Private Mossad for Hire
One evening in 2016, a twenty-five-year-old community-college student named Alex Gutiérrez was waiting tables at La Piazza Ristorante Italiano, an upscale restaurant in Tulare, in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Gutiérrez spotted Yorai Benzeevi, a physician who ran the local hospital, sitting at a table with Parmod Kumar, a member of the hospital board. They seemed to be in a celebratory mood, drinking expensive bottles of wine and laughing. This irritated Gutiérrez. The kingpins, he thought with disgust.
Gutiérrez had recently joined a Tulare organization called Citizens for Hospital Accountability. The group had accused Benzeevi of enriching himself at the expense of the cash-strapped hospital, which subsequently declared bankruptcy. (Benzeevi’s lawyers said that all his actions were authorized by his company’s contract with the facility.) According to court documents, the contract was extremely lucrative for Benzeevi; in a 2014 e-mail to his accountant, he estimated that his hospital business could generate nine million dollars in annual revenue, on top of his management fee of two hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars a month. (In Tulare, the median household income was about forty-five thousand dollars a year.) The citizens’ group had drawn up an ambitious plan to get rid of Benzeevi by rooting out his allies on the hospital board. As 2016 came to a close, the group was pushing for a special election to unseat Kumar; if he were voted out, a majority of the board could rescind Benzeevi’s contract.
Gutiérrez, a political-science major, was a leader of the Young Democrats Club at the College of the Sequoias, and during the 2016 Presidential campaign he attended a rally for Bernie Sanders. Gutiérrez grew up watching his father, a dairyman, work twelve-hour shifts, six days a week, and Sanders’s message about corporate greed, income inequality, and the ills of America’s for-profit health-care system resonated with him. Seeing Benzeevi and Kumar enjoying themselves at La Piazza inflamed Gutiérrez’s sense of injustice. He spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s knocking on doors and asking neighbors to sign a petition for a recall vote, which ultimately garnered more than eleven hundred signatures. Gutiérrez later asked his mother, Senovia, if she would run for Kumar’s seat; the citizens’ group thought that Senovia, an immigrant and a social worker, would be an appealing candidate in a community that is around sixty per cent Hispanic.
The recall was a clear threat to Benzeevi’s hospital-management business, and he consulted a law firm in Washington, D.C., about mounting a campaign to save Kumar’s seat. An adviser there referred him to Psy-Group, an Israeli private intelligence company. Psy-Group’s slogan was “Shape Reality,” and its techniques included the use of elaborate false identities to manipulate its targets. Psy-Group was part of a new wave of private intelligence firms that recruited from the ranks of Israel’s secret services—self-described “private Mossads.” The most aggressive of these firms seemed willing to do just about anything for their clients.
Psy-Group stood out from many of its rivals because it didn’t just gather intelligence; it specialized in covertly spreading messages to influence what people believed and how they behaved. Its operatives took advantage of technological innovations and lax governmental oversight. “Social media allows you to reach virtually anyone and to play with their minds,” Uzi Shaya, a former senior Israeli intelligence officer, said. “You can do whatever you want. You can be whoever you want. It’s a place where wars are fought, elections are won, and terror is promoted. There are no regulations. It is a no man’s land.”
In recent years, Psy-Group has conceived of a variety of elaborate covert operations. In Amsterdam, the firm prepared a report on a religious sect called the Brunstad Christian Church, whose Norwegian leader, Psy-Group noted, claimed to have written “a more important book than the New Testament.” In Gabon, Psy-Group pitched “Operation Bentley”—an effort to “preserve” President Ali Bongo Ondimba’s hold on power by collecting and disseminating intelligence about his main political rival. (It’s unclear whether or not the operations in Amsterdam and Gabon were carried out. A spokesperson for Brunstad said that it was “plainly ridiculous” that the church considered “any book” to be more important than the Bible. Ondimba’s representatives could not be reached for comment.) In another project, targeting the South African billionaire heirs of an apartheid-era skin-lightening company, Psy-Group secretly recorded family members of the heirs describing them as greedy and, in one case, as a “piece of shit.” In New York, Psy-Group mounted a campaign on behalf of wealthy Jewish-American donors to embarrass and intimidate activists on American college campuses who support a movement to put economic pressure on Israel because of its treatment of the Palestinians.
Psy-Group’s larger ambition was to break into the U.S. election market. During the 2016 Presidential race, the company pitched members of Donald Trump’s campaign team on its ability to influence the results. Psy-Group’s owner, Joel Zamel, even asked Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, to offer Zamel’s services to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. The effort to drum up business included brash claims about the company’s skills in online deception. The posturing was intended to attract clients—but it also attracted the attention of the F.B.I. Robert Mueller, the special counsel, has been examining the firm’s activities as part of his investigation into Russian election interference and other matters.
