Ethics filings and company records show how the Israeli cyberintelligence company NSO Group spent millions of dollars on Washington lobbyists, consultants and lawyers as it tried to sell its Pegasus spyware to the U.S. government.
Its parent companies paid $100,000 to Michael Flynn before he became President Trump‘s national security adviser; it took on the public relations firm cofounded by Anita Dunn, a senior White House adviser; and it relied on the legal and consulting services of a slew of figures with government experience, according to new reports.
The company’s activities have exploded into public view during the past week with revelations from a media coalition, called the Pegasus Project, that its software was used by governments to spy on political opponents and journalists
Now it has emerged in the Washington Post that NSO, its founders or allied companies hired some of Washington’s most prominent names as they tried to secure government contracts.
The include former heads of the Homeland Security and Justice departments as well as some of the city’s most powerful public-relations and law firms.
The Israeli cyberintelligence company NSO Group retained some of Washington’s most powerful lobbyists, consultants and PR advisers as it touted for business and tried to burnish its image, including President Trump’s future National Security Adviser Michael Flynn (left) and his former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein
Tom Ridge, the first secretary of homeland security, was taken on in 2019 after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, according to the Washington Post. And NSO Group also hired P.R. firm SKSD, which was includes Anita Dunn, now a
It even launched a separate company, Westridge Technologies, to pursue government contracts, pitching to the Drug Enforcement Agency and other law enforcement agencies – although the newspaper reported the approaches were unsuccessful.
More successful were its attempts to build a D.C. rolodex filled with influencers. Some were hired in the aftermath of the Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi when the company faced a lawsuit accusing it of helping surveil the dissident.
They included Tom Ridge, the first homeland security secretary; Juliette Kayyem, a Department of Homeland Security official under President Obama; and Franc’s former ambassador to Washington Gérard Araud.
Kayyem told the newspaper she had worked on ensuring NSO’s spyware ‘protected and respected’ human rights. The other two did not respond to requests for comment.
It also took on a prominent P.R. firm SKDK. Its cofounder Anita Dunn was communications director in the Obama White House and is now a senior adviser to President Biden.
The Who’s Who of government figures runs through at least three administrations.
Obama’s homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson was paid by NSO’s parent company, OSY, to review its human rights policy.
And Trump’s deputy attorney general from 2017 to 2019 Rod Rosenstein, partner at the law firm King and Spalding, was among its advisers last year when NSO was sued by WhatsApp, which accused it of hacing the accounts of 1400 users.
Rosenstein had prosecuted foreign hackers and denounced the murder of Khashoggi as ‘lawless,’ during his time at the Department of Justice.
Others who did work for NSO Group or its parent company included former French ambassador and prominent Twitter personality Gérard Araud (left) and former Obama Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson
And a Public Financial Disclosure Report, filed when he joined the Trump administration, reportedly showed that NSO’s parent company, OSY Technologies, and a previous owner, Fancisco Partners, paid about $100,000 to Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The form offered no further details about his work.
The Israeli company said it would investigate its foreign government clients for ‘abuses’ of its Pegasus spyware after a damning Amnesty International report revealed on Sunday that it had been used to target some 50,000 phones – including those of journalists, public officials and Arab royals.
NSO Group sells Pegasus to government clients with the purported purpose of investigating terrorism and crime.
The Amnesty International report, along with another by a consortium of global media outlets, claimed that it was actually being used by governments to spy on journalists, officials, royals and individuals including murdered Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s widow.
The journalists targeted included Ben Hubbard, the New York Times’ Beirut Bureau Chief, and Azam Ahmed, the Times’ Mexico Bureau Chief, along with other journalists based in India, the Morocco, Mexico and Azerbaijan.
Others include reporters working for the Associated Press, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal and CNN but many have not been named. 189 journalists were targeted.
NSO released a statement via its US-based lawyer, Clare Locke, to say it had nothing to do with any misuse of Pegasus.
Its CEO, Shalev Hulio, told The Washington Post: ‘Every allegation about misuse of the system is concerning me.
The list includes some the 50,000 phone numbers that were exposed to the malware. The malware doesn’t require users to click on it for it to work
NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio, told The Washington Post : ‘Every allegation about misuse of the system is concerning me’
‘It violates the trust that we give customers. We are investigating every allegation … and if we find that it is true, we will take strong action.’
Amazon Web Services has disabled its network on Tuesday. It’s unclear if that means it can still operate.
‘When we learned of this activity, we acted quickly to shut down the relevant infrastructure and accounts.’
The Amnesty report says NSO switched to use Amazon’s CloudFront – a CDN – in ‘recent months’.
Amnesty started investigating the group in 2018 after learning one of its staffers had been targeted.
It compiled a list of 50,000 phone numbers that were exposed to the malware. It’s unclear if all were compromised or if the numbers are just a list of potential targets.
A spokesman for AP, which had two journalists targeted, told DailyMail.com: ‘We are deeply troubled to learn that two AP journalists, along with journalists from many news organizations, are among those who may have been targeted by Pegasus spyware. We have taken steps to ensure the security of our journalists’ devices and are investigating.’
The New York Times said: ‘Azam Ahmed and Ben Hubbard are talented journalists who have done important work uncovering information that governments did not want their citizens to know.
‘Surveilling reporters is designed to intimidate not only those journalists but their sources, which should be of concern to everyone.’
The journalists targeted included Ben Hubbard, the New York Times’ Beirut Bureau Chief (left) and Azam Ahmed, the Times’ Mexico Bureau Chief (right) along with other journalists based in India, the Morocco, Mexico and Azerbaijan.
Hanan El Atr, the widow of murdered Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was also targeted, according to the data
Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf was also among those whose phones were targeted
In a statement through lawyers Clare Locke, NSO said: ‘NSO does not operate the systems that it sells to vetted government customers, and does not have access to the data of its customers’ targets.
‘NSO does not operate its technology, does not collect, nor possesses, nor has any access to any kind of data of its customers.
NSO Group claims it is on a ‘life-saving mission’ to combat terrorism
‘Due to contractual and national security considerations, NSO cannot confirm or deny the identity of our government customers, as well as identity of customers of which we have shut down systems.’
It also said its software had ‘nothing to do’ with Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, despite Amnesty International claiming it has proof his widow’s phone was hacked using Pegasus after his death.
‘NSO Group is on a life-saving mission, and the company will faithfully execute this mission undeterred, despite any and all continued attempts to discredit it on false grounds,’ it said.
Foreign governments including India, Rwanda and Morocco have all denied using the software to collect data on targets.
Others targeted include several Arab royal family members, 65 Business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists including a ‘small number from’ CNN, the Associated Press, Voice of America, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, Le Monde in France, the Financial Times in London and Al Jazeera in Qatar.
Some of the reporters are named Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf, Siddharth Varadarajan and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta from Indian news site Wire Omar Radi, a Moroccan journalist, Mexican freelance journalist Cecilio Pineda Birto and Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.
In 2019, NSO Group reportedly contracted the SKDK – a PR firm run by Anita Dunn, one of President Biden’s advisers.
She did not immediately respond to DailyMail.com’s inquiries about the scope of her work with the firm.