Congressman leading call against NSO: This is not against Israel

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) said the problem is “not about Israel or NSO per se. It is about what should be done to regulate out-of-control private hacking.”

 Rep. Tom Malinowski speaks at Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, US, March 10, 2021 (photo credit: VIA REUTERS)
Rep. Tom Malinowski speaks at Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, US, March 10, 2021
(photo credit: VIA REUTERS)

The US Department of Commerce’s move to blacklist Israeli cyber company NSO Group was not meant to be against the State of Israel, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) said in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

“This is not directed at Israel,” he said, during a visit to Israel with a bipartisan congressional delegation. “It is directed at a global private industry of hacking for hire.”

Malinowski led the call from Congress for the Biden administration to take action against NSO, following reports in July that its spyware Pegasus was used by authoritarian regimes to target politicians – such as French President Emmanuel Macron and members of his cabinet – as well as activists and journalists around the world.

The Commerce Department announced last week that NSO and another Israeli company, Candiru, acted “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.”

NSO’s exports are strictly licensed by the Defense Ministry, and as such the announcement could be interpreted as a criticism of Israeli policies, though Foreign Minister Yair Lapid pushed back against that view at a press conference on Saturday.

Malinowski said the problem is “not about Israel or NSO per se. It is about what should be done to regulate out-of-control private hacking.”

Israeli officials who met with the congressional delegation mentioned the matter, he added.

 A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN) A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

Malinowski said he had read reports that Israel will try to lobby the US against its decision, but a reversal was “not likely, not gonna happen.”

The congressman said he saw hacking as “a sensitive technology that should be carefully controlled by the US and our democratic allies. It should not be allowed to proliferate more than sensitive missile or sensitive nuclear technologies to countries likely to misuse it.

“That’s not in Israel’s or the US’s interest,” he added.

Like-minded countries should work together to set rules for the industry, Malinowski said, expressing hope that the Department of Commerce decision will send a message to the government of Israel that “we want them to be part of that dialogue.”

Malinowski led a letter with three other members of Congress in July calling to regulate the “hacking for hire” industry.

“Private companies should not be selling sophisticated cyber-intrusion tools on the open market, and the United States should work with its allies to regulate this trade,” Malinowski, Rep. Katie Porter (D-California), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-California) stated. “They should be sanctioned, and if necessary, shut down.... Selling cyber-intrusion technology to governments like Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan and Rwanda based on assurances of responsible use is like selling guns to the mafia and believing they will only be used for target practice.”

The statement specifically called on the US government to “consider the immediate addition of the NSO Group and any other company engaged in similar activities to the Entity List administered by the Commerce Department,” among other actions.

Malinowski addressed the NSO issue on the sidelines of a press conference by the bipartisan and bicameral delegation, led by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware), a close ally of President Joe Biden.

Responding to a question at the press conference about antisemitism broadly, as well as antisemitic remarks made by members of Congress, Malinowski said, “The fundamentally antisemitic idea that Jewish-Americans have dual loyalty has, unfortunately, been expressed by both sides. We say that this is fundamentally bigoted and false.”

Malinowski lamented the spread of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which he said was based on “belief in the blood libel.”

“The good news is that there is an overwhelming bipartisan consensus uniting responsible leaders on both sides that antisemitism is wrong,” he stated.

Coons said at the start of the press conference that “support for Israel in the US Congress remains bipartisan and strong,” and that he supports a two-state solution.

The senator said the delegation discussed a wide range of issues with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, including complimenting him for Israel’s COVID-19 response and discussing ways to cooperate on technology to meet the challenges of climate change.

“We look forward to continued dialogue,” Coons stated.

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada) said that visiting Israel “strengthened what I have known my whole life: Israel is our closest ally in the Middle East. Enhancing bipartisan support for the US-Israel relationship is of paramount importance.”

Rosen called Israel a “beacon of democracy in the world... a progressive nation that supports women’s rights, LGBTQ equality and access to affordable healthcare for all its citizens.

“We must continue our efforts to strengthen the alliance with our long-standing economic and security partnership. That means fulfilling our commitment to replenishing funding for Iron Dome... after this spring’s brutal assault from Hamas rockets,” she added.

Asked about the Biden administration’s aim to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem to serve Palestinians, Coons said it was a decision for the executive branch. However, he said it came up in all of the delegation’s meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

He similarly did not state a position on settlements, saying: “The point of the strong US-Israel relationship is to have these conversations privately, rather than in the press.”