On November 7, NSO Group, the Israeli spyware company infamous for its Pegasus phone-tapping technology, sent an urgent email and letter by UPS to request a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and officials at the U.S. State Department.
“I am writing on behalf of NSO Group to urgently request an opportunity to engage with Secretary Blinken and the officials at the State Department regarding the importance of cyber intelligence technology in the wake of the grave security threats posed by the recent Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel and their aftermath,” wrote Timothy Dickinson, partner at the Los Angeles-based law firm Paul Hastings, headquartered in Los Angeles, on behalf of NSO.
In the last two years NSO’s reputation has taken a beating amid revelations about its spyware’s role in human rights abuses.
As controversy was erupting over its role in authoritarian governments’ spying, NSO Group was blacklisted by the U.S. Department of Commerce in November 2021, “to put human rights at the center of US foreign policy,” the agency said at the time. A month after the blacklisting, it was revealed that Pegasus had been used to spy on American diplomats.
NSO’s letter to Blinken — publicly filed as part of Paul Hastings’s obligation under the Foreign Agents Registration Act — is part of the company’s latest attempt to reinvent its image and, most importantly, a bid to reverse the blacklisting. (Neither the State Department nor Paul Hastings responded to requests for comment.)
For NSO, the blacklisting has been an existential threat. The push to reverse it, which included hiring multiple American public relations and law firms, has cost NSO $1.5 million in lobbying last year, more than the government of Israel itself spent. It focused heavily on Republican politicians, many of whom are now vocal in their support of Israel, and against a ceasefire in the brutal war being waged by the country in the Gaza Strip.
Amid the Israeli war effort, NSO appears more convinced than ever that it is of use to the American government.
“NSO’s technology is supporting the current global fight against terrorism in any and all forms,” said the letter to Blinken. “These efforts squarely align with the Biden-Harris administration’s repeated messages and actions of support for the Israeli government.”
NSO is marketing itself as a volunteer in the Israeli war effort, allegedly helping track down missing Israelis and hostages. And at this moment, which half a dozen experts have described to The Intercept as NSO’s attempt at “crisis-washing,” some believe that the American government may create a space for NSO to come back to the table.
“NSO’s participation in the Israeli government’s efforts to locate citizens in Gaza seems to be an effort by the company to rehabilitate its image in this crisis,” said Adam Shapiro, director of advocacy for Israel–Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now, a group founded by the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi to advocate for human rights in the Middle East. “But alarm bells should be ringing that NSO Group has been recruited in Israel’s war effort.”
Documents obtained by The Intercept through FARA and public records requests illustrate the company’s intense lobbying efforts — especially among hawkish, pro-Israel Republicans.
Working on NSO’s behalf, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, a New York-based law firm, held over half a dozen meetings between March and August with Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who sits on the House Financial Services Committee as well as Oversight and Reform. One was to “discuss status of Bureau of Industry and Security Communications, U.S. Department of Commerce appeal.” (Pillsbury did not respond to a request for comment.)
“NSO’s participation in the Israeli government’s efforts to locate citizens in Gaza seems to be an effort by the company to rehabilitate its image in this crisis.”
The lobbyists also had three meetings in March and April with Justin Discigil, then chief of staff to the far-right Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, who sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. (Neither Sessions nor Crenshaw responded to requests for comment.)
Public records about NSO’s push also offer concrete examples of something the company has been at pains to evade, and that the American government has routinely overlooked: the existing relationship between the Israeli state and the spyware company.
“NSO’s Pegasus tool is treated in Israel as a defense article subject to regulation by the country’s regulators, which conducts its own assessment of human rights risks in countries across the world,” the letter to Blinken said.
A previously unreported May 2022 email from Department of Commerce official Elena Love to lobbyists for NSO also draws a connection between the Israeli government and NSO. In her email, Love asked the lobbyists working to undo NSO’s blacklisting for permission to send a list of questions directly to Israeli officials. (The Department of Commerce said there is no change to the status of NSO on the blacklist and declined to comment further. NSO Group and the Israeli government did not respond to requests for comment.)
Currently, in the war effort, the Israeli government is letting NSO sit upfront. In a podcast by the Israeli news outlet Haaretz from October 19 — podcasts are less heavily censored by the government than written articles — a reporter discusses how NSO has reported for duty, in essence taken on work for the Ministry of Defense.
“What’s really, really important to understand is that these companies,” said Haaretz journalist Omer Benjakob in the podcast, “some of them have already been working with the state of Israel.”
Hiring Lobbyists in D.C.
By selling its spyware to authoritarian governments, NSO has facilitated a variety of human rights abuses: from use by the United Arab Emirates to spy on Khashoggi, the journalist later killed by Saudi Arabia, to reporting just this week on its use to spy on Indian journalists. According to the research group Forensic Architecture, the use of NSO Group’s products has contributed to over 150 physical attacks against journalists, rights advocates, and other civil society actors, including some of their deaths.
