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Citing the Israel-Hamas War, NSO Group Sought Urgent Meeting With Blinken

Quoting experts, The Intercept noted that the NSO was using the current crisis to make space for the group to return to the good books of Washington.
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

New Delhi: The Israeli firm, NSO group, which is known for Pegasus spyware and blacklisted by Washington, has asked for a meeting with the US State Department, including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, in connection with the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

Two years ago, the US government added Israeli companies, NSO group and Candiru to the Commerce Department’s ‘entity list’, which is a federal blacklist that would restrict exports of US technology to the company. The move was dictated by “evidence that these entities developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers”.

The Wire had been part of an international collaborative investigation known as ‘Pegasus Project’, that tracked the leaked database of thousands of telephone numbers that were believed to have been listed by multiple government clients of NSO group. Comprising 17 news organisations in 10 countries, the Pegasus Project was coordinated by Forbidden Stories with technical support of Amnesty International.

A couple of months after being blacklisted, NSO group hired a law firm, Los Angeles-based Paul Hastings LLP, to conduct an active lobbying effort to get out of the entity list in January 2022. This was initially reported by ProPublica.

On November 7, partner at Paul Hastings, Timothy Dickinson, sent a letter and an email to request an “urgent meeting” to the US State Department. The documents were publicly filed with the Justice Department as part of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

NSO Group’s latest action was reported first by The Intercept.

“I am writing on behalf of [the] NSO Group to urgently request an opportunity to engage with Secretary Blinken and the officials at the State Department regarding the importance of cyber intelligence technology in the wake of the grave security threats posed by the recent Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel and their aftermath,” said the letter.

The Haaretz had earlier reported that NSO and other Israeli spyware firms had been working with the Israeli government to track down missing hostages.

Quoting experts, The Intercept noted that the NSO was using the current crisis to make space for the group to return to the good books of Washington.

“NSO’s participation in the Israeli government’s efforts to locate citizens in Gaza seems to be an effort by the company to rehabilitate its image in this crisis,” said Adam Shapiro, director of advocacy for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now, a group founded by the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi to advocate for human rights in the Middle East. “But alarm bells should be ringing that NSO Group has been recruited in Israel’s war effort.”

The Pegasus Project had traced the use of the Pegasus spyware on the phones of close kin of Khashoggi prior and after his killing inside the Saudi consulate in Ankara.

In the letter to Blinken, Dickinson wrote that “NSO’s technology is supporting the current global fight against terrorism in any and all forms. These efforts squarely align with the Biden-Harris administration’s repeated messages and actions of support for the Israeli government, including from a defense and cybersecurity perspective.”

He said that the technology can be “misused” by end-users to violate human rights, but claimed that NSO had taken “concrete steps to address potential downstream human rights impacts of its products”.

The NSO group had been in financial doldrums since it came into public spotlight through the Pegasus Project and then the blacklisting by the US Commerce Department. The Financial Times had reported in 2022 that the value of NSO had been deemed worthless to its private equity backers and has not received any new customer bookings since July 2021.

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