NSO Group spent millions on lobbyists in Washington to court US government as it pushed Pegasus spyware
Ethics records and company records show how Israeli cyber intelligence firm NSO Group spent millions of dollars on lobbyists, consultants and lawyers in Washington when it tried to sell its Pegasus spyware to the US government.
The parent companies paid $100,000 to Michael Flynn before he became President Trump’s national security adviser; it took over the public relations agency co-founded by Anita Dunn, a senior White House adviser; and it relied on the legal and advisory services of a slew of figures with government experience, according to new reports.
The company’s activities have come into the public eye in the past week with revelations from a media coalition called the Pegasus Project that the software has been used by governments to spy on political opponents and journalists.
Now it has appeared in the Washington Post that NSO, its founders or associated companies hired some of Washington’s most prominent names while trying to win government contracts.
Among them are former heads of Homeland Security and Justice, as well as some of the city’s most powerful public relations and law firms.
Israeli cyber-intelligence firm NSO Group retained some of Washington’s most powerful lobbyists, consultants and PR advisers while touting for business and trying to polish 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 hired in 2019 after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, according to the Washington Post. And NSO Group also hired PR agency SKSD, including 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 — though the paper reported the approaches were unsuccessful.
More successful were the attempts to build a DC rolodex full of influencers. Some were hired in the wake of the Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as the company faced a lawsuit accused of helping keep an eye on the dissident.
Among them were Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security; Juliette Kayyem, a Department of Homeland Security official under President Obama; and Franc’s former ambassador to Washington Gérard Araud.
Kayyem told the paper she had been working to make sure the NSO’s spyware “protected and respected” human rights. The other two did not respond to requests for comment.
It also acquired a prominent PR agency SKDK. Co-founder Anita Dunn served as 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 Secretary of Homeland Security, 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, a partner at the law firm King and Spalding, was one of his advisers last year when NSO was sued by WhatsApp, which it accused of having the accounts of 1,400 users.
Rosenstein had prosecuted foreign hackers during his time at the Justice Department and labeled Khashoggi’s murder “lawless.”
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 entered 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 customers for “misuse” of its Pegasus spyware after a damning report from Amnesty International revealed Sunday it had been used to target about 50,000 phones — including those belonging to journalists, officials and Arab royals.
NSO Group sells Pegasus to government customers for the purported purpose of investigating terrorism and crime.
Amnesty International’s report, along with another by a consortium of global media outlets, alleged that it was being used by governments to spy on journalists, officials, royals and individuals, including the murdered widow of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi .
The journalists targeted were Ben Hubbard, the New York Times’ Beirut Bureau Chief, and Azam Ahmed, the Times’ Mexico Bureau Chief, along with other journalists in India, Morocco, Mexico and Azerbaijan.
Others are reporters working for the Associated Press, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN, but many have gone uncredited. 189 journalists were targeted.
NSO, through its US-based attorney, Clare Locke, released a statement saying it has nothing to do with any misuse of Pegasus.
The CEO, Shalev Hulio, said: The Washington Post: ‘Any accusation of abuse of the system concerns me.
The list includes some of the 50,000 phone numbers exposed to the malware. The malware does not require users to click it to work
NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio, told The Washington Post: ‘Any accusation of abuse of the system concerns me’
“It violates the trust we give customers. We investigate every allegation… and if we find it to be true, we will take firm action.”
Amazon Web Services shut down its network on Tuesday. It’s unclear if that means it can still work.
“When we heard about this activity, we acted quickly to close the relevant infrastructure and accounts.”
According to the Amnesty report, the NSO has switched to Amazon’s CloudFront, a CDN, in recent months.
Amnesty began investigating the group in 2018 after learning that one of its staff members had been targeted.
It compiled a list of 50,000 phone numbers exposed to the malware. It’s unclear if all of them have been compromised or if the numbers are just a list of potential targets.
An AP spokesperson, who targeted two journalists, told DailyMail.com: “We are deeply disturbed 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 exposing information that governments did not want their citizens to know.
“Surveillance reporters are designed to intimidate not only those journalists, but their sources, which everyone should be concerned about.”
The journalists targeted were Ben Hubbard, the New York Times’ Beirut Bureau Chief (left) and Azam Ahmed, the Times’ Mexico Bureau Chief (right), along with other journalists in India, Morocco, Mexico and Azerbaijan.
Hanan El Atr, the widow of murdered Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was also targeted, according to records.
Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf was also among those whose phones were targeted
In a statement issued by attorneys Clare Locke, NSO said: “NSO does not control the systems it sells to vetted government clients and does not have access to the data of its clients’ targets.
NSO does not operate its technology, collect, own or access any form of data from its customers.
NSO Group claims to be on ‘life-saving mission’ to fight terrorism
“Due to contractual and national security concerns, NSO cannot confirm or deny the identities of our government customers, or the identities of customers whose systems we have shut down.”
It also said its software had “nothing to do” with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, despite Amnesty International claiming it has evidence that his widow’s phone was hacked with Pegasus after his death.
“NSO Group is on a life-saving mission and the company will carry out this mission daringly undaunted, despite all continuous efforts 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.
Other targets include several Arab royal relatives, 65 businessmen, 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 Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf, Siddharth Varadarajan and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta of 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 agency run by Anita Dunn, one of President Biden’s advisers.
She did not immediately respond to inquiries from DailyMail.com about the extent of her work at the company.