New Yorker: ‘Private Mossads for Hire’ use avatars to target pro-Palestine movement

New Yorker: ‘Private Mossads for Hire’ use avatars to target pro-Palestine movement

Image from New Yorker with caption: “Psy-group offered its avatars for influencing campaigns, boasting that they could plant seeds of thought in people.”

Israeli private intelligence companies Psy-Group, Black Cube, & others specialize in fake online identities known as “avatars,” some work with the neocon group Foundation for Defense of Democracies – the aim is to “destabilize and disrupt anti-Israel movements from within…” 

Psy-Group operatives scoured the Internet, social-media accounts, & the “deep” Web for derogatory information about BDS. activists…

They would then release the information online using avatars and web sites that couldn’t be traced back to the company or its American donors…

Excerpted from the New Yorker, Private Mossad for Hire: Inside a plot to influence American elections, starting with one small-town race” by Adam Entous and Ronan Farrow. The article is also in the print edition of the February 18 & 25, 2019, New Yorker, with the headline “Deception, Inc.”

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, journalists Adam Entous and Ronan Farrow describe the actions of private intelligence companies to manipulate Americans and others around the world.

The article contains detailed information about the groups’ diverse actions. Below are some excerpts about the groups’ methodology and their activities regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue:

Psy-Group Facebook logo

“Psy-Group [is] an Israeli private intelligence company. Psy-Group’s slogan was “Shape Reality,” and its techniques included the use of elaborate false identities to manipulate its targets. Psy-Group was part of a new wave of private intelligence firms that recruited from the ranks of Israel’s secret services—self-described “private Mossads.” The most aggressive of these firms seemed willing to do just about anything for their clients.

“Psy-Group stood out from many of its rivals because it didn’t just gather intelligence; it specialized in covertly spreading messages to influence what people believed and how they behaved. Its operatives took advantage of technological innovations and lax governmental oversight. “Social media allows you to reach virtually anyone and to play with their minds,” Uzi Shaya, a former senior Israeli intelligence officer, said. ‘You can do whatever you want. You can be whoever you want. It’s a place where wars are fought, elections are won, and terror is promoted. There are no regulations. It is a no man’s land.’”

……….

Mossad agents enter private intelligence market

In the two-thousands, Israeli companies using former Mossad agents entered the private detective market. “These companies had a unique advantage: few countries produce more highly trained and war-tested intelligence professionals, as a proportion of the population, than Israel. Conscription in Israel is mandatory for most citizens, and top intelligence units often identify talented recruits while they are in high school. These soldiers undergo intensive training in a range of language and technical skills. After a few years of government service, most are discharged, at which point many finish their educations and enter the civilian job market.

Gadi Aviran was one of the pioneers of the private Israeli intelligence industry. “There was this huge pipeline of talent coming out of the military every year,” Aviran, who founded the intelligence firm Terrogence, said. “All a company like mine had to do was stand at the gate and say, ‘You look interesting.’ ”

Gadi Aviran, former Israeli military intelligence officer, speaks at at the 2nd International Conference on Homeland Security, November 2012, Tel Aviv. Video here. Aviran founded detective firm Terrogence, which pioneered the use of fake online identities knowns as avatars.

“…..Aviran [an Israeli military intelligence officer] began to think about a more targeted approach. Spies, private investigators, criminals, and even some journalists have long used false identities to trick people into providing information, a practice known as pretexting. The Internet made pretexting easier. Aviran thought that fake online personae, known as avatars, could be used to spy on terrorist groups and to head off planned attacks. [Not all such groups are not necessarily “terrorist groups” – some may be resistance groups against Israeli aggression.] In 2004, he started Terrogence, which became the first major Israeli company to demonstrate the effectiveness of avatars in counterterrorism work.

“…..Terrogence’s operatives gave their avatars legends, or backstories—often as Arab students at European universities. As the avatars proliferated, their operators joked that the most valuable online chat rooms were now entirely populated by avatars, who were, inadvertently, collecting information from one another.

Black Cube – ties to Mossad & Unit 8200

“Terrogence’s success spawned imitators, and other former intelligence officers began to open their own firms, many of them less risk-averse than Terrogence. One of the boldest, Black Cube, openly advertised its ties to Israeli spy agencies, including Mossad and Unit 8200, the military’s signals-intelligence corps.

Vincent Tchenguiz, Jewish-Iranian businessman who helped Black Cube & Terrogence, & put them in touch with Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad. (Photo from UK Independent.)