Psy-Group’s talks with Benzeevi, after the 2016 election, spurred the company to draw up a plan for developing more business at the state and local levels. No election was too small. One company document reported that Psy-Group’s influence services cost, on average, just three hundred and fifty thousand dollars—as little as two hundred and seventy-five dollars an hour. The new strategy called for pitching more than fifty individuals and groups, including the Republican National Committee, the Democratic National Committee, and major super pacs. The firm published a provocative brochure featuring an image of a goldfish with a shark fin tied to its back, below the tagline “Reality is a matter of perception.” Another brochure showed a cat that cast a lion’s shadow and listed “honey traps” among the firm’s services. (In the espionage world, a honey trap often involves deploying a sexually attractive operative to induce a target to provide information.)
Psy-Group put together a proposal for Benzeevi, promising “a coordinated intelligence operation and influence campaign” in Tulare to preserve Kumar’s seat on the hospital board. Operatives would use fake identities to “uncover and deliver actionable intelligence” on members of the community who appeared to be leading the recall effort, and would use unattributed Web sites to mount a “negative campaign” targeting “the opposition candidate.” All these activities, the proposal assured, would appear to be part of a “grass roots” movement in Tulare. The operation was code-named Project Mockingjay, a reference to a fictional bird in the “Hunger Games” novels, known for its ability to mimic human sounds.
The modern market for private intelligence dates back to the nineteen-seventies, when a former prosecutor named Jules Kroll began hiring police detectives, F.B.I. and Treasury agents, and forensic accountants to conduct detective work on behalf of corporations, law and accounting firms, and other clients. The company, which became known as Kroll, Inc., also recruited a small number of former C.I.A. officers, but rarely advertised these hires—Kroll knew that associating too closely with the C.I.A. could endanger employees in countries where the spy agency was viewed with contempt.
In the two-thousands, Israeli versions of Kroll entered the market. These companies had a unique advantage: few countries produce more highly trained and war-tested intelligence professionals, as a proportion of the population, than Israel. Conscription in Israel is mandatory for most citizens, and top intelligence units often identify talented recruits while they are in high school. These soldiers undergo intensive training in a range of language and technical skills. After a few years of government service, most are discharged, at which point many finish their educations and enter the civilian job market. Gadi Aviran was one of the pioneers of the private Israeli intelligence industry. “There was this huge pipeline of talent coming out of the military every year,” Aviran, who founded the intelligence firm Terrogence, said. “All a company like mine had to do was stand at the gate and say, ‘You look interesting.’ ”
Aviran was formerly the head of an Israeli military intelligence research team, where he supervised analysts who, looking for terrorist threats, reviewed data vacuumed up from telephone communications and from the Internet. The process, Aviran said, was like “looking at a flowing river and trying to see if there was anything interesting passing by.” The system was generally effective at analyzing attacks after they occurred, but wasn’t as good at providing advance warning.
Aviran began to think about a more targeted approach. Spies, private investigators, criminals, and even some journalists have long used false identities to trick people into providing information, a practice known as pretexting. The Internet made pretexting easier. Aviran thought that fake online personae, known as avatars, could be used to spy on terrorist groups and to head off planned attacks. In 2004, he started Terrogence, which became the first major Israeli company to demonstrate the effectiveness of avatars in counterterrorism work.
When Terrogence launched, many suspected jihadi groups communicated through members-only online forums run by designated administrators. To get past these gatekeepers, Terrogence’s operatives gave their avatars legends, or backstories—often as Arab students at European universities. As the avatars proliferated, their operators joked that the most valuable online chat rooms were now entirely populated by avatars, who were, inadvertently, collecting information from one another.
Aviran tried to keep Terrogence focussed on its core mission—counterterrorism—but some government clients offered the company substantial contracts to move in other directions. “It’s a slippery slope,” Aviran said, insisting that it was a path he resisted. “You start with one thing and suddenly you think, Wait, wait, I can do this. Then somebody asks if you can do something else. And you say, ‘Well, it’s risky but the money is good, so let’s give it a try.’ ”
Terrogence’s success spawned imitators, and other former intelligence officers began to open their own firms, many of them less risk-averse than Terrogence. One of the boldest, Black Cube, openly advertised its ties to Israeli spy agencies, including Mossad and Unit 8200, the military’s signals-intelligence corps. Black Cube got its start with the help of Vincent Tchenguiz, an Iranian-born English real-estate tycoon who had invested in Terrogence. In March, 2011, Tchenguiz was arrested by a British anti-fraud unit investigating his business dealings. (The office later dropped the investigation and paid him a settlement.) He asked Meir Dagan, who had just stepped down as the director of Mossad, how he could draw on the expertise of former intelligence officers to look into the business rivals he believed had alerted authorities. Dagan’s message to Tchenguiz, a former colleague of Dagan’s said, was: I can find a personal Mossad for you. (Dagan died in 2016.) Tchenguiz became Black Cube’s first significant client.
