Israeli Private Intelligence Companies Turn Civilians into Enemies
Shir Hever talks about Psy-Group and other Israeli private intelligence companies and the role which they play in undermining democracy when intelligence gathering is privatized
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner.
Earlier this month it was revealed that the Israeli private intelligence company Psy Group had met with Rick Gates, who was a senior member of Trump’s presidential campaign staff in 2016, and offered to use social media, fake accounts, and surveillance in order to swing the election for a Trump victory. The New York Times reported that apparently Psy Group’s offer was rejected by Trump. Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept was among the few journalists who cover the reality that Trump’s alleged collusion with foreign agents during his presidential campaign was not just about Russia, but involved other countries, as well. Jeremy Scahill explains here the role of the Israeli group Psy Group.
JEREMY SCAHILL: There was also an Israeli guy at this meeting. His name is Joel Zamel. And Zamel was there supposedly pitching a multimillion-dollar social media manipulation propaganda campaign. Zamel Is a co-founder of a company called Psy Group- that’s P-S-Y, like psychological, or psyops- the Psy Group. That company boasts of employing former Israeli intelligence operatives.
RACHEL MADDOW: Now, Mr. Zamel’s lawyer denies his client prepared anything or offered anything to the Trump campaign. But according to the Times’ reporting, this guy Zamel was paid 2 million bucks.
MARC STEINER: Now, Psy Group is currently in the process of being liquidated. But that may be just another intelligence community smokescreen, because on Tuesday another private Israeli intelligence company, or more accurately a cyber company called Signia, was sold for a quarter of a billion dollars to the Singapore investment group Temasek.
Now we’re joined by Real News commentator and correspondent Shir Hever, who is based in Heidelberg, Germany. His recent book The Privatization of Israeli Security, was published by Pluto Press in 2017, and I interviewed him about his work just a few months ago. And Shir, welcome. Good to have you with us. It’s always great to talk to you.
SHIR HEVER: Thank you, Marc, for having me.
MARC STEINER: So we’ve covered at Real News, you know, the Israeli private intelligence company NSO, which provides customers with surveillance technology, and help the Mexican government spy on human rights activists there. Another famous Israeli private intelligence company is Black Cube, which helped Harvey Weinstein actually spy on the women who accused him of sexual assault and harassment, and which also allegedly worked with Cambridge Analytica and attempted to influence elections in Nigeria. So the question, I think, many people are asking is why are so many intelligence companies Israeli companies? I mean, it’s all over the news. Why is that? What is it about Israel and their intelligence operations and these companies that make this happen?
SHIR HEVER: So first of all, not all intelligence companies, private intelligence companies of the world, are Israeli, right. I think the American ones are, tend to be bigger, and quite numerous, as well. And the U.S.-based ones. But I think there is something which ties all these Israeli intelligence companies together and is common to all of them, and that is the fact that they all put as the first line of advertisement, of marketing, the fact that they were founded by former members of the Israeli intelligence. Former senior Israeli intelligence members. That’s either Mossad agents, like in the case of Black Cube or Psy Group, or members of the unit 8200, which is the Israeli SIGINT unit. SIGINT is signal intelligence.
And I think what really makes it interesting is how these companies use the prestige of Israeli intelligence units, the Israeli military, in order to promote themselves. And I think what also makes a big difference is that they have different customers. U.S. companies, their preferred customer is the U.S. government and the Pentagon. And in fact, there have been several studies that show that senior officers of the U.S. intelligence forces, they after their retirement set up their private companies, go back to work for the Pentagon, and earn a lot more money for doing the same thing that they did before. And this process of privatization actually creates a situation where even though about a third of that intelligence officers in the employ of the United States are private contractors, they get more than half of the budget for intelligence, because the same product just costs more if it’s done through private companies.
The Israeli intelligence companies are not as successful at getting government customers. Their main government customer is the Israeli government. But that’s not big enough for their market. And so what they do is they go to the private market, and they offer their services to private customers, such as Donald Trump, when he was still a private citizen, or to private companies like Facebook. And they try to offer this SIGINT technology. And what is also interesting is that they’re not just selling their expertise as intelligence officers, they’re also selling the very technology which is produced in the Israeli military. And the intellectual property of that technology, these apps that are used to spy on people does not remain in the ownership of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, but rather is taken by these officers in their private lives; and they go around and sell it as if it was their own, which is something that the Israeli government just doesn’t regulate and doesn’t care about.
MARC STEINER: So let’s explore for a moment what the difference is between the privatized intelligence in the U.S. and Israel, you touched a little bit on that, a little bit, and how they’re connected. I’m curious, do you think there’s collaboration between agencies, former operatives? I mean, how intertwined is all of this?
SHIR HEVER: Well, it is very intertwined. And in fact, what I think is really alarming is the fact that for these intelligence officers it becomes clear what their role is going to be in the private sector, even while they’re still in public service.
MARC STEINER: What do you mean?
SHIR HEVER: That means that these are officers in this, in the intelligence units. And their job is supposed to be to catch terrorists, or try to surveil Palestinian activism, and that sort of thing. And while they’re doing that they’re already starting to think how they’re going to market that, and the expertise that they’re accumulating, the knowledge that they have, in order to make money as soon as they become- they finish their military service.
And one very interesting thing that was happening in the Israeli military just a week ago, it was revealed that this Israeli SIGINT unit, 8200, was surveying and tracking Israeli citizens and websites, especially blogs, political blogs, that sort of thing.
