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White House raises concerns with Israel over NSO spyware affair — report

Biden’s Mideast coordinator reportedly demands answers from an Israeli Defense Ministry official at Washington meeting; Israel said to say it is taking situation ‘very seriously’

Brett McGurk, then-US envoy for the global coalition against Islamic State, at a news conference at the US embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, June 7, 2017. (Hadi Mizban/AP)
Brett McGurk, then-US envoy for the global coalition against Islamic State, at a news conference at the US embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, June 7, 2017. (Hadi Mizban/AP)

US officials have raised concerns with Israeli defense representatives over the controversial Israeli cyber firm NSO Group, whose software has reportedly been used by governments around the world to track political dissidents and journalists, the Axios news site reported Wednesday.

Brett McGurk, the American National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, met Thursday at the White House with Zohar Palti, the Israeli Defense Ministry’s political-military bureau head, the site reported.

McGurk asked what the Israeli government was doing regarding the situation with the spyware firm, the site said citing unnamed Israeli officials.

Palti reportedly told McGurk that Israel was in the midst of examining the case, and would determine if the company had violated the terms of its export licenses, or if a change in policy would be needed, the Israeli officials told Axios.

Palti also told the White House official that the country was taking the situation “very seriously,” the report said, echoing official statements from the Defense Ministry.

The Defense Ministry has said previously that if it finds that NSO Group violated the terms of its export licenses, it will “take appropriate action.”

The White House declined a request to comment, according to the report.

In this file photo taken on August 28, 2016, a woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

NSO Group, an Israel-based cyber firm, has repeatedly been accused of selling its Pegasus spyware to repressive countries that use it to target journalists, activists and politicians.

In a bombshell investigation released this month, NSO was accused of selling the spyware to the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates, which used it to hack into the phones of dissidents and human rights activists.

Pegasus spyware can switch on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvest its data, and is at the center of a storm after a list of about 50,000 potential surveillance targets worldwide was leaked to human rights groups.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Wednesday met with his French counterpart, Florence Parly in Paris, after President Emmanuel Macron had reportedly been a possible target of the spyware.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and his team meets with French Defense Minister Florence Parly, right, and her team in Paris on July 28, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Macron reportedly directly called Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last week to demand that Israel investigate the allegations.

Gantz on Wednesday relayed that NSO’s technology had not been used to hack into the phones of Macron or other local officials, according to Channel 13 news.

“[Gantz] noted that the State of Israel approves the export of cyber products exclusively to governmental entities, for lawful use and only for the purpose of preventing and investigating crime and counter-terrorism,” a Defense Ministry statement read.

Israel’s defense establishment set up a committee to review NSO’s business, including the process through which export licenses are granted.

Pegasus’s list of alleged targets includes at least 600 politicians, 180 journalists, 85 human rights activists and 65 business leaders.

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