In some respects, Psy-Group emerged more directly from Terrogence. In 2008, Aviran hired an Israel Defense Forces intelligence officer named Royi Burstien to be the vice-president of business development. Social networks such as Facebook—whose profiles featured photographs and other personal information—were becoming popular, and Terrogence’s avatars had become more sophisticated to avoid detection. Burstien urged Aviran to consider using the avatars in more aggressive ways, and on behalf of a wider range of commercial clients. Aviran was wary. After less than a year at Terrogence, Burstien returned to Israel’s military intelligence, and joined an élite unit that specialized in PsyOps, or psychological operations.
In the following years, some of Burstien’s ambitions were being fulfilled elsewhere. Russia’s intelligence services had begun using a variety of tools—including hacking, cyber weapons, online aliases, and Web sites that spread fake news—to conduct information warfare and to sow discord in neighboring countries. In the late two-thousands, the Russians targeted Estonia and Georgia. In 2014, they hit Ukraine. Later that year, Burstien founded Psy-Group, which, like Black Cube, used avatars to conduct intelligence-collection operations. But Burstien also offered his avatars for another purpose: influence campaigns, similar to those mounted by Russia. Burstien boasted that Psy-Group’s so-called “deep” avatars were so convincing that they were capable of planting the seeds of ideas in people’s heads.
Tulare seemed an unlikely target for an influence campaign. The town took its name from a lake that, in 1773, was christened by a Spanish commandant as Los Tules, for the tule reeds that grew along the shore. The town was later memorialized in a song, “Ghost of Bardsley Road,” about a headless spectre who rode a white Honda motorcycle.
Today, the city is home to just over sixty thousand people. The county leads the nation in dairy production. In the summer months, dry winds churn up so much dust that many residents suffer from what’s known as valley fever, a fungal infection that causes flulike symptoms. Not long ago, when wildfires were raging across California, winds pushed the smoke into Tulare, leaving an acrid smell in the air.
Citizens for Hospital Accountability began as a simple Facebook page. At first, the group’s leaders hoped that Alex Gutiérrez would run for Kumar’s seat, but he was planning to stand for a position on the city council. Senovia was the backup choice. She had grown up as the youngest of twelve children, in the central Mexican state of Aguascalientes. Her parents were impoverished farmers who cultivated corn and beans until a drought forced them to abandon their land. She started working full time when she was sixteen; when she was twenty-four, she crossed the border at Tijuana to join her boyfriend, Miguel Gutiérrez, who was living in Los Angeles. They married and, two years later, moved to Tulare, where Senovia raised five boys and supplemented the family’s income by working part time as a housekeeper. When she was thirty-five, she got her high-school diploma, then attended community college and went on to earn a B.A. at California State University, Fresno. In 2015, she became an American citizen and completed a master’s degree in social work.
Alex doubted whether his mother would agree to enter the race. She had never shown much interest in politics. “Growing up as immigrants, parents know what’s happening, but, aside from voting, they don’t really want to get involved,” he said. Over family dinners in Senovia’s three-bedroom home, Alex told her stories about the “corruption and mismanagement” that he said was hurting the hospital. “I will happily do it because you’re so involved,” Senovia told him.
Hospital-board races are usually small-time affairs. One former member of the Tulare board said that her campaign had cost just a hundred and fifty dollars, which she used to buy signs and cards that she handed out door-to-door. In the recall, which had been set for July 11, 2017, voter turnout was expected to be fewer than fifteen hundred people. Still, Alex decided to take a break from college and serve as his mother’s campaign manager. He suspected that the race would be bitterly contested, and expensive. He calculated that ten thousand dollars should cover the costs. To help, Citizens for Hospital Accountability hosted a fund-raiser on Cinco de Mayo. The invitation featured a photograph of Senovia in a pink dress, surrounded by her husband and five children, standing in front of a mural depicting the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.
Senovia was nervous about her first big campaign event, which was held in an orchard, where guests ate handmade tacos. Tulare County is largely Republican; Trump won it with fifty-three per cent of the vote in 2016, and the district’s representative in the House, Devin Nunes, has spearheaded efforts to counter the Russia investigation. But the hospital board was a crossover issue. One of Senovia’s supporters, a dairyman of Portuguese descent, pulled Alex aside at the fund-raiser to tell him that Senovia’s “classy” appearance and her foreign accent somehow reminded him of Melania Trump, whose husband he had supported in the 2016 election. (Alex, a Bernie Sanders fan, laughed and suggested that this might not be an apt comparison.)
