Photo Credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90
Minister of Interal Security Omer Barlev (R) and Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai, September 5, 2021.

Members of the police’s Signals intelligence (SIGINT) division invaded the mobile phones of three Israeli mayors using NSO’s Pegasus software operated by the unit’s hackers, in an attempt to fish out information that could be used against, Calcalist reported Sunday (ראשי ערים ובני משפחתם “הודבקו” בפגסוס ללא ראיות). They also infected the cellular devices of the mayors’ family members. The searches resulted in the interrogation of the three mayors and their detention, but in the end, all three cases were closed without indictments. Israel Police and Minister of Internal Security Omer Barlev (Labor) continue to argue that all of the above and then some have been done legally and with court approval.

In June 2016, about six months after he was appointed Police Commissioner, Roni Alsheikh held talks with his senior command staff, which were made available to the press, in which Alsheikh said he has identified cases where heads of municipalities commit offenses because they aren’t aware that their conduct borders on or crosses criminal boundaries. “Certainly there are corrupt heads of municipalities, but not all of them are corrupt. Some commit the offenses out of ignorance,” the commissioner was quoted as saying.

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Such a statement, coming from the boss, quickly seeped down, the Calcalist report noted. The police’s elite units were eager to show results via big investigations, and there’s nothing wrong with it, except that, according to Calcalist, their tool of choice to get there was NSO’s Pegasus software, the most invasive and aggressive tool that isn’t even covered by Israeli laws regarding police wiretapping (Report: Israel Police Using NSO’s Spying App Against Civilians without Authorization).

The SIGINT Division’s use of Pegasus and hackers led to the mayors being investigated. Some were even arrested and humiliated searches were conducted in their homes. Their family members, friends, and aides were also summoned for questioning and were sometimes arrested as well. The lives of public servants who did not commit any offense were tainted. All of it is because of overzealous cops who themselves appear to have misunderstood the boundaries of criminal activity.

The Calcalist report exposes three such cases, all of which ended without indictment. The activation of Pegasus in all three cases followed an identical pattern: someone in an investigations unit decided they want to do a preliminary examination, ahead of a possible investigation against a particular head of a municipality. They would call a SIGINT Division hacker with the same activation code: “Check if you have anything, bro.”

The reasons for the request varied, but they don’t appear to have been the result of concrete suspicions. It could be the fact that the municipality in question had issued a large tender or was already running a large project under its jurisdiction. It could be someone who said something to a police officer without a shred of proof. Or a newspaper blurb. And even, astonishingly, just a gut feeling. These were enough to hand down the target’s phone number, at which point the good folks at Signals intelligence would go into action, infect the target with NSO’s Pegasus software, and start mining the poor public servant’s data.

In the first case that reached Calcalist, rummaging through the mayor’s phone did not yield anything. So they infected his wife’s phone with Pegasus. There, the investigators found that she was talking to a contractor’s wife. Nothing in those conversations indicated criminal offenses, only that they were friends. That was enough for investigators to submit a wiretapping application to the court, telling the judge that intelligence received by the unit suggests the mayor is making contact through his wife with the contractor to skew the bidding for tenders. The judge approved, trusting the police and the train left the station. When the open investigation began, the mayor was arrested on suspicion of corruption and spent nights in a holding cell.

The case was eventually closed, for the simple reason that no evidence of bribery was found because there had been none in the first place.

The Knesset will have to rush to offer a solution to this open violation of police procedure and individuals’ rights to be considered innocent before the law as long as there aren’t any valid suspicions against them – never mind until they’re proven guilty. The problem with the current, antiquated wiretapping process in Israel is that it was written to control just that, wiretapping. But Pegasus and its clones do a whole lot more than wiretapping. It mines every aspect of its victim’s life, including images, emails, the content they store on their phone that they didn’t produce, only downloaded. And if they carry extramarital affairs, that, too, goes into the pile – for future use against them. The judge must be aware of all this before he or she approve “wiretapping,” and must be able to curb police probing into people’s phones.

Over the past week, police spokespersons as well as the brass and the Internal Security Minister himself, have been making the rounds in Israel’s media outlets insisting everything the police is doing was sanctioned by the courts. But when you hear them first claiming they have no idea what this “Pegasus” thing even means, then retreating to admitting that they use programs “like Pegasus” but won’t disclose which, to admitting that, yes, they’ve been using Pegasus since about 2013 – it does not bring up a lot of public trust in the police.

More seriously, the Israeli public is also not convinced that the courts understand the extent of the freedom they allow police investigators, and that’s a dangerous notion when it comes to people’s respect for our democratic institutions.

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David writes news at JewishPress.com.