A report in The New York Times this week reveals details of a multimillion dollar scheme by a now defunct Israeli spy firm to use social media manipulation and fake online identities in a sophisticated effort to sway the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump.
Trump eventually secured his party’s nomination and went on to win the US presidency but it is unclear if Psy-Group, a firm staffed by former Israeli intelligence agents, gave him a boost.
The company’s former CEO Royi Burstien previously commanded an Israeli psychological warfare unit.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Burstien lives in a settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and held several senior intelligence posts with the Israeli government between 2003 and 2013. He now markets himself as an “intelligence-based influence expert.”
Psy-Group has also reportedly been involved in the Israeli government’s covert campaign against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.
Back in May, the Times reported that three months before the 2016 election, Psy-Group owner Joel Zamel and an emissary for two powerful Gulf princes had met with one of Trump’s sons to talk about ways to help the Trump campaign.
“The emissary, George Nader, told Donald Trump Jr. that the princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win election as president,” the Times reported.
“The social media specialist, Joel Zamel, extolled his company’s ability to give an edge to a political campaign; by that time, the firm had already drawn up a multimillion-dollar proposal for a social media manipulation effort to help elect Mr. Trump.”
“There is no evidence that the Trump campaign acted on the proposals,” the Times states in its latest report.
But the paper notes that Nader and Zamel “have given differing accounts over whether Mr. Zamel ultimately carried out the social media effort to help the Trump campaign and why Mr. Nader paid him $2 million after the election, according to people who have discussed the matter with the two men.”
The special counsel investigation run by Robert Mueller into alleged foreign interference in the 2016 US election has shown “keen interest” in the payment, according to the Times.
“It is unclear how and when the special counsel’s office began its investigation into Psy-Group’s work, but FBI agents have spent hours interviewing the firm’s employees,” the newspaper states.
“This year, federal investigators presented a court order to the Israel Police and the Israeli Ministry of Justice to confiscate computers in Psy-Group’s former offices in Petah Tikva, east of Tel Aviv.”
In May, Bloomberg reported that Mueller’s team was inquiring about “flows of money into the Cyprus bank account” of Psy-Group.
A likely line of inquiry is that third parties, not directly associated with the Trump campaign, paid for Psy-Group to go ahead with its covert influence effort.
Psy-Group owner Zamel, an Australian who settled in Israel, also cofounded a firm called Wikistrat which has been hired by the government of the United Arab Emirates. That firm has also reportedly been examined by Mueller’s investigators.
The Psy-Group scheme revealed by The New York Times – codenamed Project Rome – involved an elaborate effort “to create fake online identities, to use social media manipulation and to gather intelligence to help defeat Republican primary race opponents and Hillary Clinton,” according to interviews and copies of the proposals obtained by the newspaper.
According to the Times, Trump campaign official Rick Gates requested a proposal from Psy-Group to “target and sway” 5,000 delegates to the Republican Party convention so they would support Trump instead of his main primary rival Senator Ted Cruz.
This would involve dozens of Psy-Group employees creating “authentic looking” fake online personas to bombard delegates with pro-Trump messages.
Other proposals spoke of using “unique intel” and “covert sources” that would be part of an effort that would “look authentic and not part of the paid campaign.”
According to the Times, the Psy-Group effort would also gather information on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her associates using public information and “complementary intelligence activities.”
“It is unclear whether the Project Rome proposals describe work that would violate laws regulating foreign participation in American elections,” the Times states.
In June, The Times of Israel revealed that Psy-Group was involved in creating a now-deleted website called outlawbds.com containing the names, email addresses and photos of individuals believed to support BDS.
The Israeli publication said it was “told by multiple sources that Psy-Group worked to counter BDS activists – and is one of several such firms, set up by or employing former Israeli intelligence operatives, that do so.”
The company shut down in February after FBI agents interviewed some of its US employees.
The latest revelations about Psy-Group underscore that despite the intense focus on supposed Russian interference and Trump campaign collusion, there has been scant evidence to date backing up those claims.
It is unlikely however that Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton, the main targets of Project Rome, will complain too loudly: as divided as American politics may appear, elites are still united in treating Israel and its covert operatives as untouchable, no matter what they do.
It remains to be seen whether Mueller will break with that consensus by charging anyone involved in an influence campaign run from Israel.