Ties to Israeli spy firm land ex-Obama official in hot water

Woman in suit sits near microphone

Former Obama administration official and Harvard lecturer Juliette Kayyem faces controversy over ties to Israeli spyware firm NSO Group. 

Jim Greenhill Wikimedia Commons

Former Obama administration official Juliette Kayyem was dropped from an event at Harvard University following controversy over her ties to an Israeli spy firm implicated in the murder of a journalist.

Kayyem, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, was due to teach a webinar about online harassment and security for female journalists, along with Nancy Gibb, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Kayyem worked in the US Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration.

The center canceled the webinar, scheduled for 6 February, following outrage at Kayyem’s affiliation with NSO Group.

NSO Group last year appointed Kayyem as a senior adviser, as it attempted to whitewash its role in human rights violations.

But as of recently, Kayyem appears no longer to be affiliated with the Israeli firm.

NSO Group is embroiled in spying on and violating the human rights of journalists, activists and government officials and is facing multiple lawsuits and investigations.

One such lawsuit is being brought about by Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi activist and close friend of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Washington Post writer was gruesomely killed and dismembered by a hit squad sent from Saudi Arabia, at the country’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

NSO Group produces a sophisticated cyber weapon called Pegasus which allows its operators to hijack smartphones undetected and extract private data.

Pegasus was apparently used by the Saudi government to intercept conversations between Abdulaziz and Khashoggi.

Ties to spy firm

Ahmed Zidan of the Committee to Protect Journalists likened inviting Kayyem to talk about journalists’ safety to “inviting a coal executive to talk about renewable energy.”

Kayyem told The Verge that she “decided, alone, not to go forward with the program here because I wanted it to be about the participants and not about me.”

It is unclear when exactly Kayyem left her post at NSO Group.

While the Israeli firm told journalist Shannon Vavra that Kayyem’s work for them concluded in 2019, which Kayyem echoed in The Verge, Avi Asher-Schapiro of the Committee to Protect Journalists said she wasn’t taken off the website until after the Harvard controversy.

NSO Group announced Kayyem’s hiring as it launched a new “human rights policy,” which Kayyem told The Verge she worked on.

Other figures that serve as senior advisors to NSO Group include former Israeli officials with records of defending war crimes rather than protecting human rights.

Kayyem’s affiliation with NSO Group has been a previous source of controversy.

Just a year after Khashoggi’s killing, The Washington Post hired Kayyem as a columnist.

Thus the newspaper employed someone linked to a company accused of involvement in the killing of Khashoggi, another Washington Post columnist.

Kayyem resigned a few days after the announcement.

How was Bezos hacked?

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia may have used Israeli technology to hack the phone of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post.

Business strategy firm FTI Consulting, which conducted a forensic analysis of Bezos’ phone, concluded with “medium to high confidence” that sophisticated malware infected the phone through a video sent by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman via messaging service WhatsApp.

Immediately after Bezos received the video, the data leaving his phone increased by 29,000 percent. Those levels jumped even higher in the following months.

In addition, there were two instances when text messages from Mohammed bin Salman to Bezos implied knowledge that could have only been acquired through access to private content on Bezos’ phone.

It remains unclear what software was used to compromise Bezos’ phone, but the analysis presents NSO Group’s Pegasus and Italian company Hacking Team’s Galileo software as likely candidates.

Both can go undetected and send a frightening amount of data to those doing the spying, including recordings, screenshots, passwords and email and text messages.

FTI Consulting stated it “also considered other possible cyber weapons,” but noted that Saud al-Qahtani, former Saudi royal adviser, may have provided the tools used to hack Bezos’ phone.

Al-Qahtani purchased a 20 percent share in Hacking Team years before Bezos was hacked, and was reportedly instrumental in a $55 million deal to purchase an advanced version of Pegasus from NSO Group.

Both transactions were done ostensibly on behalf of the Saudi government.

But why would the Saudi government want to access Bezos’ private information?

Bezos, as noted, owns The Washington Post.

Al-Qahtani has been accused of close involvement in Khashoggi’s killing and was later dismissed from his post over his suspected role.

The Saudi government directed an online campaign against Bezos.

Independent human rights experts with the UN, Agnes Callamard and David Kaye, called for an investigation of the reported hacking.

They described it as “an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia.”

The UN experts also called for “investigation of the continuous, multi-year, direct and personal involvement of the Crown Prince in efforts to target perceived opponents.”

NSO Group, however, denied involvement in hacking Bezos’ phone.

“Just as we stated when these stories first surfaced months ago, we can say unequivocally that our technology was not used in this instance,” the company said.

FBI investigation

Meanwhile, the FBI is investigating NSO Group’s involvement in hacking the phone of American citizens, Reuters reported late last month.

The US counter-espionage agency is also trying to learn whether any American hackers helped the Israeli company develop its technology, or if any US government officials or allies have been attacked using the technology.

NSO Group said it was not aware of any investigation, according to Reuters.

While NSO Group faces growing scrutiny and multiple lawsuits, including one from Amnesty International, the British government is giving the firm a boost.

The Israeli company will be marketing its wares at the UK government-sponsored Security and Policing 2020 trade fair next month.

This is not the first time NSO Group exhibits at the event.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Hong Kong are among the governments that have participated in the fair in the past, The Guardian reported.




Wait, I thought Israel is our FRIEND!!!!!! WAIT .... they were SPYING ON US? Say it ain't so!!!! Smell the hypocrasy in the morning...

Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.