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Israel has pioneered many of the most odious “innovations” in the arsenal of the national security state: targeted killings, racial profiling, militarizing of the police, export of surveillance systems to ruthless dictatorships to ensure control, etc. Israel has an enormous cyber-warfare apparatus that encompasses both the Mossad and military intelligence (Unit 8200). But this just the tip of the iceberg. Those who serve the state in these official positions do so in part because of the lucrative payday they contemplate when they leave service. They take the knowledge and skills they developed and monetize them through Big Data startups and dirty-ops firms like Black Cube, Wikistrat, and Psy-Group. The major corporate entities and powerful celebrities and oligarchs who hire them bring in the millions that the founders envision when they launch their careers fresh from the government spy business. Each of these companies has been in the news lately for their involvement in various aspects of the Trump presidential campaign.
Black Cube was hired by a senior Trump official specifically to dig up opposition research on Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl, key players in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. Trump sought to use any “dirt” to discredit the deal itself when it came time for Trump to reject it, which he did recently.
The firm used its operatives, many of whom have Israeli intelligence backgrounds, to approach individuals, using false identities. Their goal was to uncover ways in which the officials may have enriched themselves personally as part of their mission to secure the deal. Unfortunately for Black Cube and its Trump client, Obama administration officials actually observed an ethical code in their government work. I suppose Trump believed that everyone in government service would behave as he does–seeking to enrich himself at every opportunity regardless of circumstances.
In recent days, Ben Rhodes has published a memoir of his White House service. Naturally, this episode is part of it. In interviews promoting the book, he has taken things one step farther than in previous statements. He stated his belief that the Israeli government knew of Black Cube’s activities against him and approved of them:
“All I know is that I would be very surprised if a group of former Mossad agents are somehow operating without the knowledge of the Israeli government in some fashion,” he said. “I know how intelligence operates — and again it’s hard for me to fathom a scenario where … the Israeli government didn’t know it was going on.”
“The U.S.-Israel relationship is so important … the politics should be adamant,” Rhodes added. “I do think it’s important that this shouldn’t happen and I wouldn’t like it if a bunch of former CIA people were trying to dig up dirt on Israelis. I think this is crossing a line that’s blending potentially politics and national security in a way that in the long-term is not good for anybody.”
I would take things one step farther: my experience in covering the Israeli intelligence services and their “alumni” is that companies like Black Cube and Wikistrat are extensions of the official intelligence apparatus. In other words, there are campaigns that the government may not undertake directly for fear that exposure would lead to embarrassment or even damage Israel’s relations with other nations. For that reason, the government turns to agencies which act as “cut-outs.” They do the dirty work on behalf of the government, enabling it to accomplish its goals covertly and without any blowback.
There is even circumstantial evidence to support my claim (see next paragraph). It stands to reason that a megalomaniac like Bibi Netanyahu, when faced with an intelligence service which might refuse to pursue his more suspect notions like going to war with Iran, would look to companies filled with ex-Mossad agents and cyber-warriors, who have the needed skill set to perform these dirty jobs, but which have none of the restraints facing officials of the State.
That’s why Yossi Melman’s recent article in Maariv on the subject is so important. In it, he writes:
The identification of Black Cube as a sort of offshoot of the Mossad, or one of its straw companies–a claim the company doesn’t even bother to deny, perhaps even encouraging it with a wink of the eye–draws even greater attention to it…
Israel’s intelligence community has been shocked by the firm’s high profile. The Mossad and AMAN [IDF military intelligence] won massive budgets (mainly for their operations against Iran) during the period when Meir Dagan and his successor, Tamir Pardo, served as agency chiefs. They recruited thousands of new agents, built new office buildings to house them. They also expanded the practice of outsourcing projects to contractors, many of them firms whose personnel are agency veterans. Black Cube was one of the companies which benefited in this way, though lately the practice has ended.
Nor is it unheard of for Bibi Netanyahu to hire private security firms to do his dirty work. Israeli TV reported that a Bibi-fixer, Walter Soriano, enjoying a similar relationship to Bibi as Michael Cohen’s did with Trump, ran a dirty ops campaign attempting to smear the Israeli police unit investigating him for corruption and bribery.
