For those who follow my Twitter feed, you’ll recall a tweet I published based on a Haaretz story, which reported the mysterious appearance of unmarked airplanes at Ben Gurion Airport. It turns out these planes were leased to a “Gulf State” company. But the reporter refused to name the country, the cargo carried or reason for their being at Ben Gurion. This information is either under military censorship or judicial gag. But it can be reported here.
Thanks to a confidential Israeli source, I can answer those questions. The planes were leased to a company doing business in Abu Dhabi (UAE) and are carrying security personnel, other security-related machinery being shipped there by an Israeli cyber-security consultant. These are not merely computers. These are the infrastructure of a national security state. Everything that is needed to control a population from within and protect its security from without.
Some of you may wonder how Israel is doing business with an Arab state which doesn’t recognize Israel. The answer, it turns out, is easily. Iran is not only Israel’s enemy, but the enemy of all the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia. The latter funded Israel’s covert ops campaign against Iran to the tune of $1-billion. During the last round of P5+1 nuclear talks, Israel purportedly joined with the Saudis to pressure the U.S. not to do a deal. There have been rumblings that Israel and S.A. might jointly attack Iran to stop its nuclear program. Israel has made common cause against Iran with many of these kingdoms.
I reported here that Israel opened a secret military liaison office in UAE to coordinate security strategy against Iran. This security deal may be part of this process of beefing up military and intelligence cooperation between Israel and the Gulf.
One of my ‘sidelines’ is reporting the corrupt dealings of Israel’s flourishing arms dealing/cyber-intelligence industry. Tonight, we have a new story to tell. It involves an Israel security company called Logic, which is part of a larger conglomerate called AGT International (originally Asia Global Technologies). AGT is a Swiss-registered company owned by Mati Kochavi, with $8-billion in projects under management and $1-billion in annual revenue, according to its own claims (which are disputed in a Calcalist Hebrew profile of Logic). Here is a description of its portfolio:
The company provides security services and research in a wide variety of areas, including industrial, urban, cyber, transportation, maritime, border and corporate security. It protects transportation hubs, manages urban information systems, assists law enforcement and provides intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance solutions. Its professional services also include risk and vulnerability assessment, evaluation and personnel training, and it will provide customized security solutions built to particular needs.
Kochavi, age 50, is a mysterious, and even somewhat shady character about which relatively little is known. Calcalist offered the most extensive picture of his background. He was born in Haifa and attended the University of Haifa, where he studied history and philosophy. He claims that early-on he wanted to be a journalist, rather than a security expert or high-tech mogul. He did his military service in intelligence (most likely Unit 8200, though he’s never confirmed this).
In the 1990s he moved to New York, where he fell in with the wealthy real estate developers Steven Ross and Martin Adelman of the powerhouse Related Companies. They provided him with a spacious office in the Time Warner Center, which Related had built, and he proceeded to make his first fortune.
After 9/11, Kochavi and other entrepreneurs like Aubrey Chernick, the main funder of Standwithus and other Islamophobic causes and founder of NC4, saw a monumental business opportunity. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and it’s almost unlimited security budget to ensure the nation’s internal security, offered a veritable gravy train of opportunity. With his strong sales background and patina of Israeli cyber-security expertise, the Israeli was a natural.
But his first few attempts were abject failures. He bought the rights to market a new drone technology, hired well-known Israeli ex-military figures as lobbyists and door-openers, and fell flat on his face. In his next venture, he entered into a partnership with the Israeli defense contractor, EL TA, to market its security technology. However, the partnership dissolved when EL TA discovered that Kohavi was essentially stealing the technology and selling it in private ventures that were outside their partnership. He was never charged with wrongdoing, but no Israeli military-industrial enterprises will ever partner with him again (though they will sell him their products).
The Israeli performed another business sleight-of-hand by founding AGT in Switzerland, allowing him to avoid Israeli taxes. An even more important benefit is to shield from his Arab customers the Israeli origins of his products and services. Logic was founded as the Israeli branch of the company. But much about it is secret. It has no website. It has one client, AGT. It mushroomed from an initial 20 employees to 600, making it one of Israel’s fastest-growing companies. Yet, until the Calcalist profile, almost nothing was known about it. Despite claims of international business consultancies and projects in multiple countries, AGT has only one known client.
Intelligence Online noted in 2012 that the $300-million in annual trade between Abu Dhabi and Israel involved almost solely security products including surveillance cameras, electronic fences and sensors to monitor strategic infrastructure and oil fields. It noted that Kohavi and AGT was the major, if not only supplier. Israeli sources note that AGT probably could not compete with the major industry players in the field for contracts with the developed world. It is a relative newcomer and its expertise is untested. So the company turns to the second-tier for its revenue, and Arab nations are impressed by the Israeli reputation for air-tight security. Despite the official hostility between Israel and the Arab states, the more authoritarian ones have much in common with Israel. Their levels of corruption, repression, and authoritarianism require sophisticated security solutions in order to maintain the elite in power. Who has maintained its own position in a hostile regional environment better than Israel?
