This week, a UK family court made public a hitherto secret decision in a custody battle between a member of the Jordanian royal family and her ex-husband, the prime minister of UAE. She is Princess Haya, the half-sister of King Abdullah II formerly married to Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum. They were engaged in years-long battle for custody of their two children. Though final custody arrangements were not determined, the judge excoriated the Arab leader, finding that he hacked the phones of his ex-wife, her lawyers, and her security detail. His UAE government is a known customer of Israeli spyware maker, NSO Group, whose Pegasus product was used.
The reporting neglected a critical detail: not only did the UAE official spy on these individuals, but NSO itself did as well. When Citizen Lab cyber-security researcher, Bill Marczak told the Princess’s solicitor, Baroness Shackleton, that her cell phone had been compromised, only hours later a senior NSO executive called the company’s UK attorney, Cherie Blair. He told her that Princess Haya now knew she and Shackleton’s phones had been compromised. The NSO official directed Blair to warn Shackleton of the intrusion. Though, of course, she already knew since Marczak had informed her. The only way NSO could have known this, is if it was monitoring the use of its spyware by its UAE customer, the PM.
Second, the hack of Baroness Shackleton who, as an officer of the court, is a official representative of the British state, sabotages the UK justice system. It also permits not one, but two foreign governments (NSO is closely tied to the Israeli defense ministry and many of its employees are veterans of the IDF’s Unit 8200) to access confidential UK judicial matters.
The role Blair played is also troubling as she exploits her celebrity reputation to serve as a legal-ethical fig leaf for NSO. Hiring her protects it from charges that its spyware endangers the lives of victims in the UK and around the world. The Israeli company has hired numerous lawyers and politicians with reputations for ethical probity to burnish its reputation. They include former Obama officials, Julie Kayyem and Jeh Johnson, and former Homeland Security secretary, Tom Ridge. All of them including Blair provide legal and ethical cover for NSO’s worst offenses. Blair’s case is even more egregious, because she served as a conduit between her client and the victim, Princes Haya, in which the company’s lawyer revealed that it had engaged in an egregious violation of Haya’s rights. At the very least she is morally compromised. She may even be an accessory to a criminal act if betraying attorney-client privilege is a legal offense in the UK.
Third, the entire sordid affair threatens to poison relations between the UK and UAE, which have been close allies and trading partners. This is turn could damage relations between Israel and the UK. Note that NSO only exposed the hack when it became aware that it’s role had been exposed by Citizen Lab. The call to Blair was meant to engage in damage control, the equivalent of locking the barn door after the horse has bolted.
Israel Refuses to Permit New NSO Owner to Inspect Company Books
The UK investment firm, Novalpina, lost its role as primary investor in NSO Group after a legal falling-out among the partners. I profiled one of them, Stephen Peel here after he bought a controlling interest in it. Private investors then took control from Novalpina and assigned their management of NSO to a US company tasked with selling their share of NSO to new owners. However, that US company, Berkeley Research Group, has been denied access to NSO and its financial records by the Israeli defense ministry. That means that the US investors, which include the Oregon State Treasury (which invested $200-million) cannot unload their investment and sell it to anyone. This is a material interference in international commerce by Israel authorities, which should concern not only the US investors, but US regulators.
In a separate development, NSO is reported to have facilitated the escape of former Mexican attorney general, Tomas Zeron, to Israel, after he was accused of corruption and sabotaging the investigation into the murders of 43 students. Mexico’s president recently appealed directly to Israeli PM Naftali Bennett to return Zervos to Mexico to face justice. Zerons’s agency was the first Mexican government unit to purchase NSO malware, paying $55-million over the years. Another colorful and notorious figure from the Trump era, Elliot Broidy, sought to muscle in on the deal, but was eventually frozen out of it by a few Israeli dealmakers. The entire purchasing process is now under investigation under suspicion of corruption. Bennett has not responded to the Mexican request. Nor is he likely to unless forced to do so either by Mexico or by further embarrassing revelations about NSO.