Black Cube got its start with the help of Vincent Tchenguiz, an Iranian-born English real-estate tycoon who had invested in Terrogence. [Tchenguis is from a Jewish-Iraqi family – his father worked for the Shah] In March, 2011, Tchenguiz was arrested by a British anti-fraud unit investigating his business dealings. (The office later dropped the investigation and paid him a settlement.) He asked Meir Dagan, who had just stepped down as the director of Mossad, how he could draw on the expertise of former intelligence officers to look into the business rivals he believed had alerted authorities. Dagan’s message to Tchenguiz, a former colleague of Dagan’s said, was: I can find a personal Mossad for you. (Dagan died in 2016.) Tchenguiz became Black Cube’s first significant client.

“In some respects, Psy-Group emerged more directly from Terrogence. In 2008, Aviran hired an Israel Defense Forces intelligence officer named Royi Burstien to be the vice-president of business development. Social networks such as Facebook—whose profiles featured photographs and other personal information—were becoming popular, and Terrogence’s avatars had become more sophisticated to avoid detection. Burstien urged Aviran to consider using the avatars in more aggressive ways, and on behalf of a wider range of commercial clients.”

……….

Psy-Group targets American college students who support Palestinian rights, Trump

“In New York, Psy-Group mounted a campaign on behalf of wealthy Jewish-American donors to embarrass and intimidate activists on American college campuses who support a movement to put economic pressure on Israel because of its treatment of the Palestinians.

“Psy-Group’s larger ambition was to break into the U.S. election market. During the 2016 Presidential race, the company pitched members of Donald Trump’s campaign team on its ability to influence the results. Psy-Group’s owner, Joel Zamel, even asked Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, to offer Zamel’s services to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. The effort to drum up business included brash claims about the company’s skills in online deception. The posturing was intended to attract clients—but it also attracted the attention of the F.B.I. Robert Mueller, the special counsel, has been examining the firm’s activities as part of his investigation into Russian election interference and other matters.”

……….

Psy-Group’s avatars, fake companies

“The company’s claims of legal legitimacy, however, skirted the fact that regulations haven’t kept pace with advances in technology. “What are the regulations? What’s the law?” Tamir Pardo, who was the director of Mossad from 2011 to 2016, said. “There are no laws. There are no regulations. That’s the main problem. You can do almost whatever you want.”

Mossad head Tamir Pardo (L) sits next to Yoram Cohen, chief of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service. Pardo once said that the Mossad is “a crime organization with a license” and commented: “that’s the fun part” of working there.

“Psy-Group went to great lengths to disguise its activities. Employees were occasionally instructed to go to libraries or Internet cafés, where they could use so-called “white” computers, which could not be traced back to the firm. They created dummy Gmail accounts, often employed for one assignment and then discarded. For particularly sensitive operations, Psy-Group created fake front companies and avatars who purported to work there, and then hired real outside contractors who weren’t told that they were doing the bidding of Psy-Group’s clients. Psy-Group operatives sometimes paid the local contractors in cash.

“In one meeting, Burstien said that, before a parliamentary election in a European country, his operatives had created a sham think tank. Using avatars, the operatives hired local analysts to work for the think tank, which then disseminated reports to bolster the political campaign of the company’s client and to undermine the reputations of his rivals. In another meeting, Psy-Group officials said that they had created an avatar to help a corporate client win regulatory approval in Europe. Over time, the avatar became so well established in the industry that he was quoted in mainstream press reports and even by European parliamentarians. “It’s got to look legit,” a former Psy-Group employee said, of Burstien’s strategy.

Joel Zamel cultivated Republicans

“Most Psy-Group employees knew little or nothing about the company’s owner, Joel Zamel. According to corporate documents filed in Cyprus, he was born in Australia in 1986. Zamel later moved to Israel, where he earned a master’s degree in government, diplomacy, and strategy, with a specialization in counterterrorism and homeland security. Zamel’s father had made a fortune in the mining business, and Zamel was a skilled networker. He cultivated relationships with high-profile Republicans in the U.S., including Newt Gingrich and Elliott Abrams, who served in foreign-policy positions under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and whom Psy-Group listed as a member of its advisory board. (The Trump Administration recently named Abrams its special envoy to oversee U.S. policy toward Venezuela.)

“Documents show that Zamel was a director of a Cyprus-based company called ioco, which controlled Psy-Group. (Zamel’s lawyers and Burstien declined to say how much of an ownership stake Zamel held in ioco, or to identify who else provided funding for the venture.) Using Cyprus as a front made it easier for Psy-Group to sell its services in Arab states that don’t work overtly with Israeli companies.