Just to point to a few international indexes that spotlight the levels of repression and corruption in UAE, Transparency International ranks it 25th in corruption of 175 countries, while Israel is ranked 37th. UAE is 118th in press freedom according to Reporters Without Borders. Some of you will recall the Afghan businessman who was tortured on videotape by a member of the UAE royal family. This is the society whose powerful elite Mati Kohavi props up. Calcalist could not identify any other projects under supervision by AGT.
In 2004, Kohavi sought to burnish his image with a major sortie into the world of think tanks with an NGO promoting the peace process called Bridging the Rift. It was to be a joint Jordanian-Israeli project bringing together scholars and researchers from both countries. The two governments were to contribute 300 dunams for a campus on which the research project would flourish. It would fall under the academic auspices of the blue-chip U.S. universities, Cornell and Stanford. At the groundbreaking, Kohavi was joined by a Who’s Who of Israeli politics including then-PM Ehud Olmert and Finance Minister, Bibi Netanyahu. His New York developer mentors, Edelman and Ross joined him. However, the project never went far and sources close to Kohavi claim it’s been “frozen” due to “governmental decisions.”
The company’s business model seems not to develop its own original technologies, but rather to license various independent (mostly Israeli) technologies and integrate them for a complex security environment. So it may coordinate domestic surveillance, border security, airport and seaport oversight into a single package that UAE can purchase. The Israelis in turn will purchase, install and maintain the infrastructure.
Kohavi is portrayed in adulatory media articles as a “global thought leader” in “public safety and security solutions.” In other words, he’s the Herzliya version of the old-fashioned arms dealer with a suit and MBA. Here’s some more puffery about Kochavi and his security sales pitch:
AGT International has dedicated itself to providing security solutions to law enforcement and urban security organizations that fit the specific needs of each city and country. Overall, the goal of AGT International is to help local and national governments predict, prepare for, and prevent security problems through unique solutions.
When you’re a hammer every problem is a nail waiting to be pounded. When you’re an Israeli, raised in a national security state, every problem can be managed using the tools of such a state. This reduces human beings and values like justice to irrelevancies. Every problem is a target and every solution is a gun. Forget politics, civil rights, democracy, freedom. The only thing that matters is stability. We can create it in a few ways if we’re not popularly elected in the Middle East: either by buying it or by enforcing it from the barrel of a gun (I use that term metaphorically to encompass all the security products Kohavi sells). That is AGT’s method.
The Israeli is one of thousands who’ve transferred their intelligence/Unit 8200 skills from cyber-warfare scenarios to the realms of global security and commerce. This national burst of entrepreneurial energy has also benefitted Israel’s intelligence services by allowing it to exploit these products as part of their own operations.
Though I suspect his motives and find much about him distasteful, I have to admit he’s innovative in his way. He’s found ways to integrate his “security solutions” with unlikely enterprises like journalism and social media. His product, Vocativ, harvests information from social and journalistic media in ways that serve the needs of his clients, notably security and intelligence agencies:
If you were to eavesdrop on social-media conversations all over the world involving the term “NSA” and run a sentiment analysis on the results, you’d probably find that the wire-tapping spy agency is none too popular with just about anyone these days.
A new digital news startup called Vocativ has the technology to run just that analysis. Yet its founder, Israeli-born security mogul Mati Kochavi, invites the comparison. He’s organized his newsroom along the lines of an intelligence agency in the belief that journalism needs to undergo the same transformation that’s already swept the field of spycraft.
I found an example he offered in a Haaretz interview quite interesting: in the company’s social media war room his staff collated all the tweets published in Saudi Arabia over a certain period. They zeroed in on one tweet published by a Saudi professor who had hundreds of thousands of followers. The ultimate goal, the reporter was told, was to contact the source and develop the tweeted information into an article that could be sold to other publications. But imagine you ran Vocativ, had the Israeli intelligence background you did, and knew your pals back home might want to develop their own sources in Arab countries. What better way to develop intelligence sources and possibly future agents than have an ostensibly international journalism enterprise, owned by Israelis, and delving into the social developments in those states most hostile to Israel. A potential intelligence goldmine.
An article from back in July in Pando already made this connection using the sole big story Vocativ claims to have broken. Here’s a representative passage:
…When you realize that Vocativ is also a mouthpiece for Israel’s armed forces, you have to stop and have a moment of silent appreciation for the sheer sleazy hilarity of this world. I mean, a site that’s half soft porn and half IDF press releases, with a side bet on a fake occult skill in Deep Web summoning…that’s just amazing.
It’s worth a read.
The melding of journalism and intelligence should bring a shock and sense of horror to journalists out there. What Kochavi really wants to do is perform the investigative research that reporters might normally do, but to harness it to the interests of the repressive regimes who are his clients. If you’re an activist in say, UAE, and using Twitter or Facebook to broadcast your views and rally your followers, Vocativ is going to expose you to that country’s security agency, which can then track you either physically or virtually.
Though he describes the product as a way of better understanding global trends in information and other fields and intends for his clients to be conventional media outlets: it seems clear that the product can easily be used in more prosaic and damaging ways.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.