In the case of Black Cube, the goal of both the Trump officials who hired it and the Israeli officials who enabled the smear campaign, was to topple the Iran nuclear deal. Trump knew he intended to abandon the deal during his first term. He also knew the agreement was relatively popular among American voters. So he approached this issue the same way he approached the election campaign: realizing he couldn’t win with a direct assault, he chose the underhanded, covert one emphasizing fraud, fakery and lies. The way to break down support, whether for the Iran deal or Hillary Clinton, was to spread lies about both to undermine the trust of the American people.
That’s why, when the campaign to smear Rhodes and Kahl came up empty, both Netanyahu and Trump turned to another magic trick: the Iran nuclear archive, which purportedly proved that Iran had been lying all along about its intent to honor the JCPOA and its claim that it was not pursuing WMD. After a flurry of credulous news reporting on the ‘magnificent’ intelligence achievement of whisking an entire Iranian nuclear cache to Israel under the noses of the Ayatollahs, others began poking at the edifice Netanyahu had presented to the world. Many of us found the episode less than convincing, in fact, yet another fraud perpetrated by Netanyahu on the world. As Gertrude Stein once wrote: “there was no there there.”
But what I called the dog and pony show served a useful purpose for Donald Trump and was surely closely coordinated with him. It purported to draw back the curtains on a nasty little secret–Iran’s ongoing nuclear weapons program. That offered a momentary shock to the system of those who supported the Iran nuclear deal and justified (supposedly) Trump’s withdrawal from the deal only days later.
Mystery Man: Joel Zamel and Israeli Intelligence
The other major Israeli intelligence player in the Trump election imbroglio is Joel Zamel, founder of two sister companies, Wikistrat and Psy-Group. Zamel is an Australian-Israeli who earned an MA from the Interdisciplinary Center specializing in homeland security and counter-terrorism. The IDC is known as an institution which trains Israel’s future diplomats and spies in the finer arts they will need to pursue their professional careers.
The Wall Street Journal noted that the latter firm boasted on its website:
Psy-Group offered clients an array of services—including “honey traps,” a term used by spy agencies for an intelligence-gathering tactic using romantic or sexual relationships to extract information.
Bloomberg elaborated about Psy Group:
[It is] an Israeli firm that pitched its services to super-PACs and other entities during the 2016 election. Those services included infiltrating target audiences with elaborately crafted social-media personas and spreading misleading information through websites meant to mimic news portals
The Journal described the second Zamel business entity, Wikistrat, thus:
Mr. Zamel’s other company, Wikistrat, uses a network of experts to analyze geopolitical problems and was contracted to conduct war-game scenarios on Islamist political movements in Yemen for the U.A.E…
Zamel acts like he is, or was once an Israeli spy. He is known within his own company as being camera-shy. Whenever an employee takes a picture at a meeting or anywhere he is present, he will leave the room. There are no known images of him on the web. In the New York Observer, John Schindler even speculates that his employees may retain their credentials as official spies on behalf of Israel:
Several prominent Wikistrat staffers formerly worked for Israeli intelligence—and some experienced espionage professionals in our nation’s capital wonder if they still do.
In relation to the Trump campaign, The NY Times reported that it developed “an online manipulation campaign that involved usage of thousands of fake social media accounts to help Trump get elected.” The Journal offers examples of how the company pitched itself to Trump Jr. during the meeting:
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators have obtained a presentation prepared by an Israel-based private intelligence firm that outlines ways in which Donald Trump’s 2016 election was helped by fake news and fake social-media accounts…
Mr. Mueller’s interest in the presentation suggests his investigation is focusing on the role of social-media manipulation during the 2016 campaign. Intelligence officials have said that cyber-influence campaigns, sometimes covertly sponsored by foreign governments, are expected to become a major part of political campaigning in the coming years.
The presentation consists of nine slides and was prepared by the Psy-Group, a firm that boasts of ties to elite Israeli intelligence agencies. It isn’t clear who received the Psy-Group presentation, but it appears to have been created sometime after the 2016 election.
…The presentation outlines the ways in which social media “bots” and fake online content were used to help energize voters supportive of Mr. Trump. One slide entitled “Trump Campaign Components” outlines a timeline where “fake news sites/avatars/content” were created during the early part of the election year and then leveraged to spread “uncertainty” by midyear. The final stage was “using fake bots to react to real life situations & further polarize the TA,” or target audience, the slide says.
