The researchers who reported that Israeli software was used to spy on Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s inner circle before his gruesome death are being targeted in turn by international undercover operatives, The Associated Press has found.
Twice in the past two months, men masquerading as socially conscious investors have lured members of the Citizen Lab internet watchdog group to meetings at luxury hotels to quiz them for hours about their work exposing Israeli surveillance and the details of their personal lives. In both cases, the researchers believe they were secretly recorded.
Citizen Lab Director Ron Deibert described the stunts as “a new low.”
“We condemn these sinister, underhanded activities in the strongest possible terms,” he said in a statement Friday. “Such a deceitful attack on an academic group like the Citizen Lab is an attack on academic freedom everywhere.”…
The first message reached Bahr Abdul Razzak, a Syrian refugee who works as a Citizen Lab researcher, Dec. 6, when a man calling himself Gary Bowman got in touch via LinkedIn. The man described himself as a South African financial technology executive based in Madrid.
“I came across your profile and think that the work you’ve done helping Syrian refugees and your extensive technical background could be a great fit for our new initiative,” Bowman wrote.
Abdul Razzak said he thought the proposal was a bit odd, but he eventually agreed to meet the man at Toronto’s swanky Shangri-La Hotel on the morning of Dec. 18.
The conversation got weird very quickly, Abdul Razzak said.
Instead of talking about refugees, Abdul Razzak said, Bowman grilled him about his work for Citizen Lab and its investigations into the use of NSO’s software…
Abdul Razzak recalled Bowman asking. “Why do you write only about NSO?” ”Do you write about it because it’s an Israeli company?” ”Do you hate Israel?”
Abdul Razzak said he emerged from the meeting feeling shaken. He alerted his Citizen Lab colleagues, who quickly determined that the breakfast get-together had been a ruse. Bowman’s supposed Madrid-based company, FlameTech, had no web presence beyond a LinkedIn page, a handful of social media profiles and an entry in the business information platform Crunchbase. A reverse image search revealed that the profile picture of the man listed as FlameTech’s chief executive, Mauricio Alonso, was a stock photograph.
“My immediate gut feeling was: ‘This is a fake,’” said John Scott-Railton, one of Abdul Razzak’s colleagues…
Like Bowman, Lambert appeared to be working off cue cards and occasionally made awkward conversational gambits. At one point he repeated a racist French expression, insisting it wasn’t offensive. He also asked Scott-Railton questions about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and whether he grew up with any Jewish friends. At another point he asked whether there might not be a “racist element” to Citizen Lab’s interest in Israeli spyware.
After dessert arrived, the AP reporters approached Lambert at his table and asked him why his company didn’t seem to exist.
He seemed to stiffen.
“I know what I’m doing,” Lambert said, as he put his files — and his pen — into a bag. Then he stood up, bumped into a chair and walked off, saying “Ciao” and waving his hand, before returning because he had neglected to pay the bill.
As he paced around the restaurant waiting for the check, Lambert refused to answer questions about who he worked for or why no trace of his firm could be found.
“I don’t have to give you any explanation,” he said. He eventually retreated to a back room and closed the door.
Who Lambert and Bowman really are isn’t clear. Neither man returned emails or phone calls. The websites for both of their supposed companies went offline within hours of the publication of this article, and chunks of information, including the men’s last names, were removed from their respective LinkedIn profiles…
The kind of aggressive investigative tactics used by the mystery men who targeted Citizen Lab have come under fire in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal. Black Cube, an Israeli private investigation firm, apologized after The New Yorker and other media outlets revealed that the company’s operatives had used subterfuge and dirty tricks to help the Hollywood mogul suppress allegations of rape and sexual assault.
Scott-Railton and Abdul Razzak said they didn’t want to speculate about who was involved. But both said they believed they were being steered toward making controversial comments that could be used to blacken Citizen Lab’s reputation.
“It could be they wanted me to say, ‘Yes, I hate Israel,’ or ‘Yes, Citizen Lab is against NSO because it’s Israeli,’” said Abdul Razzak.
Scott-Railton said the elaborate, multinational operation was gratifying, in a way.
“People were paid to fly to a city to sit you down to an expensive meal and try to convince you to say bad things about your work, your colleagues and your employer,” he said.
“That means that your work is important.”