Tel Aviv court decision is a setback to dubious accusations against NSO

Amnesty International tried to expose an Israeli cybersecurity-software producer of allegedly facilitating human-rights abuses, in addition to enabling illegal or unethical surveillance operations by various non-Western states against critics and dissidents.

The logo of Amnesty International. Source: Facebook.
The logo of Amnesty International. Source: Facebook.
Irina Tsukerman
Irina Tsukerman

Since at least 2018, Amnesty International had gone on a mission trying to expose the Israeli cybersecurity Pegasus software producer NSO Group/Q Cyber Technologies of allegedly playing a role in facilitating human-rights abuses, in addition to enabling illegal or unethical surveillance operations by various non-Western states against critics and dissidents.

Backed by few facts, the narrative has fallen apart in nearly every case in which the NGO has made these allegations. This pattern of flimsy to nonexistent evidence failed to convince the Tel Aviv District Court, petitioned by Amnesty to strip NSO of its export license.

While NSO has been an established player in the cybersecurity arena, it came to the forefront of public attention after the 2018 death of Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi government spokesman and Washington Post columnist with foreign connections who died under mysterious circumstances inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Amnesty, at the time, had accused NSO of providing the Saudi government with the means to surveil Khashoggi, which, they allege, ultimately played a part in Khashoggi’s demise. However, Amnesty failed to explain how such heavily regulated security software could have ended up in Saudi Arabia—much less to establish any trace of evidence that Khashoggi was ever surveilled with the use of Pegasus, which is notoriously hard to trace and is present in 45 countries around the world.

When these accusations fell flat, Amnesty jumped on the bandwagon of the Reuters investigators, claiming that the United Arab Emirates, which is increasingly open to trade relations with Israel, had used the same software to hack and surveil various targets from its regional rival and adversary Qatar, as well as Islamist leaning opposition members. Once again, it has produced no technical or other evidence establishing the use of such a device. After a brief media campaign, those who had claimed to have been victims of this technique grew strangely silent.

Soon thereafter, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, which owns The Washington Post, accused the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia of personally hacking his own device through WhatsApp using Pegasus. Part of Bezos’s security team, which never had technical access to the allegedly hacked phone, was another dissident who shared Khashoggi’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood anti-Israel ideology. Amnesty International had tried to latch on to that case, but even the Post had had to retract its accusations due to an embarrassing dearth of evidence.

Undaunted by the lack of success, Amnesty recently moved on to Morocco, which has been a target of its investigations into alleged human-rights abuses for some time. In Morocco’s case, the NGO claimed that the government, which also has no diplomatic relations with Israel, somehow gained access of the software and used it to spy on a leftist dissident journalist, Omar Radi, singling out him among the possibly thousands, if not tens of thousands, of cases of journalist abuse around the world. Amnesty never explained why Radi, hardly a household name anywhere except Morocco, would be of such interest to Rabat that the government would go out of its way to procure Israeli software to trail the gadfly.

What is interesting is that Turkey—the top jailer of journalists in the world and a country that does have diplomatic relations with Israel—has not met with any such accusations, despite rumors of its intelligence reach that goes as far as eastern Jerusalem, Europe and even mosques in the United States. What is further worthy of note is that the one country, Qatar, that is being sued for hacking political opponents with ample evidence connecting lobbying firms in the United States to the dissemination of illegally obtained emails has somehow evaded using Pegasus software, apparently favored by both its rivals KSA and UAE, and its trading partner Morocco. Yet another fascinating piece in this jigsaw is that according to filed FARA (Foreign Agents Registration Act) compliance documents, the NSO Group/Q Cyber Technologies shares the same lobbying firm accused of taking part in these operations, Mercury Public Affairs LLC, with none other than the Qatari and Turkish embassies in Washington.

A pattern emerges in which Amnesty appears to accuse countries hostile to Turkey and Qatar of using this software to surveil dissidents and others, all of whom, by sheer coincidence, share the Qatari and Turkish political positions, whereas Turkey, Qatar and their international and regional allies, including Pakistan, Malaysia and various African states, do not inspire such scrutiny.

Where does Morocco fit in this picture? Is the issue here mere neo-colonialism on Amnesty’s part? That does not explain its lack of interest in various brutal African regimes, nor its failure to comment on Morocco’s vast improvements in the field of human rights. Nor does it explain why Amnesty has no concerns about the anti-American, anti-Israel former colony Algeria, but the pro-Western Morocco receives the full weight of international human-rights opprobrium at the hands of NGO’s accusations. Now Amnesty International is accusing Morocco of a smear campaign after Moroccan officials strongly denied the accusations, pointing to the NGO’s history of bias, cherry-picking and double standards.