After giving a speech, Senovia told Alex that she was pleased that the event had been held on Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the Mexican Army’s victory over France in the Battle of Puebla. “The French could not believe they were defeated by Mexico,” Senovia told her son. “I am going to beat Kumar, and he won’t be able to believe that a Mexican woman defeated him.”
But Benzeevi wasn’t going to let his opponents win without putting up a fight. While Alex and Senovia were soliciting small donations from neighbors, Benzeevi got on a plane to Israel to meet with Psy-Group.
Psy-Group operated out of a nondescript building in a commercial area about twenty minutes outside Tel Aviv. Its offices were on the fourth floor, behind an unmarked door. Employees used key cards to enter, and yet, for a private intelligence firm, security was comically lax, particularly between noon and 2 p.m., when men carrying motorcycle helmets raced in and out, delivering lunch. Clients were escorted through a communal room, which had a big-screen TV facing a large, listing couch, where twentysomethings in faded jeans and T-shirts spent their breaks playing Mortal Kombat and fifa 17.
Burstien tried to position Psy-Group as a more responsible alternative to Black Cube, which was known for a willingness to break the rules. “I’m not saying we’re good guys or bad guys,” Burstien said in one meeting. “It’s not black or white. The gray has so many shades.” In 2016, Romanian police arrested two Black Cube operatives for illegal hacking and harassment of the country’s leading anticorruption officer. (The pair pleaded guilty and received probation.) Psy-Group tried to capitalize on Black Cube’s legal troubles. Burstien reassured prospective clients that lawyers vetted everything the company’s operatives did. Former company officials said that Psy-Group didn’t hack or appropriate the identities of real people for its avatars. It clandestinely recorded conversations, but never in jurisdictions that required “two-party” consent, which would have made the practice illegal.
The company’s claims of legal legitimacy, however, skirted the fact that regulations haven’t kept pace with advances in technology. “What are the regulations? What’s the law?” Tamir Pardo, who was the director of Mossad from 2011 to 2016, said. “There are no laws. There are no regulations. That’s the main problem. You can do almost whatever you want.”
Psy-Group went to great lengths to disguise its activities. Employees were occasionally instructed to go to libraries or Internet cafés, where they could use so-called “white” computers, which could not be traced back to the firm. They created dummy Gmail accounts, often employed for one assignment and then discarded. For particularly sensitive operations, Psy-Group created fake front companies and avatars who purported to work there, and then hired real outside contractors who weren’t told that they were doing the bidding of Psy-Group’s clients. Psy-Group operatives sometimes paid the local contractors in cash.
In one meeting, Burstien said that, before a parliamentary election in a European country, his operatives had created a sham think tank. Using avatars, the operatives hired local analysts to work for the think tank, which then disseminated reports to bolster the political campaign of the company’s client and to undermine the reputations of his rivals. In another meeting, Psy-Group officials said that they had created an avatar to help a corporate client win regulatory approval in Europe. Over time, the avatar became so well established in the industry that he was quoted in mainstream press reports and even by European parliamentarians. “It’s got to look legit,” a former Psy-Group employee said, of Burstien’s strategy.
Most Psy-Group employees knew little or nothing about the company’s owner, Joel Zamel. According to corporate documents filed in Cyprus, he was born in Australia in 1986. Zamel later moved to Israel, where he earned a master’s degree in government, diplomacy, and strategy, with a specialization in counterterrorism and homeland security. Zamel’s father had made a fortune in the mining business, and Zamel was a skilled networker. He cultivated relationships with high-profile Republicans in the U.S., including Newt Gingrich and Elliott Abrams, who served in foreign-policy positions under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and whom Psy-Group listed as a member of its advisory board. (The Trump Administration recently named Abrams its special envoy to oversee U.S. policy toward Venezuela.) Documents show that Zamel was a director of a Cyprus-based company called ioco, which controlled Psy-Group. (Zamel’s lawyers and Burstien declined to say how much of an ownership stake Zamel held in ioco, or to identify who else provided funding for the venture.) Using Cyprus as a front made it easier for Psy-Group to sell its services in Arab states that don’t work overtly with Israeli companies.
Initially, Psy-Group hoped to make money by investigating jihadi networks, much as Terrogence did. In an early test of concept, a Psy-Group operative created a Facebook account for an avatar named Madison. Burstien’s idea was to use Madison as a virtual honey trap. The avatar’s Facebook page depicted Madison as an average American teen-ager from a Christian family in Chicago. She was a fan of Justin Bieber, and after graduating from high school she took a job at a souvenir shop. She posted Facebook messages about religion and expressed interest in learning more about Islam. Eventually, a Facebook member from Casablanca introduced Madison online to two imams at Moroccan mosques, one of whom offered to guide her through the process of becoming a Muslim.