Photos of Joel Zamel, owner of Psy-Group, are almost impossible to find on the Internet. This photo seems to be of Zamel – for more info see this. Zamel developed relationships with high profile Republicans such as Newt Gingrich and Elliott Abrams.

“Most Psy-Group employees knew little or nothing about the company’s owner, Joel Zamel. According to corporate documents filed in Cyprus, he was born in Australia in 1986. Zamel later moved to Israel, where he earned a master’s degree in government, diplomacy, and strategy, with a specialization in counterterrorism and homeland security. Zamel’s father had made a fortune in the mining business, and Zamel was a skilled networker. He cultivated relationships with high-profile Republicans in the U.S., including Newt Gingrich and Elliott Abrams, who served in foreign-policy positions under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and whom Psy-Group listed as a member of its advisory board. (The Trump Administration recently named Abrams its special envoy to oversee U.S. policy toward Venezuela.)

“Documents show that Zamel was a director of a Cyprus-based company called ioco, which controlled Psy-Group. (Zamel’s lawyers and Burstien declined to say how much of an ownership stake Zamel held in ioco, or to identify who else provided funding for the venture.) Using Cyprus as a front made it easier for Psy-Group to sell its services in Arab states that don’t work overtly with Israeli companies.

Honeytraps

“Initially, Psy-Group hoped to make money by investigating jihadi networks, much as Terrogence did. In an early test of concept, a Psy-Group operative created a Facebook account for an avatar named Madison. Burstien’s idea was to use Madison as a virtual honey trap. The avatar’s Facebook page depicted Madison as an average American teen-ager from a Christian family in Chicago. She was a fan of Justin Bieber, and after graduating from high school she took a job at a souvenir shop. She posted Facebook messages about religion and expressed interest in learning more about Islam. Eventually, a Facebook member from Casablanca introduced Madison online to two imams at Moroccan mosques, one of whom offered to guide her through the process of becoming a Muslim.

……….

“Not long afterward, [Burstien] sent representatives to pitch State Department officials on an influence campaign, “modeled on the successful ‘Madison’ engagement,” that would “interrupt the radicalization and recruitment chain.” The State Department never acted on the proposal.

Psy-Group targets supporters of boycott movement BDS – The goal of Projct Butterfly was to “destabilize and disrupt anti-Israel movements from within.”

“Psy-Group had more success pitching an operation, code-named Project Butterfly, to wealthy Jewish-American donors. The operation targeted what Psy-Group described as “anti-Israel” activists on American college campuses who supported the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, known as B.D.S. Supporters of B.D.S. see the movement as a way to use nonviolent protest to pressure Israel about its treatment of the Palestinians; detractors say that B.D.S. wrongly singles out Israel as a human-rights offender. B.D.S. is anathema to many ardent supporters of the Israeli government. [More information about BDS is here.]

“In early meetings with donors, in New York, Burstien said that the key to mounting an effective anti-B.D.S. campaign was to make it look as though Israel, and the Jewish-American community, had nothing to do with the effort. The goal of Butterfly, according to a 2017 company document, was to “destabilize and disrupt anti-Israel movements from within.”

Psy-Group reportedly pitched its anti-Palestinian project “to wealthy Jewish-American donors in New York” – it’s unknown who attended and who donated. Photo above is from a 2014 Observer article about a presidential candidate’s New York tour seeking donations “from influential Jewish donors.”

Psy-Group operatives scoured the Internet, social-media accounts, and the “deep” Web—areas of the Internet not indexed by search engines like Google—for derogatory information about B.D.S. activists. If a student claimed to be a pious Muslim, for example, Psy-Group operatives would look for photographs of him engaging in behavior unacceptable to many pious Muslims, such as drinking alcohol or having an affair. Psy-Group would then release the information online using avatars and Web sites that couldn’t be traced back to the company or its donors.

“Project Butterfly launched in February, 2016, and Psy-Group asked donors for $2.5 million for operations in 2017. Supporters were told that they were ‘investing in Israel’s future.’ In some cases, a former company employee said, donors asked Psy-Group to target B.D.S. activists at universities where their sons and daughters studied.

“The project would focus on as many as ten college campuses. According to an update sent to donors in May, 2017, Psy-Group conducted two “tours of the main theatre of action,” and met with the campaign’s outside “partners,” which it did not name.

