Pegasus affair has snowballed from small scandal to major outrage - editorial

Police allegedly illegally used NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to hack into the phones of unsuspecting Israeli citizens.

 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 (photo 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
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

Big Brother has been watching you. 

That is the terrifying conclusion that emerged from Monday’s bombshell Calcalist report on the breadth and scope of the Police’s alleged illegal use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to hack into the phones of unsuspecting Israeli citizens.

While Big Brother may not have been watching you specifically – at least not yet – he was watching a lot of people: from mayors to directors-general of government ministries; from social activists to business people; from journalists to relatives of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

And those are just what we know about at this point. Like Watergate, which started with one small innocuous story and snowballed, the Pegasus scandal – which began last month with a story that the spyware was used locally in a couple of anonymous cases – has now mushroomed to grotesque proportions.

What makes the revelations so terrifying is twofold: First, the Police reportedly hacked into and sucked out the contents of people’s phones without getting any court authorization to do so, as is mandated by law. Second, the people under surveillance were not suspected of any crime.

Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev and Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai attend a ceremony of Israel Police (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev and Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai attend a ceremony of Israel Police (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

It’s as if the Police found itself in possession of a super-powered fishing pole, selected various people who appeared on their radar screen for various reasons, and “went fishing” to see what they could dig up.

That’s scary. That’s undemocratic. That’s intolerable. That’s what they do in a police state.

On Sunday, much of the attention regarding this story was focused on the impact it would have on the Netanyahu trials. By Monday, as a result of the most recent revelations, the story became much bigger than even that.

Now the story is how deep the rot goes and how badly the Israeli system is infected by law enforcement officers who feel they can do whatever they please.

It is painfully obvious now that this has been going on for some time, and was not a one-off occurrence – or, as the police incredibly claimed recently, the result of a “bug.” This was no bug, but rather a monster. The use of Pegasus, and the lies to cover it up, seem to have been systemic.

Two things need to be done immediately. The first is a complete reckoning of how extensive the use of this tool was, who authorized it and who knew about its being employed. If former police commissioners gave it the green light, if officials in the state-attorney’s office knew about its use, if ministers turned a blind eye, then that all needs to be flushed out – and those responsible need to be held accountable.

Second, public confidence in the state’s law enforcement institutions needs to be rebuilt.

When those in charge of enforcing the law are actually breaking it, when those given power to preserve the law brazenly abuse that power to violate it, then a basic part of democracy’s unwritten social contract is violated. This creates a dangerous schism that needs to be bridged immediately.

The first place to start is to establish a state commission of inquiry. Not a weaker government commission of inquiry set up by the minister involved – in this case Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev – but rather a committee established by the government whose members are selected by the Supreme Court president. This is the most serious type of investigative commission at the state’s disposal. It can subpoena witnesses, investigate and recommend further actions against individuals.

Just a month ago, the government established a state commission of inquiry to investigate the procurement of submarines from Germany. Defense Minister Benny Gantz pushed for the establishment of that commission, saying that allegations of bribery and corruption in the purchase of the submarines constituted the worst security scandal in the history of the state.

If such a commission was warranted to investigate the “worst security scandal” in the country’s history, then surely one is needed now to investigate the police’s scandalous use of Big Brother tactics.

Fourteen state commissions of inquiry have been set up since Israel’s establishment, often to calm public outrage – as was the case following the Yom Kippur War, the Sabra and Shatila massacre, and the Rabin Assassination.

Now we are outraged; surely we are not alone.