A veteran Democratic agent with ties to the Biden administration advises a military spyware company accused of having helped foreign governments are spying on slain Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, new documents show.
Bluelight Strategies President Steven Rabinowitz is paid to provide government relations services to NSO Group, a technology company that develops tools to covertly monitor smartphones. The company has been embroiled in controversy over the use of its Pegasus software, which foreign governments have used to target journalists, human rights activists and government officials, including US diplomats. A phone number for French President Emmanuel Macron was on a list of possible targets for ONS clients, as was a number for the Biden administration’s chief negotiator for Iran, Robert Malley.
A forensic investigation released late last year said UAE government officials had installed the software on Jamal Khashoggi’s wife’s phone months before the Washington Post columnist was assassinated in Istanbul by a Saudi team. The analysis was conducted by privacy and security researchers Citizen Lab on behalf of To post.
The CIA believed Khashoggi was killed with the approval of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, prompting President Joe Biden to call the kingdom a “pariah”.
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In response, the Biden administration blacklisted the group, adding it to an “entity list” that is used for companies whose activities are “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of states.” -United”.
The US government said it added NSO to the entity list based on evidence that it had “developed and provided spyware to foreign governments that used this tool to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businessmen, activists, academics and embassy workers”.
NSO strongly denied the findings of Citizen Lab and other groups.
“The allegation that our products were used on President Emmanuel Macron, Jeff Bezos and Jamal Khashoggi is false,” NSO CEO Shalev Hulio wrote in a February op-ed for the newspaper. the wall street journal.
The company also insists that US phone numbers cannot be targeted by Pegasus. Targeting US numbers is “technologically impossible”, NSO told the Washington Post.
The company is seeking to rescind the Commerce Department’s listing, which prevents US companies from supplying goods or services to NSO. Last year, a group of Democratic lawmakers called for tougher sanctions against the company that would freeze its financial assets and bar employees from traveling to the United States.
The Commerce Department said restricting the company’s trade was part of the Biden administration’s “efforts to put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy, including working to stem the proliferation digital tools used for law enforcement purposes”.
At an Intelligence Committee hearing this month, top US spy officials said the government had purchased a limited license for use in counterintelligence operations.
“We need to know what tools exist that the bad guys can use against our people,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said before declining to comment publicly “if it was used against us.”
A former aide to Clinton in the White House and adviser to Democratic presidential campaigns, Rabinowitz founded Bluelight with Aaron Keyak nearly a decade ago. The company has strong ties to the administration: Keyak took time off from Bluelight to work on the Biden campaign and is the State Department’s deputy envoy on anti-Semitism.
Details of Bluelight’s work for NSO were in a March Justice Department filing, which details its plan to provide consulting services that could include outreach to the White House and Biden’s Congress. Rabinowitz also advises the company on media and communications, reportedly due to increased public pressure on the company over its tools and the groups that employ them, which critics have dubbed “cyber mercenaries”. Bluelight is contracted at $50,000 per month.
In a comment to Washington ExaminerRabinowitz “vigorously denied any association between NSO’s Pegasus software and murdered columnist Jamal Khashoggi”.
The tech company conducted its own investigation into the accusations, which it published in a 32-page report last year.
Jeff Hauser, executive director of the progressive Revolving Door Project and an expert who has examined the influence of money in Washington politics, pointed to the cyber-business’s long track record of selling tools that governments routinely abuse as a reason. to avoid his activities.
“People who work within the framework of ‘democratic politics’ of small d should avoid entities like the NSO Group, which are credibly implicated in attacking watchdog groups [e.g., Citizen Lab] and journalists [Saudi-assassinated Khashoggi]”Hauser told the Washington Examiner. “This limitation applies even if the salary is good and you like the country of origin of the company.”
NSO’s flagship product, Pegasus, eavesdrops on its targets’ phones without their knowledge. It has been cleared by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other governments, but NSO rejects claims that the technology was involved in Khashoggi’s death.
Chartwell Strategy Group — a firm co-founded by David Tamasi, a longtime Washington lobbyist who raised money for former President Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020 — also advises the Israel-based firm.
In the past, he has employed well-connected Democratic strategy firms, including SKDK until 2019, where Biden adviser Anita Dunn is a founding partner, and Beacon Global Strategies, run by the former CIA chief of staff. and Pentagon Jeremy Bash and which employs former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta. Both men served under the Obama administration.
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Other Biden administration officials have past ties to the NSO Group, including senior State Department adviser Daniel Shapiro, a former Obama administration ambassador to Israel., who is now a member of Rob Malley’s Iran negotiating team. In 2018, Shapiro was among a group of outside consultants hired to help police the company’s customers as abuses of its tools sparked public outcry. After Khashoggi’s death, the group advised NSO to terminate its contract with Saudi Arabia “and shut down NSO systems in the kingdom”, according to the report. New York Times. Shapiro left the group shortly thereafter.
White House official Dan Jacobson, general counsel in the Office of Administration, provided legal advice to the NSO Group’s former parent company, Q Cyber Technologies, while working at the law firm Arnold & Porter, according to a financial disclosure.