Psy-Group worked with Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)

Psy-Group employees had recently travelled to Washington to visit officials at a think tank called the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which had shared some of its research on the B.D.S. movement. [See info on FDD here] In a follow-up meeting, which was attended by Burstien, Psy-Group provided F.D.D. with a confidential memo describing how it had compiled dossiers on nine activists, including a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. In the memo, Psy-Group asked the foundation for guidance on identifying future targets. According to an F.D.D. official, the foundation “did not end up contracting with them, and their research did little to advance our own.”

“Burstien recruited Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy director of Mossad, to help with the project. As the director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, from 2014 to 2016, Ben-Barak had drawn up a plan for the state to combat the B.D.S. movement, but it was never implemented. Ben-Barak was enthusiastic about Butterfly. He said that the fight against B.D.S. was like “a war.” In the case of B.D.S. activists, he said, “you don’t kill them but you do have to deal with them in other ways.”

Former Mossad Deputy Chief Ram Ben Barak helped on project to damage pro-Palestine movement from within. (Photo from Israel’s i24.)

“Yaakov Amidror, a former national-security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also became an adviser to Psy-Group on Butterfly. Before accepting the position, Amidror said recently, he spoke to Daniel Reisner, Psy-Group’s outside counsel, who had advised five Israeli Prime Ministers, including Netanyahu. “Danny, is it legal?” Amidror recalled asking. Reisner responded that it was. While active Israeli intelligence operatives aren’t supposed to spy on the United States, Amidror said, he saw nothing improper about former Israeli intelligence officers conducting operations against American college students. “If it’s legal, I don’t see any problem,” Amidror said with a shrug. “If people are ready to finance it, it is O.K. with me.”

……….

Psy-Group shuts down, Black Cube increases operations

“According to a former company official, Zamel decided to shut down Psy-Group in February, 2018, just as Mueller’s team began questioning employees. But its demise hasn’t suppressed the appetite for many of the services it provided. Some of Psy-Group’s former employees have met with Black Cube to discuss job opportunities. Black Cube has been criticized for some of its recent work, including for the producer Harvey Weinstein, but there’s no sign that the notoriety has hurt business; one person familiar with the company’s operations bragged that there was booming interest from a variety of corporations.

Recently, Efraim Halevy, who served as the director of Mossad from 1998 to 2002, joined Black Cube’s advisory board. Uzi Arad, a Mossad veteran and a former national-security adviser for Netanyahu, said that he was ashamed to see some of his former colleagues become “mercenaries for hire,” adding, “It’s highly immoral, and they should know it.”

Former Mossad head Efraim Halevy, a member of Black Cube’s advisory board, speaks at the Wilson Center in October 2012. The Wilson Center was headed up by former Congresswoman Jane Harman, who had allegedly been picked up in an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would aid some individuals indicted for espionage on behalf of Israel.

“Last year, Black Cube moved to one of Tel Aviv’s most expensive neighborhoods, where it now occupies a sleek, full-floor office in the Bank Discount Tower. The entrance is unmarked, and painted black; doors are controlled by fingerprint readers. One area of the office is decorated with spy memorabilia, including an old encryption machine.

Black Cube’s headquarters occupies a full-floor office in the Bank Discount Tower in Tel Aviv. (Photo from Ha’aretz)

“Some Psy-Group veterans expressed regret that the firm had closed. “Had the company still been open, all this so-called negative press would have brought us lots of clients,” one said. Despite embarrassing missteps, which have exposed some Psy-Group and Black Cube operations to public scrutiny, a former senior Israeli intelligence official said that global demand for “private Mossads” is growing, and that the market for influence operations is expanding into new commercial areas.

In particular, the former official cites the potentially huge market for using avatars to influence real-estate prices—by creating the illusion that bidders are offering more money for a property, for example, or by spreading rumors about the presence of toxic chemicals to scare off competition. “From a free-market point of view, it’s scary,” a former Psy-Group official said, adding that the list of possible applications for avatars was “endless.” Another veteran of Israeli private intelligence warned, “We are looking at the tip of the iceberg in terms of where this can go.” ♦


People are encouraged to read the full article, which contains much more information on numerous subjects. It also appears in the print edition of the February 18 & 25, 2019 New Yorker, under the headline “Deception, Inc.”

Adam Entous is a staff writer at The New Yorker.Read more »

Ronan Farrow is a contributing writer to The New Yorker and the author of the book “War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence.” His reporting for The New Yorker won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for public service. Read more »

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