MARC STEINER: You mean like left-wing blogs? Left-wing blogs specifically? Or-
SHIR HEVER: Yeah, left-wing blogs. But they were also surveilling an Israeli politician, a member of the Knesset. Her name is Shelly Yachimovich. And she’s not a very prominent politician. Her career is in decline. She’s not a challenge to the government in any way. It was very odd to me, at least, that they chose to surveil her and track all her internet activity, until I realized that the reason they’re doing that is that later they can claim that as part of their work in the military they have experience in tracking politicians.
Now, Netanyahu as the prime minister of Israel or any other senior politician in Israel cannot just go the Mossad or to this unit 8200 and say, I want you to surveil my political opponents. That won’t fly. It’s illegal, and if it comes out, then he goes to jail. But what he can do is hire a private company. Nobody can stop him from doing that. And if that private company happens to be staffed by the very same officers from the Mossad, or from 8200, who he was not able to make that request just a couple months ago, now he can ask the same people to do that. Now you see how the operations of the Israeli intelligence unit has changed in order to prepare themselves for these jobs, these contracts that they’re going to get in the private sector after they leave military service and start their own companies. And that is really what the Israeli intelligence sector, the private intelligence sector or Israeli companies, is showing the way, for the rest of the world, unfortunately, and the way that surveillance for profit is changing the whole way that democracy works.
MARC STEINER: That’s a pretty frightening scenario. So let me ask two last questions here. When it comes to manipulating social media through fake accounts, spreading deceptions, to surveillance against unwilling citizens, for you- what does it matter for us whether it’s conducted by a private company or a state agency? I mean, it really does seem to be moving from the public sector to the private sector as a way of doing business. So what does that mean for our future? Where does that take us?
SHIR HEVER: One of the big differences is a legal difference. And that is a problem that shows that the legal system that we have in modern countries today is just not prepared to deal with this problem. Because if, for example, Donald Trump hires a private company like Cambridge Analytica for that matter, which we know that he did, to collect information and spread lies in order to promote his campaign, this is a bit of a gray zone. And it’s not very clear what kind of crime has been committed. If that company may be violated the privacy of citizens, of U.S. citizens, that is a crime. But it’s not a very serious one, compared to the crime of espionage. Now, imagine that Cambridge Analytica was not a private company. Imagine that it was an intelligence unit for a foreign country, and that this information that they would be providing to Trump they would also be providing to the government. This is actually what is all the accusations about Russia, that these Russian agents were allegedly collecting information and sending it to the Russian government and conducting espionage. Now, this is a much more serious accusation.
There is no way to know if these Israeli companies like NSO or Psy Group or Black Cube, if they are actually still cooperating with Israeli intelligence agencies and providing them with information. We know that the Israeli lobby, through a lot of fake organizations – or not fake organizations, but state-funded organizations, is collecting information on U.S. citizens in what would be considered espionage by any impartial observer. But we don’t know if these private intelligence companies are doing that as well, or if they only provide this information to private customers. I think the difference is not as crucial in terms of how it affects people’s lives and how it violates privacy and gives a lot of power to people with money. But there is a legal difference, and that is a problem. We have a gap in our legal system, that we cannot really hold these companies accountable.
MARC STEINER: So finally I’m curious, we started the conversation talking about Black Cube, which is what inspired what we were talking about today, and the work that they did. And they’re disbanding. A new company, as I said at the very top of the broadcast, is being just been bought by a Singapore company. But what does all that mean? So what does it mean that Black Cube is- these people are not leaving the business. So what does that, what does all that really mean?
SHIR HEVER: Well, thank you for giving me the opportunity to give another side to this story. Because I think the way that I talked about this so far is a very dark perspective on the rise of these very powerful surveillance companies. But I think we have to look at the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that these companies, because of their focus on SIGINT, signal intelligence, they’re actually quite weak on human intelligence, what intelligence operatives like to call HUMINT. They don’t quite understand how to transform their level of surveillance that they can achieve through technology into political power. And the fact that Psy Group is now under liquidation is because the company was not really successful in providing its customers with political power. Surveillance doesn’t immediately mean political power.
And I think what we see now with this new company, Insignia, which was bought for a quarter billion dollars by the Singapore investor, I think the Singapore investors made a terrible mistake. They haven’t done the research correctly. They should have looked at this company a bit more closely and realized that only $4 million were invested in the assets of that company. The company has a very small staff of people, and not so many computers or a very advanced technologies. What it does have is the prestige. And the founder of the company, he can say, I used to command the unit 8200, SIGINT unit. Well, that’s very nice. Does that mean that his company is going to make a profit?
There’s a whole line of former Israeli officers who founded their security companies either in intelligence, or in mercenary work, or in arms trade. And they proved- maybe they were successful as officers, maybe they got to high ranks within the Israeli military. It doesn’t mean necessarily that they know how to do business, and it doesn’t mean necessarily that they can make a profit. And many of these companies end up crashing, one time and again. But the prestige of the Israeli military as if they’re able to solve any problem, and they have an undefeatable technology, keeps pulling investors into this trap of investing in a company that has no record of making a profit.
MARC STEINER: There’s a lot more to explore here, which we’ll do in coming conversations in the coming weeks and months around this privatization in the military, privatization of intelligence, what all that means, because it’s really one of the most, I think, one of the more critical issues of the future that we’re going to have to face. And Shir Hever, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much for joining us today.
SHIR HEVER: Thank you, Marc.
MARC STEINER: Always good to talk to you. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us. Take care.