Now the company is mounting a rapacious public relations push to undo the harm to its reputation.
NSO’s recent hiring of two lobbyists, Jeffrey Weiss and Stewart Baker, from the Washington-based white-shoe law firm Steptoe & Johnson, was made public at the end of October in a filing with the House of Representatives. On behalf of NSO, the firm was to address “US national security and export control policy in an international context.”
Baker, former assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security and a former National Security Agency general counsel, previously told The Associated Press, before representing NSO, that the blacklisting of the company “certainly isn’t a death penalty and may over time just be really aggravating.”
Weiss, for his part, had relevant experience to help get NSO off the Department of Commerce blacklist: He was deputy director of policy and strategic planning at the agency from 2013 to 2017.
Weiss and another Steptoe & Johnson partner, Eric Emerson, had also been hired by the Israeli government a few months earlier, according to previously unreported FARA documents. Weiss registered to provide both services to the Economic and Trade Mission at the Embassy of Israel in July, and then NSO in October.
Emerson, who has worked at Steptoe for over 30 years specializing in international trade law and policy issues, registered to engage with Natalie Gutman-Chen, Israeli minister of trade and economic affairs. Documents show that Steptoe’s annual budget for this work is $180,000.
Steptoe’s description of its work for the Israeli mission is similar to its goals for the NSO contract: to “provide advice on various international trade related matters affecting the State of Israel” which will be used “to develop its position w/re various U.S. policies.”
It is not illegal to register to lobby for two affiliated clients, and powerful law firms doing lobbying work often do so for purposes of efficiency and holding meetings together.
“It is not uncommon to kill two birds with one stone,” said Anna Massoglia, editorial and investigations manager at OpenSecrets, which tracks lobbying money in Washington. “It’s possible NSO got a discount because they already had Israel.”
“It’s possible NSO got a discount because they already had Israel.”
On October 30, amid the Israeli onslaught against Gaza, Steptoe filed their supplemental statement, in which lobbyists are supposed to detail their meetings and outreach to the Department of Justice. It was left curiously blank, perhaps portending a later amendment to the filing. (“The filing covers what we have been asked to advise on and we can’t comment any further at this time,” Steptoe said in a statement.)
“It’s hard to prove it’s deliberate,” Massoglia said. “But the timing is interesting.”
Ties to Israeli Government
Last year, a previously unreported email, obtained through a public records request, provided another example of the interweaving relationship between the Israeli government and NSO.
In May 2022, Love, the acting chair of the End-User Review Committee at the Department of Commerce, emailed lobbyists at Steptoe and Pillsbury. Love sent along a list of questions for their client, NSO, about the company’s appeal to be removed from the blacklist.
“We are also requesting permission to provide these questions to the government of Israel,” Love wrote.
The email, however, had been sent about a year and half before Steptoe filed FARA registrations for its staff to lobby on behalf of NSO — and raises questions about adherence to the foreign lobbying law. (Pillsbury was registered under FARA at the time.)
FARA requires lobbyists to register with the Department of Justice when taking on foreign principals — both governments and companies — as clients.
“What has never been a gray area under FARA is if you are communicating directly with the U.S. government on behalf of a foreign principal, that’s a political activity,” said Ben Freeman, director of the democratizing foreign policy program at the Quincy Institute. Of the period when Steptoe was working for NSO but hadn’t registered yet, Freeman said, “By skirting FARA registration, they are really playing with fire.”
Though FARA cases have increased since 2016, charges brought by the Justice Department remain relatively rare. The statute itself is forgiving, the enforcement mechanisms like warning letters often render failures to register moot, and, with so little case law owing to so few indictments, prosecutors are loath to try their hand at bringing charges. (The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.)
“By skirting FARA registration, they are really playing with fire.”
In a letter sent to the Justice Department in July of last year, Democracy for the Arab World Now called on the government to investigate what, at the time, was described as the firms’ lack of registration as agents for Israel under FARA. “We believe that misrepresentation to be intentional,” the letter said.
None of the four companies hired by NSO said in their registrations that there is any Israeli government control over the spyware group, despite the evidence laid out by Democracy for the Arab World Now of Israeli influence on the company that meets the U.S. definition of government control. This includes the fact that all of NSO’s contracts are determined by the government of Israel, allegedly to serve political interests.
The Department of Justice, however, does not give updates or responses to such referrals. Neither has it published an opinion or issued a penalty.
“Based on FARA filings, one would be under the impression that NSO was a run of the mill private corporate entity,” said Shapiro, of Democracy for the Arab World Now. “But given its role in spyware, understanding the government’s control is really important.”