New Delhi: The secret deal between India and Israel for the sale of Pegasus in 2017 was struck at the ‘highest levels’ of each country’s political and intelligence leadership and flowed from the Modi government’s ‘specific interest’ in and ‘specific emphasis’ on acquiring the controversial spyware, Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman told The Wire on Monday.
Bergman, who has spent years covering Israel’s intelligence and military establishment and has followed the NSO Group since its inception in 2007, jointly reported last week’s explosive New York Times story with Mark Mazzetti on Pegasus, which they called the ‘world’s most powerful cyberweapon’. Speaking to The Wire via Zoom from his home in Tel Aviv, he provided some additional details to the NYT’s disclosure that India had purchased the spyware bundled with a $2 billion arms deal with Israel in 2017.
Asked for the specific value of the Pegasus contract India signed in 2017, Bergman said it was in “dozens of millions” and formed only a small part of the $2 billion arms deal inked with Israel in April.
The fee for all Pegasus licenses comes with an upper ceiling for the number of phones that can be monitored simultaneously, and the Indian contract envisages concurrent attacks on up to 50 phones, said Bergman.
In the wake of The Wire‘s extensive reporting in 2021 – as part of the Pegasus Project global media consortium – the Narendra Modi government has so far refused to confirm or deny the purchase and use of Pegasus. Forensic tests by Amnesty International’s Tech Lab revealed the presence of the military grade spyware on the smart phones of several journalists, including two of The Wire‘s founding editors, investigative journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Sushant Singh and the leading opposition strategist Prashant Kishor. Their numbers were part of a leaked database of probable Pegasus targets including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa, former CBI director Alok Verma, and two ministers in the Modi government, Ashwini Vaishnaw and Prahlad Singh Patel.
A committee operating under the guidance of a retired Supreme Court judge is currently in the process of investigating whether the government bought and used Pegasus, and if so then under what legal authority, and is expected to report back to the Supreme Court in the next few weeks.
Against this backdrop, the New York Times‘s revelation has reignited the political debate over the use of Pegasus, with the opposition accusing Prime Minister Modi of treason for subverting democracy through the use of spyware, and misleading parliament.
Citing the need to protect the confidentiality of his sources, Bergman would not answer a direct question about the specific individuals involved in the agreement or which Indian agency or agencies acquired the license.
“There was a specific interest and specific emphasis from the Indian leadership to the Israeli leadership to obtain that specific license,” he said, adding,
“in order for an intelligence agency to buy and then install Pegasus and have an online activation of the system, it needs to be handled by the top authorities in Israel. So the top authorities of the ministry of defence are to sign the license, and it can be done only with permission … of the foreign ministry, and it’s usually done with the direct involvement of the Israeli prime minister and the national security advisor… the overall connection is also with the involvement of the agency in Israel that is in charge of running secret intelligence and political relationships, which is the Mossad.”
“All the different components of [the] Israeli defence establishment,” he emphasised, “and the Indian highest authority but, uh, the Indian intelligence service – have to be involved in the process.”
Bergman, who has written a book about the secret history of Israel’s targeted assassinations, said that Israeli export rules required each customer of Pegasus to sign a one-page end user agreement where they commit to use the spyware only against terrorists and organised crime:
“The end user would sign an end-user certificate that says that the end user takes upon himself – this is between the Israeli ministry of defence and the end user, so, for example, the Indian Bureau of Intelligence – saying that the Bureau of Intelligence has taken upon itself three main commitments, one is to use it only by itself and if giving it to a third party to get a prior written permission from the Israeli ministry of defence, second to use it only against terrorism and organised crime. And when all of that’s signed, only then the license is executed and NSO can sell.”
Asked whether the Israeli MoD’s Defence Export Control Agency, or DECA, considers the use of Pegasus against journalists, politicians and human rights defenders as a violation of India’s end-use agreement, Bergman said DECA and the MoD have been asked rights-related questions many times but never give answers. Even in the case of Saudi Arabia, where the MoD moved to end Riyadh’s access to Pegasus after government agents brutally assassinated dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, access was restored soon after the Saudi crown prince spoke to the Israeli prime minister.
Asked about the specifics of India’s Pegasus contract, Bergman said,
“The way the pricing of the machine that was sold to India works, it has a certain capacity, it has a bandwidth, that is determined in advance… License is the ability to monitor one phone at the concurrent time. And this is told in the – and the Pegasus as far as I know, those [which] were sold to india, were I think between – I don’t know remember what was the exact number – but it’s between 10 and 50. So each one can, it depends on what was decided, can monitor between 10 phones up to 50 phones… Once you go above the quota, then the operator needs to stop monitoring another phone then so to be within the quota.” Courtesy The Wire