it continues to ban media from naming the country explicitly mentioned in the internal security chief’s speech.

“I can’t say at this point for whom or against whom” the intervention will be, “but it involves cyber[attacks] and hacking,” Argaman was quoted as saying.

In further quotes carried by Hadashot, Argaman said he was “100% [certain] that [redacted foreign state] will intervene in the upcoming elections, and I know what I’m talking about, I just don’t know in whose favor.”

Argaman also indicated the impending cyberattack targeting Israel’s elections was not merely an assessment or expectation, but that the Shin Bet had concrete information pointing to a specific opponent preparing a specific attack, according to the report.

Following the TV report, Labor MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin submitted a request to urgently convene the Knesset’s cyber subcommittee.

“Foreign interference in election campaigning could critically harm the public’s trust in the government, Israeli democracy and in particular the results of the election campaign, as the results must reflect the will of the voter,” she wrote in a letter to Likud MKs Avi Dichter and Anat Berko, who respectively head the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and Subcommittee for Cyber Defense.

Head of the Shin Bet security service, Nadav Argaman, right, speaks at the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which is led by Likud MK Avi Dichter, left, on December 24, 2017. (Screen capture)

Another opposition lawmaker called on Israel’s security services to prevent any foreign meddling that could sway the election results.

“We demand the security services make sure that Putin doesn’t steal the elections for his friend, the tyrant Bibi,” Tamar Zandberg, head of the left-wing Meretz party, said in a statement, referring to Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The issue of foreign meddling in elections attracted attention following the 2016 US presidential campaign, during which, the American intelligence community has said, Russia interfered on behalf of Donald Trump.

Ahead of municipal elections in October, Israel’s National Cyber Directorate said thousands of fake Facebook profile accounts created to spread false information about Israeli political candidates had been taken offline at the agency’s request, in the possible beginnings of a major attempt to influence Israeli voters.

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