How a private Israeli intelligence firm spied on pro-Palestinian activists in the U.S.

March 1, 2019

Hatem Bazian, a veteran pro-Palestinian activist in his fifties, lives with his family on a quiet street in North Berkeley, near the campus of the University of California, where he lectures. Early on the morning of May 10, 2017, as Bazian was about to drive his teenage daughter to school, he noticed fliers on the windshields of cars parked on his block.

At first, Bazian assumed that they were advertisements for a new movie or restaurant. When he looked more closely at the flier that had been left on his BMW sedan, he realized that it featured a photograph of his face, below a tagline that read, “He supports terror.” Bazian quickly folded up the flier so his daughter wouldn’t see it.

Born in Jordan to a father from the West Bank city of Nablus and a mother from Jerusalem, Bazian has long been an outspoken champion of Palestinian causes. For decades, staunch supporters of Israel have criticized Bazian’s activism. The incident with the fliers, though, was particularly unnerving, he told me. He rented his house and did not publicize the address. His opponents, he thought, must be following him. Later that day, Bazian, who describes himself as a proponent of nonviolent protest, reported what happened to the Berkeley police. He said that officers told him they could do nothing about the harassment.

Although it is unclear who left the fliers, internal documents from a private Israeli intelligence firm called Psy-Group show that, at the time of the incident, the company, and possibly other private investigators, were targeting Bazian because of his leadership role in promoting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, known as B.D.S. Supporters of B.D.S. urge corporations, universities, and local governments to impose economic, academic, and cultural boycotts on Israel to protest its treatment of the Palestinians. Opponents say that the B.D.S. movement aims to delegitimize Israel and hobble its economy. On its Web site, the movement states that it does not advocate for or against a resolution in which Israel continues to exist.

Psy-Group’s intelligence and influence operations, which included a failed attempt in the summer of 2017 to sway a local election in central California, were detailed in a New Yorker investigation that I co-wrote earlier this month. 

Before it went out of business, last year, Psy-Group was part of a new wave of private-intelligence firms that recruited from the ranks of Israel’s secret services and described themselves as “private Mossads.” Psy-Group initially stood out among its rivals because it didn’t just gather intelligence; its operatives used false identities, or avatars, to covertly spread messages in an attempt to influence what people believed and how they behaved. In 2016, Psy-Group held discussions with the Trump campaign and others about conducting covert “influence” operations to benefit the candidate. Psy-Group’s founder and C.E.O., Royi Burstien, a veteran Israeli intelligence officer who established the firm in 2014, told me that his talks with the Trump campaign went nowhere. The company’s posturing, however, attracted the attention of Robert Mueller, the special counsel, who has been investigating interference in the 2016 Presidential race.

Psy-Group’s operations against B.D.S. activists on U.S. college campuses began in February 2016, according to internal documents describing the campaign. The company raised money in New York from Jewish-American donors and pro-Israel groups, and assured them that their identities would be kept secret. 

Psy-Group told them that its goal was to make it appear as though the donors were not involved in any way.

The campaign, code-named Project Butterfly, initially targeted B.D.S. activists on college campuses in “a single U.S. state,” which former Psy-Group employees have told me was New York. The company said that its operatives drew up lists of individuals and organizations to target. The operatives then gathered derogatory information on them from social media and the “deep” Web, areas of the Internet that are not indexed by search engines such as Google. In some cases, Psy-Group operatives conducted on-the-ground covert human-intelligence, or HUMINT, operations against their targets. Israeli intelligence officials insist that they do not spy on Americans, a claim that is disputed by their U.S. counterparts. Israeli officials said, however, that this prohibition does not apply to private companies such as Psy-Group, which use discharged Israel Defense Forces soldiers and former members of elite intelligence units, rather than active-duty members, in operations targeting Americans.

Project Butterfly called for Psy-Group operatives to disseminate negative information about B.D.S. activists in ways that could not be traced back to the company or its donors. The goal, according to a Psy-Group summary of the campaign, from May, 2017, was to create “a new reality in which anti-Israeli activists are exposed and forced to confront the consequences of their actions.” The campaign’s messages were designed to convince Americans that “anti-Israeli activity” equated to “terrorism,” the company told donors. A former Psy-Group employee said these so-called name-and-shame tactics were often effective at silencing individual B.D.S. activists. “They would disappear,” the employee told me, claiming that some activists appeared to become less engaged after derogatory information about them was publicized. If an activist claimed to be a pious Muslim, operatives would look for evidence that he had behaved in ways unacceptable to many observant Muslims, such as drinking alcohol or having an affair, a former employee said. B.D.S. leaders, however, seemed to recruit new activists quickly. The former employee likened Psy-Group’s campaign to the war on terrorism, saying, “It’s never-ending.”

During the period when Psy-Group mounted its anti-B.D.S. campaign, several Web sites, including the now-defunct outlawbds.com, published information on the movement’s leaders and supporters. Definitively determining who was behind the sites is difficult because Psy-Group and other organizations involved in anti-B.D.S. work used avatars and other tactics to disguise their involvement.

In an example of the deceptive practices employed by operatives involved in the campaign, an avatar who identified himself as “Alex Walker” sent an unsolicited e-mail on August 15, 2017, to an advertising-sales broker who represented several New York-based national Jewish publications. Walker claimed that a friend referred him to the broker and said that he was impressed with his services. When the broker asked for the friend’s name, Walker dodged the question. At that point, the broker, who asked not to be named, said he suspected that Walker wasn’t who he claimed to be. Walker said that he was upset about B.D.S. and wanted the broker to place advertisements promoting outlawbds.com in the New York area. Walker said that his assistant would pay the eight-hundred-dollar fee via PayPal. The broker told me that he placed the ads and took the money despite his suspicions about Walker. “In my mind, I’m not doing anything wrong,” he said.