Most importantly, however, is Amnesty’s apparent willingness to rely on fabricated evidence, or at least claims of evidence, that do not exist. Its demand that NSO’s license be withdrawn was denied on June 13, when District Court judge Rachel Lavi Barkai argued the petition from the NGO failed to “provide evidence” to prove that NSO’s technology was used to spy on Amnesty activists. The petition was dismissed. Had the court gone with Amnesty’s claims, it would essentially mean that Israeli businesses would have to go by Amnesty’s protocols in providing their services to private clients. It would also mean that Amnesty was assuming the powers of the Israeli government to regulate not only the exports of the product, but was demanding that the Israeli government itself engage in intelligence operations aimed, presumably, at monitoring the proper use of its technologies. This demand, along with lack of evidence, defied logic and common sense.

The judge said the country provides permits to such companies after a “rigorous” evaluation process.

The decision of the court supports Morocco’s position regarding the June 22 report, that Amnesty International’s reporting on the matter is rife with assumptions, but without sufficient evidence. NGO has not yet provided any additional technical or other evidence to substantiate its claims.

Amnesty has responded by claiming that it has provided “mountains of evidence” to back the allegations that the software is used to target activists and dissidents. NSO is also facing a lawsuit from Facebook, which claims that the software has penetrated WhatsApp groups and targeted thousands of users. NSO’s “immunity” defense to these claims included the fact that it only does business with state actors using the Pegasus software for national security purposes, which means that each sale requires Israeli government approval, and apparently, the surveillance software is used to weed out legitimate security threats, such as terrorists and organized-crime cells.

A Facebook lawsuit curiously follows the technically meritless and baseless proclamations by Bezos, and a strange coterie of characters, who have all been accused of having financial relationships with Qatar and Qatar-backed Islamist Saudi dissidents. This group includes the special U.N. Rapporteur Agnes Callamard, whose U.N. report blames the death of Khashoggi on the Saudi government and Crown Prince, without evidence. This report was discovered to have non-U.N. funding sources. While claiming to be a free speech advocate, Callamard has never criticized anti-free speech practices by Turkey and Qatar, and, furthermore, was vocally outraged by the liquidation of Qassem Soleimani, eventually provoking the ire of the U.S. government.

Another member of the group is Khashoggi’s former editor, Karen Attiah, who was educated in Qatar and worked with Qatar Foundation International to provide Khashoggi with blueprints for his articles, which were translated and essentially rewritten by Attiah. These claims were also supported by Khashoggi’s former acolytes and business associates—all of whom were politically sympathetic to Qatar and Turkey, and antagonistic to Israel, Egypt’s President Fattah el-Sisi, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In another strange twist of fate, Facebook recruited the fiercely Islamist anti-Saudi and highly controversial Yemeni Nobel Prize laureate and activist Tawakkol Karman to be on its Supreme Court of community policy/speech policing adjudicators at around the same time that these legal processes were set in motion.

As it so happens, Tawakkol Karman is in the same social circles as Hadice Cengiz, a Turkish woman who appeared in the media following Khashoggi’s death and claimed to be his fiancée. In another coincidence, Cengiz traveled to Qatar for high-level policy talks with close associates of the Emir at around the time of Khashoggi’s demise, and Tawakkol Karman received substantial funding from sources that were traced back to Qatar for media operations in Turkey. These media channels, by chance, are staunchly supportive of Yemen’s Al Islah Party (the local Muslim Brotherhood chapter) and critical of Saudis. At the very least, it is highly suspect that this group of individuals with an obvious political agenda, all linked to the big tech/social-media circles, are making these concerted claims against one specific Israeli software company, as well as how Amnesty International follows the same “editorial line,” and is launching the same accusations while also attacking the very states that are opening up to Israel and are also very friendly to the United States.

It’s almost like there is a collusion of interests—a targeted, coordinated campaign that uses legal means to pursue political goals, in addition to political and media-information warfare.

Perhaps it’s not just Morocco that should be asking tough questions. Perhaps it’s time for those genuinely interested in defending human rights in a consistent, unbiased way to put the onus of evidence and scrutiny on these organizations, which seem to be playing to someone else’s fiddle and abandoning their mission.

Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security attorney based in New York. She has written on geopolitics and U.S. foreign policy for a variety of American, Israeli and international publications.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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