Another slide says the firm identified 140 pro-Trump websites linked to a man in Macedonia. The websites “had American-sounding domain names such as WorldPoliticus.com” and “published aggressively pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives and Trump supporters in the USA.”
If all this sounds ominously similar to what the Russian Internet Research Agency, a company closely allied with Vladimir Putin, did on behalf of Trump, it’s likely no accident. Nor is it an accident that Cambridge Analytica, which harvested the Facebook data of millions of users on behalf of its campaign to sabotage the Clinton campaign, has been found to have partnered with Zamel in a number of political operations including one in Nigeria.
Zamel already had a close business relationship with the Gulf State of United Arab Emirates, which is closely allied with Saudi Arabia and its Sunni alliance which mounted a blockade against Qatar. George Nader, another close associate of the UAE’s monarchy, paid Zamel $2-million, ostensibly to develop a simulation of what the Sunni-Shia conflict in Yemen, which has pitted Saudi Arabia against the native Houthis, who are allied with Shia Iran. The Journal elaborated:
Wikistrat’s efforts for the Gulf state later transformed into what one person close to the company referred to as “intelligence lite”—using local on-the-ground sources to anticipate threats. Mr. Zamel in recent years had built a close relationship with top Emirati national security officials and has held business meetings in the U.A.E., according to people familiar with the matter.
It’s not clear what precisely Zamel and Nader were pitching to Donald Trump Jr. at that meeting, but it certainly involved what the UAE, and an Israeli dirty ops firm close to Israeli intelligence, could offer the Trump campaign. As Psy Group and Cambridge Analytica had already orchestrated fraudulent social media campaigns to undermine candidates in Nigeria and elsewhere, it’s safe to assume this was the general tenor of the pitch Trump Jr. was offered.
We can also assume that both the UAE and Israel were offering this help with the spoken or unspoken expectation that the victorious Trump administration would look favorably on their respective interests, much of which revolved around Iran (but tangentially revolved around undermining Qatar as well). In fact, George Nader, one of the key players in the Trump Tower meeting, proposed a $300-million plan to enlist a mercenary army to invade Iran and weaken or topple its regime:
Mr. Nader was promoting a plan to use private contractors to carry out economic sabotage against Iran that, he hoped, might coerce it to permanently abandon its nuclear program. The plan included efforts to deter Western companies from investing in Iran, and operations to sow mistrust among Iranian officials. He advocated the project, which he estimated would cost about $300 million, to American, Emirati and Saudi officials.
…Last spring, Mr. Nader traveled to Riyadh for meetings with senior Saudi military and intelligence officials to pitch his Iran sabotage plan. He was convinced, according to several people familiar with his plan, that economic warfare was the key to the overthrow of the government in Tehran.
In a New Yorker article, Adam Entous goes into far greater detail about the nature of the bizarre plan. It appears that though he doesn’t specifically name Nader as the “contractor,” this is who he’s talking about:
…One would-be contractor who is close to the Emiratis, the Saudis, and the Israelis presented a plan to use cyberweapons planted inside Iran’s critical infrastructure, including its stock market, to wreak economic havoc and sow political discord. It remains unclear whether he was freelancing or making pitches on behalf of Emirati, Saudi, and Israeli leaders.
It’s also safe to assume that one of the goals both of UAE and Israel would be for the Trump administration to reject the Iran deal (which it did) and even join in a military attack on Iran, possibly leading to regime change. In fact, Bibi Netanyahu and leading elements of the Trump regime (including John Bolton and Mike Pompeo) have advocated for such an outcome though they haven’t bothered to tell us how they would accomplish it without soaking the region in blood.
Though Zamel’s business operations are based largely in Israel, he has maintained offices in Washington DC for the purposes of selling his services domestically. But his financial dealings are a different story. Bloomberg reports that payments made to Zamel’s firms are funneled through banks in Cyprus. That’s interesting for two reasons: the first is that that country’s financial institutions are notorious for housing the ill-gotten gains of Russian oligarchs, including those implicated in some of the meetings with Trump figures. Also, these banks are more than happy to help such shady characters to launder their money so it can be transformed from dirty money to clean.