The outlawbds.com Web site featured short profiles of B.D.S. activists, one of whom was Peter Moskowitz, a Jewish-American supporter of the movement. His profile contained misspellings, and, at one point, referred to him as “she.” But the site contained a piece of information that surprised Moskowitz: outlawbds.com had somehow uncovered his membership in a left-wing Jewish organization critical of Israeli treatment of Palestinians, even though Moskowitz had not disclosed his involvement online or to many friends.

Project Butterfly was overseen by an advisory board composed of “senior ex-officials and experts from the government, security and legal sectors,” according to Psy-Group documents. The most senior of those ex-officials was Yaakov Amidror, who became Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national-security adviser after leading a military-intelligence analysis division within the I.D.F. Amidror told me that before joining the board he spoke to Daniel Reisner, one of Israel’s most prominent lawyers, and a partner at Herzog Fox & Neeman, which was Psy-Group’s outside counsel. He said that Reisner told him Psy-Group’s operations in the U.S. against B.D.S. activists were legal. Amidror said that he advised Psy-Group executives to insure that their operatives didn’t breach any U.S. laws or norms while targeting American activists. “Don’t beat them. Don’t go into their houses,” Amidror said.

Amidror said that he supported the central goal of the Psy-Group operation: to “expose” B.D.S. leaders on American university campuses and collect intelligence about any connections they might have to Palestinian organizations and other groups. “The Israeli government was not there, and I thought that, if private people are ready to do it, it can be helped,” Amidror said. “It should be known who is behind them. It’s not known. We don’t know where the money is coming from, how far it is connected to Ramallah or Hamas.” He defended the propriety of a private Israeli intelligence firm collecting and disseminating information on American citizens who supported B.D.S. “If it is in the public domain, why not? I don’t see any problem,” he told me. “If someone doesn’t want it to be leaked publicly, he shouldn’t put it” on the Internet or on social media, Amidror said.

After Amidror joined the effort, Psy-Group recruited Ram Ben-Barak, who stepped down as the deputy director of Mossad in late 2011, to help as a paid strategic adviser on Project Butterfly. He worked one day a week out of Psy-Group’s offices near Tel Aviv. Ben-Barak said he believed that supporters of Israel had no choice but to counter B.D.S. forces in the United States. “You need to do it,” he told me. “They’re fighting against us, so we need to fight against them.”

In 2017, Psy-Group planned to expand Project Butterfly to target up to ten college campuses and other “venues,” according to the documents. In addition, the company said that its operatives would focus on between fifteen and twenty “national level individual targets.” Donors were told that Psy-Group had “mapped anti-Israel hubs” across the country and had “executed 5 rapid-response operations nationwide,” without explaining what those operations entailed and whom they targeted.

The names of Psy-Group’s targets weren’t included in May 2017, summary of Project Butterfly, which was marked “confidential.” But a few days after the incident outside Bazian’s home, Burstien, Psy-Group’s founder and C.E.O, provided a report to researchers at a Washington think tank called the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, or F.D.D., which included the names of some of the B.D.S. activists whom the Israeli firm had targeted or planned to target. According to the Psy-Group report, the company had prepared “dossiers” on Bazian and eight other individuals. Psy-Group told the foundation that Bazian “got our full attention,” and that his dossier included “criminal background records” and other documents “obtained via HUMINT capabilities,” using the abbreviation for human-intelligence gathering. (When asked about the report, Bazian said he wasn’t sure what “criminal background records” Psy-Group was referring to. He said that he had received speeding tickets on occasion over the years, and was arrested in San Francisco, in 1991, for helping organize a student protest.)

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Psy-Group appeared to share a particular interest in the role of a pro-B.D.S. organization that Bazian had founded, American Muslims for Palestine, or A.M.P. At a congressional hearing in 2016, F.D.D.’s vice-president for research, Jonathan Schanzer, alleged that Bazian and others working for or on behalf of A.M.P. had ties to organizations that Schanzer said have been accused of providing money to Hamas. (Bazian said that the foundation’s accusations were part of “a smear campaign that attempts to discredit anyone that deals with Palestine.” He added, “I have no ties whatsoever to any Palestinian group, faction, or organization inside occupied Palestine.”)

Psy-Group told the foundation that it planned to investigate “organizations and companies” that sponsor A.M.P.’s conferences, and singled out a Wisconsin-based Palestinian activist named Salah Sarsour, who has been in charge of organizing the conferences since 2015, as a planned target. Psy-Group alleged that Sarsour had “involvement with Hamas.” (Sarsour said that he had no relationship with the group.) Sarsour, who moved to the U.S. from the West Bank in 1993, told me about two incidents since the summer of 2017 that made him suspect people were spying on him—although, he acknowledged, he had no hard evidence.

An F.D.D. official confirmed that the think tank met with Psy-Group, but she said the foundation “did not end up contracting with them, and their research did little to advance our own.” Psy-Group went out of business in February 2018, as F.B.I. agents began to investigate its work. Other counter-B.D.S. organizations have continued to operate against activists. Bazian’s page at CanaryMission.org accuses him of spreading “classic anti-Semitism,” and features several videos, including one titled “The Most Dangerous Professor in America?” “I am concerned and do take stock of the intimidation tactics,” Bazian told me. “But I am not deterred.”

Source: newyorker

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