Madison’s conversion was conducted through Skype. The call required a female Psy-Group employee to bring Madison to life briefly and chant the Shahada, a profession of faith, from a desk in the company’s offices. “Finally! I’m a Muslim,” Madison wrote on Facebook. “I feel at home.” She added a smiley-face emoticon.
After her conversion, Madison began to come into contact with Facebook members who espoused more radical beliefs. One of her new friends was an isisfighter in Raqqa, Syria, who encouraged her to become an isis bride. At that point, Burstien decided to end the operation, which, he felt, had demonstrated the company’s ability to create convincing “deep” avatars. Not long afterward, he sent representatives to pitch State Department officials on an influence campaign, “modeled on the successful ‘Madison’ engagement,” that would “interrupt the radicalization and recruitment chain.” The State Department never acted on the proposal.
Psy-Group had more success pitching an operation, code-named Project Butterfly, to wealthy Jewish-American donors. The operation targeted what Psy-Group described as “anti-Israel” activists on American college campuses who supported the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, known as B.D.S. Supporters of B.D.S. see the movement as a way to use nonviolent protest to pressure Israel about its treatment of the Palestinians; detractors say that B.D.S. wrongly singles out Israel as a human-rights offender. B.D.S. is anathema to many ardent supporters of the Israeli government.
In early meetings with donors, in New York, Burstien said that the key to mounting an effective anti-B.D.S. campaign was to make it look as though Israel, and the Jewish-American community, had nothing to do with the effort. The goal of Butterfly, according to a 2017 company document, was to “destabilize and disrupt anti-Israel movements from within.” Psy-Group operatives scoured the Internet, social-media accounts, and the “deep” Web—areas of the Internet not indexed by search engines like Google—for derogatory information about B.D.S. activists. If a student claimed to be a pious Muslim, for example, Psy-Group operatives would look for photographs of him engaging in behavior unacceptable to many pious Muslims, such as drinking alcohol or having an affair. Psy-Group would then release the information online using avatars and Web sites that couldn’t be traced back to the company or its donors.
Project Butterfly launched in February, 2016, and Psy-Group asked donors for $2.5 million for operations in 2017. Supporters were told that they were “investing in Israel’s future.” In some cases, a former company employee said, donors asked Psy-Group to target B.D.S. activists at universities where their sons and daughters studied.
The project would focus on as many as ten college campuses. According to an update sent to donors in May, 2017, Psy-Group conducted two “tours of the main theatre of action,” and met with the campaign’s outside “partners,” which it did not name. Psy-Group employees had recently travelled to Washington to visit officials at a think tank called the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which had shared some of its research on the B.D.S. movement. In a follow-up meeting, which was attended by Burstien, Psy-Group provided F.D.D. with a confidential memo describing how it had compiled dossiers on nine activists, including a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. In the memo, Psy-Group asked the foundation for guidance on identifying future targets. According to an F.D.D. official, the foundation “did not end up contracting with them, and their research did little to advance our own.”
Burstien recruited Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy director of Mossad, to help with the project. As the director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, from 2014 to 2016, Ben-Barak had drawn up a plan for the state to combat the B.D.S. movement, but it was never implemented. Ben-Barak was enthusiastic about Butterfly. He said that the fight against B.D.S. was like “a war.” In the case of B.D.S. activists, he said, “you don’t kill them but you do have to deal with them in other ways.”
Yaakov Amidror, a former national-security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also became an adviser to Psy-Group on Butterfly. Before accepting the position, Amidror said recently, he spoke to Daniel Reisner, Psy-Group’s outside counsel, who had advised five Israeli Prime Ministers, including Netanyahu. “Danny, is it legal?” Amidror recalled asking. Reisner responded that it was. While active Israeli intelligence operatives aren’t supposed to spy on the United States, Amidror said, he saw nothing improper about former Israeli intelligence officers conducting operations against American college students. “If it’s legal, I don’t see any problem,” Amidror said with a shrug. “If people are ready to finance it, it is O.K. with me.”
On April 22, 2017, Benzeevi arrived in Tel Aviv. He checked into the Dan Hotel, across from the city’s seafront promenade. At the start of his first full day in Israel, he was greeted by a “Welcome home!” e-mail from Scott Mortman, a former lawyer who managed Psy-Group’s American clients. The e-mail described their schedule for the day. At lunch, Mortman would give Benzeevi a briefing on Psy-Group’s offerings. Then Benzeevi would meet with Burstien, who would walk him through the company’s proposed campaign to keep Kumar on the hospital board. Burstien and Mortman were a well-practiced tag team. “Royi would give his ‘cloak and dagger’ spiel and then Scott would come on and give his ‘Boy Scout’ spiel, which is ‘What we’re doing is completely legal,’ ” a former colleague said.
