The privatization of secret intelligence is happening all over the world. It’s like the privatization of everything else: a function of government is farmed out to corporations.. And it’s something of a menace to social movements
Just as the job of army–to guard, shoot, and kill– is turned over to mercenaries, now known in corporate-speak as Private Military Contractors so the work of intelligence agencies–to investigate, influence, and infiltrate –is turned over spooks for hire, known as private intelligence companies.
The Washington-based Fusion GPS, which commissioned the partially confirmed Steele dossier about President Trump’s Russia dealings, is a classic example of private intelligence firm, albeit one run by journalist not a spook.
But the private spy trade is increasingly dominated by Israeli firms entering the market. The reason is simple: the Israeli intelligence services–Mossad (foreign), Shin Bet (domestic), and Amal (military)– generate more trained intelligence operatives than any other country in the world.
As the The New Yorker explains:
These [Israeli] companies had a unique advantage: few countries produce more highly trained and war-tested intelligence professionals, as a proportion of the population, than Israel. Conscription in Israel is mandatory for most citizens, and top intelligence units often identify talented recruits while they are in high school. These soldiers undergo intensive training in a range of language and technical skills. After a few years of government service, most are discharged, at which point many finish their educations.
The New Yorker story details the story of how one Israeli firm, Psy-Group, sought to “destabilize and disrupt” American student activists who support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against the Israeli government. The key was deception: to make sure the actions could not be traced to the firm.
Private intelligence firms are used for jobs that official agencies prefer not to do. For Mossad to spy on and harass American college students would be politically risky. The exposure of such an operation could inflame American public opinion, which has been turning against Israel in recent years.
A private intelligence firm can achieve the same goal as a government agency but with more “plausible deniability.” If the firm’s secret operations are exposed–as the Psy-Group’s were–the Israeli government can disavow any knowledge of its actions.
Private intelligence firms can also engage in partisan politics, another risky arena for a spy service. Joel Zamel, the chief of Psy-Group, has bragged about helping the Trump campaign win with a secret social media campaign. Publicly, Zamel denies any such action.
The New York Times reported last year. that Psy-Group created several secret proposals for the Trump campaign at the behest of Rick Gates, deputy director of the Trump campaign. Gates has pled guilty and is cooperating with the Trump-Russia prosecutors.
After Zamel and Psy-Group employees were interviewed by the FBI in connection with the Trump-Russia investigation, Zamel shut down Psy-Group in February 2018.
Private intelligence firms can target the leaders of friendly nations, also risky for government service.
Last year it was revealed that another Israeli firm, Black Cube, sought to collect intelligence linking former Obama administration officials to an effort to conceal Iran’s assets in the West. Black Cube also sought to learn whether Iran had paid off officials like Ben Rhodes, the former deputy national security adviser, as part of the international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
Black Cube is closely linked to Israel’s intelligence establishment. The late Mossad chief Meir Dagan was the president of its corporate board. Efraim Halevy, who served as the director of Mossad from 1998 to 2002, recently joined the firm.
Eli Lake of Bloomberg News described the Black Cube operationas “poorly conceived and executed.” But by its very existence, the operation impugned Obama officials and buttressed the Israeli government’s efforts to discredit the Iran nuclear agreement. When the operation was exposed. Black Cube issued an evasive statement. The Israeli government didn’t have to respond.
Israeli private intelligence firms also supply spyware to Arab intelligence services.
An Israeli company, NSO Group Technologies, offered Saudi Arabia a system that hacks cellphones, a few months before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his purge of regime opponents, according to Ha’aretz (paywall), the reliable Israeli news site.
The Israelis have plenty of competition. U.S. entrepreneurs invented private intelligence, and Fusion GPS has many counterparts in Washington. A U.S. firm, run by former NSA employees, sold private intelligence services to the United Arab Emirates, which used them track and repress critics of the Yemen war.
But the Israelis remains the industry leader.