Police spyware use shows an alarming ends-justifies-the-means culture - comment

Where do the police get off tapping phones of people not suspected of any concrete wrongdoing? 

ISRAELI CYBER firm NSO Group’s exhibition stand is seen at ISDEF 2019, an international defense and homeland security expo held in Tel Aviv in 2019. (photo credit: KEREN MANOR)
ISRAELI CYBER firm NSO Group’s exhibition stand is seen at ISDEF 2019, an international defense and homeland security expo held in Tel Aviv in 2019.
(photo credit: KEREN MANOR)

On June 17, 1972, burglars broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Office Building in Washington, DC, triggering events that caused a constitutional crisis and led to the resignation of a president.

The burglars were tapping phones looking for intelligence.

Two young Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were put on the story after the burglars were arrested during a second break-in, and then week after week, month after month, revelation followed revelation culminating in president Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Last week, a journalist, Tomer Ganon, wrote a story in the Calcalist describing how Israeli police, using the super-advanced NSO Group Pegasus spyware technology, tapped into the phones of activists and politicians in search of information.

This initial story was followed by a couple of others, including one on Friday that alleged that the police, without permission from the courts, bugged the phones of three mayors, their relatives and associates in search of incriminating information. The decision to hack into the phones was, in some instances, not done because of any proof of wrongdoing, but rather because the chief of police at the time, Roni Alsheikh had a hunch something was amiss.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan announced in September that he would not extend Alsheikh’s term as Israel’s top cop (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan announced in September that he would not extend Alsheikh’s term as Israel’s top cop (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Alsheikh had supreme confidence in his hunches. As Channel 12’s Amit Segal reminded the public on Sunday, Alsheikh said in a television interview in 2018 that he smells liars like he smells coriander.

While arrests were made following the tapping of the mayors’ phones, searches conducted, reputations damaged and lives turned upside down, no indictments were issued. The fishing expedition failed, Alsheikh’s nose let him down.

But if indeed the police, as reported, went searching for incriminating evidence based on an Alsheikh hunch, or – as another Calcalist article reported – they extracted embarrassing information from the phone of a social activist to be used as leverage against him, then this is something that is as worthy of a government committee of inquiry, as the one established Sunday to looking into the procurement of submarines from Germany.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who has been pushing for a committee of inquiry to look at the submarine affairs, said this is necessary to safeguard Israel’s national security. A committee of inquiry into the police’s unauthorized use of spyware against its citizens, however, seems now needed to safeguard Israel’s democracy.

Or, as Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said in the cabinet meeting Sunday where she called for the establishment of just such a committee, the police actions are an “earthquake and a serious blow to democracy.”

She’s right. Where do the police get off tapping phones of people not suspected of any concrete wrongdoing?

So what’s the connection with Watergate? Just as a few seemingly innocuous stories then snowballed into a major scandal that ended Nixon’s presidency, so too the stories in the Calcalist seem on the verge of snowballing into a story that could rock the foundations of the country’s law enforcement establishment.

For what happens if, as some are already claiming, the police used this spyware against some of those implicated in the court cases involving former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

What if some of the information the police used as leverage to get Netanyahu confidants to turn state’s witness against him – Ari Harrow, Shlomo Filber, Nir Hefetz – was procured through illegitimate means?

What if the police learned about gifts to the Netanyahus using this technology? Will those now censuring the police for using Pegasus be as fierce in their criticism of the police if it is revealed that they used this tool in their investigations of Netanyahu?

Alsheikh, under whose tenure the use of Pegasus reportedly flourished, was the police commissioner leading the investigations into Netanyahu. If he allegedly used questionable methods to go after heads of local authorities, is it that much of a stretch to think he used the same methods to go after Netanyahu?

The Netanyahu trial has already uncovered very problematic lengths to which the police are willing to go to extract information from witnesses, or get them to turn state witnesses. Former Netanyahu spokesman and top aid Hefetz’s testimony in November is a case in point.

Facing cross-examination on the witness stand, Hefetz gave harrowing testimony about police tactics used to get him to turn state witness. The interrogation methods were “draconian,” he said, and the pressure reached “monstrous proportions.”

On the physical side, this included sleep deprivation, lack of food, failure to receive medical treatment and unsanitary conditions.

On the emotional side, he testified that he was threatened over and over that information would come to light that would bring about his financial ruin, destroy his family and make it so that neither his children nor wife would ever want to see him again

Hefetz’s testimony pointed to a situation where in the mind of the interrogators, the ends – getting Netanyahu – justified all means, included allegedly riding roughshod over what is permitted in interrogations and destroying a man’s family.

The Calcalist stories, if true, reveal a similar mindset, and – taken together with the Netanyahu cases – expose an alarming end-justifies-the means culture in law enforcement that must be reined in.