Benzeevi had already received a draft of Psy-Group’s battle plan, contained in an e-mail that was password-protected and marked “privileged & confidential.” The proposal assured Benzeevi that Psy-Group’s activities would be “fully disconnected” from him and his hospital-management company.
To close the deal, Burstien called in Ram Ben-Barak, one of his biggest hired guns. Lanky and charismatic, Ben-Barak looked like someone from Mossad central casting. A former company employee said that Benzeevi “appeared to like the idea that someone from Mossad would be on his side.” Before Benzeevi flew back to California, he was given the number of a bank account where he could wire Psy-Group the fee for the Tulare campaign—two hundred and thirty thousand dollars. On May 8th, just days after Senovia’s Cinco de Mayo party, Benzeevi’s company sent the first of three payments, which was routed to a bank in Zurich. The project was set in motion, and its code name was changed from Mockingjay to Katniss, a reference to Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist in the “Hunger Games” novels.
A hospital-board election in central California wasn’t exactly what Burstien had in mind when he set out to establish Psy-Group in the U.S. election market. In early 2016, as the Presidential race was heating up, he and Zamel both tried to pitch much bigger players. Being hired by one of the main campaigns initially seemed like a long shot for an obscure new company whose services sounded risky, if not illegal. Lawyers at firms in New York and Washington expressed curiosity about Psy-Group, but most were too cautious to sign contracts with the company.
The Trump campaign, however, presented an opportunity. Early in 2016, a Republican consultant with ties to the Israeli government put Psy-Group in touch with Rick Gates, a senior Trump campaign official. Eager to secure a potentially lucrative project, Burstien drew up plans for an intelligence and influence campaign to promote Trump and undermine his rivals, first in the Republican primary and then in the general election. In the proposal, dubbed Project Rome, which was first reported on by the Times, last October, Psy-Group used code names for the candidates: Trump was Lion, and Hillary Clinton was Forest. Psy-Group also hired the Washington law firm Covington & Burling to conduct a legal review of its work. Former Psy-Group officials said that the resulting memo gave a green light to begin offering the company’s services in the U.S. (A spokesperson for Covington & Burling said that the firm could not discuss its advice to clients.)
Zamel often operated independently of Burstien, and it’s unclear how closely the two coördinated, but both saw the Trump campaign as a potential client. Trump’s vocal support for Israel and his hard-line views on Iran appealed to Zamel, and he reached out to Trump’s inner circle. In early May, 2016, Zamel sent an e-mail to Gingrich, saying that he could provide the Trump campaign with powerful tools that would use social media to advance Trump’s chances. Zamel suggested a meeting in Washington to discuss the matter further. Gingrich forwarded the e-mail to Jared Kushner and asked if the campaign would be interested. Kushner checked with others on the campaign, including Brad Parscale, who ran Web operations. According to a person familiar with the exchange, Parscale told Kushner that they didn’t need Zamel’s help. (A 2016 campaign official said, “We didn’t use their services.”)
Also that spring, Zamel was introduced to George Nader, a Lebanese-American with ties to the Emirati leader Mohammed bin Zayed and other powerful figures in the Gulf. Born in 1959, Nader was almost twice Zamel’s age. Both men preferred to operate behind the scenes, but were consummate networkers who touted their connections to high-level political figures. Some viewed Nader as an influence peddler; others said that he had been intimately involved in high-stakes negotiations in the Middle East for decades. Martin Indyk, an adviser to Presidents Clinton and Obama on Middle Eastern affairs and now a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “We used to joke that George was in the pay of at least three intelligence services—the Syrian, the Israeli, and the Iranian.”
In June, 2016, Nader was attending an international economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, when Zamel approached him and requested a meeting. According to a representative for Nader, Zamel told Nader that he was trying to raise money for a social-media campaign in support of Trump; he thought that Nader’s Gulf contacts might be interested in contributing financially. Nader listened to Zamel’s pitch but didn’t make any commitments, according to the Nader representative. (Zamel’s representatives denied that he spoke to Nader in St. Petersburg about trying to help Trump.)
Zamel had another opportunity to pitch his services in early August, 2016, when Erik Prince, the founder of the Blackwater security firm, helped arrange a meeting at Trump Tower among Zamel, Nader, and Donald Trump, Jr. (Prince, whose sister Betsy DeVos became Trump’s Education Secretary, was a major Trump donor and had access to members of his team.) In the meeting, Zamel told Trump, Jr., that he supported his father’s campaign, and talked about Psy-Group’s influence operations. (Zamel’s lawyer, Marc Mukasey, played down the encounter, insisting that Zamel made no formal proposals during the meeting.)