The fundamental problem with everything that these foreign firms did is that it is illegal for foreign companies or individuals to contribute to, or influence U.S. elections. So given the history of rivalry and enmity between Russia and the U.S., we might expect these shenanigans from Russia. But given the historically close relationship between Israel and the U.S., it’s astonishing that an intelligence firm closely allied with official Israeli interests would wade into domestic U.S. politics in such a fashion. It marks a profound breach with all previously known conventions in the relationship. It should especially trouble American Jews, including organizations which are part of the Israel Lobby. The fact that it hasn’t indicates how sycophantic the relationship has become between these NGOs and their counterparts in the Israeli government.
Of course, it might be possible for these companies to hire U.S. personnel to do the work on their behalf. And this indeed happened in some cases. But in numerous instances, foreign employees of the companies directly implemented these covert projects and campaigns.
Black Cube: Get Me the Head of Colin Kahl
In the case of Black Cube, Colin Kahl in a Foreign Policy podcast, noted that what Black Cube did was unprecedented in a number of ways: first, it attempted to inveigle his wife into a compromising position that would impeach him; and second, it attempted to impeach him well after he had left government service and was no longer involved with national security or the Iran nuclear deal. It’s unclear to me whether any of this is illegal in technical terms. But it certainly contravenes all norms of western intelligence services. Though not those of Israel, clearly.
George Papadopoulos as Messenger-Boy for Russian Hackers and Israeli Diplomats
John Schindler has opened an entirely new line of speculation about the loyalties of another member of the crew in the sights of special counsel Mueller. George Papadopoulos, you’ll recall was another one of the hangers-on in the Trump campaign who touted their inside contacts to various power players who could be of use to the Trump campaign. Until now, he and a mysterious Prof. Joseph Mifsud were thought to be intermediaries between shadowy Russian characters and the Trump people. But Papadapoulos’ wife has added a new wrinkle. She claims her husband wasn’t investigated for his ties to Russia, but rather for his ties to Israel.
In fact, as an energy consultant, Papadopoulos cultivated ties to key Israeli figures (Israel has enormous developing oil and gas interests in the Mediterranean) including radical settlers. He wrote columns for Haaretz and the extremist settler website, Arutz 7 exhorting Israel to join with Cyprus and Greece to develop some of these oil fields. He also held a meeting with a key settler leader during which he promised that a Trump presidency would offer the settler movement carte blanche to pursue its interests unfettered by any American opposition. Among the things he told him:
“We are looking forward to ushering in a new relationship between the United States and all of Israel, including the historical Judea and Samaria.”
But perhaps the most peculiar aspect of the story is Papadopoulos’ mysterious whiskey-soaked meeting at a London bar with then Australian ambassador to the UK, Alexander Downer. The meeting had been set up by an unnamed Israeli diplomat. Not a single Israeli publication has speculated on who the Israeli was. But I suspect that, given that Downer was an ambassador, that he would be none other than Mark Regev, the Israeli ambassador to the UK. It was at this meeting that the Trump official confided in the Australian that Russia had reams of incriminating e-mails from the Clinton campaign; and presumably that Trump had access to them or would shortly. This could offer yet another piece of evidence confirming that the Israeli government officially colluded in some of the underhanded schemes which brought Donald Trump to the White House.
Schindler also notes that many of the insiders Trump has employed both in his business dealings before entering the White House and during his campaign are Jewish, with close ties both to Russian and Israeli interests. Among them are Michael Cohen and Felix Sater. They have close ties, as do a number of Russian-Jewish oligarchs like Lev Leviev, to the international Chabad movement. In fact, Michael Cohen accepted $400,000 from Ukrainian figures to set up a White House meeting between that country’s president and Donald Trump. Chabad of Port Washington served as the host of the social networking that brought about the deal. Similarly, Lev Leviev and his Russian business cronies worshipped at the same Chabad institution. Leviev, like Donald Trump, sought out the ill-gotten gains of the Russian nouveau riche to fuel his Manhattan real estate buying spree. Interestingly, Trump hosted the wedding of one of Leviev’s trusted henchmen at Mar a Lago. The beauty of these real estate transactions from the point of view of the criminals exploiting them was that it allowed them to launder what they plundered and turn it into clean money they could use in legitimate business ventures. If that sounds like the modus operandi of the Mob, that’s no accident.
It’s only a very small step for Vladimir Putin to believe that a U.S. presidential candidate so mired in dirty Russian money would be easy prey for a Russian influence campaign designed to win him the White House. And that is indeed what happened.
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.