Burstien said that his talks with the Trump campaign went nowhere; a representative for Zamel denied that his client engaged in any activity having to do with the election. But, according to the Nader representative, shortly after the election Zamel bragged to Nader that he had conducted a secret campaign that had been influential in Trump’s victory. Zamel agreed to brief Nader on how the operation had worked. During that conversation, Zamel showed Nader several analytical reports, including one that described the role of avatars, bots, fake news, and unattributed Web sites in assisting Trump. Zamel told Nader, “Here’s the work that we did to help get Trump elected,” according to the Nader representative. Nader paid Zamel more than two million dollars, but never received copies of the reports, that person said.
A representative for Zamel denied that he told Nader that he or any of his operatives had intervened to help Trump during the 2016 election. If Nader came away with that impression, the representative said, he was mistaken. “Nader may have paid Zamel not knowing when, how, or why the report was created, but he wanted to use it to gain access and new business,” the representative said. “In fact, it used publicly available material to show how social media—in general—was used in connection with the campaign.”
Information warfare is as old as warfare itself. In “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu declared that “all warfare is based on deception.” In modern times, both Soviet intelligence and its American counterpart used disinformation as a tool of persuasion and a weapon to destabilize the other side. Long before the advent of social media, Moscow concocted fantastical rumors that the aidsvirus had been manufactured by American government scientists as a biological weapon. The C.I.A. supported the publication of underground books in the Soviet Union by such authors as Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a ploy that the agency knew would enrage the Kremlin leadership and deepen anti-Soviet sentiment among dissident circles inside the country.
In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. government convinced itself that it was now free of many of the challenges it faced during the Cold War, and its interest in information warfare faded. The military’s special forces stepped into the information-warfare void. “We knew we needed to operate in this space,” Austin Branch, who specialized in PsyOps, said. “It was the information age. We didn’t have a road map.” Branch became one of the military’s first “information operations” officers, in the early nineties. He and other specialists created experimental Web sites aimed at readers in Central Europe and North Africa. The sites were designed to look like independent news sources; the U.S. military’s role was revealed only to readers who clicked deeper. “We didn’t hide who it was from, but we didn’t make it easy to find,” a former military official who specialized in psychological operations said.
U.S. leaders were generally skeptical about the effectiveness of these kinds of operations. They also worried that the open flow of information on the Internet would make it difficult, if not impossible, to insure that misinformation disseminated by the United States wouldn’t inadvertently “blow back” and reach Americans, in violation of U.S. law. The result, according to retired Army Colonel Mike Lwin, who served as the top military adviser to Pentagon leaders on information operations from 2014 to 2018, was that a cautious approach to information warfare prevailed in Washington.
Russian military and intelligence agencies, on the other hand, didn’t see information warfare as a sideshow. They invested in cyber weapons capable of paralyzing critical infrastructure, from utilities to banks, and refined the use of fake personae and fake news to fuel political and ethnic discord abroad. “We underestimated how significant it was,” Lwin said, of these online influence operations. “We didn’t appreciate it—until it was in our face.”
The 2016 election changed the calculus. In the U.S., investigators pieced together how Russian operatives had carried out a scheme to promote their preferred candidate and to stoke divisions within U.S. society. Senior Israeli officials, like their American counterparts, had been dubious about the effectiveness of influence campaigns. Russia’s operation in the U.S. convinced Tamir Pardo, the former Mossad director, and others in Israel that they, too, had misjudged the threat. “It was the biggest Russian win ever. Without shooting one bullet, American society was torn apart,” Pardo said. “This is a weapon. We should find a way to control it, because it’s a ticking bomb. Otherwise, democracy is in trouble.”
Some of Pardo’s former colleagues took a more mercenary approach. Russia had shown the world that information warfare worked, and they saw a business opportunity. In early 2017, as Trump took office, interest in Psy-Group’s services seemed to increase. Law firms, one former employee said, asked Psy-Group to “come back in and tell us again what you are doing, because we see this ability to affect decisions that we weren’t fully aware of.” Another former Psy-Group employee put it more bluntly: “The Trump campaign won this way. If the fucking President is doing it, why not us?”
To capitalize on this newfound interest, Burstien started making the rounds in Washington with a new PowerPoint presentation, which some Psy-Group employees called the “If we had done it” slide deck, and which appeared similar to the one that Nader saw. Titled “Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential Campaign—Analysis,” the presentation outlined the role of Web sites, avatars,and bots in influencing the outcome of the election. In one case highlighted in the slide deck, pro-Trump avatars joined a Facebook page for Bernie Sanders supporters and then flooded it with links to anti-Hillary Clinton articles from Web sites that posted fake news, creating a hostile environment for real members of the group. “Bernie supporters had left our page in droves, depressed and disgusted by the venom,” the group’s administrator was quoted as saying. As part of the presentation, Burstien pointed out that Russian operatives had been caught meddling in the U.S.; Psy-Group, he told clients, was “more careful.”
Psy-Group’s post-election push into the U.S. market included a cocktail reception on March 1, 2017, at the Old Ebbitt Grill, near the White House, “in celebration of our new D.C. office.” The next day, an article in Politico briefly mentioned the gathering and described Psy-Group as a multinational company with “offices in London, Hong Kong and Cyprus.” There was no mention of Israel; Burstien thought it would be better for business to play down the Israel angle.
In fact, the reception was part of Psy-Group’s campaign to shape perceptions about itself. The image it projected was mostly bluster; the company’s “new D.C. office” consisted of a desk at a WeWork on the eighth floor of a building across the street from the White House.
In June of 2017, strange things began happening in Tulare. A series of ominous Web sites appeared: Tularespeaks.com, Tulareleaks.com, and Draintulareswamp.com. The sites directed visitors to articles that smeared Senovia Gutiérrez and her allies in the hospital-board fight.
Tony Maldonado, a reporter for the Valley Voice, the local newspaper, saw the sites and thought, What the fuck? He knew that residents were fired up about the hospital-board election, but these shadowy tactics, he said, were “completely out of left field.”
“I guess you might see that in a big city or on a national level,” Maldonado said. “But to see it in a small town, about a hospital board in Tulare, is just insane.” The domain names appeared to be playing off themes from the 2016 Presidential campaign. Trump liked to use the phrase “drain the swamp” to rally his anti-Washington base. The address Tulareleaks.com was similar to DCleaks.com, a site allegedly set up by Russian intelligence officers to publish hacked e-mails with the aim of influencing the 2016 race. Along with the Web sites, online personae, who claimed to be local residents but whom nobody in town recognized, began posting comments on social media. Some of the messages suggested that Senovia took bribes. Others pointed to her Mexican background and her accent and questioned whether she was an American citizen.
Psy-Group also conducted “off-line” operations, as the company sometimes termed clandestine on-the-ground activities, according to a former company employee. Early on the evening of June 9th, a woman with short blond hair knocked on Senovia’s front door, and told Senovia’s adult son Richard, who answered, that she was a supporter of his mother’s campaign. The woman handed Richard an envelope that read “To: Mrs. Sanovia,” misspelling her name. Richard noticed that a man was standing across the street, next to a Yukon Denali S.U.V., taking photographs with a telephoto lens. Later that night, the S.U.V. returned to Senovia’s street, and the man took more photographs.
Some of the photographs soon appeared on Draintulareswamp.com, under the title “Who Is Pulling Senovia’s Strings?” The accompanying article said, “This post is addressed to one member of our community in particular. The public should be watching Martha Senovia closely. This past week a very expensive black car was seen parked in front of the home of Mrs. Senovia in addition to several other unidentified cars.” The Web site used Senovia’s nickname, Martha. The photographs seemed designed to make it appear as if Senovia had taken a bribe. (The envelope contained a thirty-dollar Tommy Hilfiger gift certificate.) Later, the Valley Voice posted an article under the headline “Tulare Politics Get Fishy as Hospital Recall Nears.” Psy-Group, one of the company’s former employees later said, was engaged not in “serious intelligence” but in “monkey business.”
Other articles on Draintulareswamp.com questioned whether Senovia was fit to manage finances, and published records showing that she had filed for bankruptcy in 2003. (The bankruptcy records were authentic.) “It was horrible—they put out stuff that we couldn’t believe, and they were turning it out so fast,” Deanne Martin-Soares, one of the founders of Citizens for Hospital Accountability, said. “We couldn’t trace anything. We didn’t know where it was coming from.” On Facebook, Alex Gutiérrez responded to the smear tactics, writing, “The gall of their campaign to fabricate and move forward with such trash speaks volumes of their desperation and fear!”
On June 15th, campaign flyers ridiculing Senovia for having “zero experience,” and directing residents who “want proof” to visit Tularespeaks.com, appeared on door handles around town. The small businessman who printed and distributed the flyers said that he had been paid in cash by a stranger who used the name Francesco Manoletti, which appears to be a made-up persona. (In another Psy-Group operation, a similar-sounding name—Francesco Gianelli—was used to hire contractors.)
Parmod Kumar had hired his own political consultant, a California campaign veteran named Michael McKinney, to fight the recall. When rumors started to spread that Kumar or Benzeevi was behind the attacks on Senovia, McKinney tried, unsuccessfully, to discover who had created the Web sites. “Recall elections are about voter anger,” McKinney said. “To win a recall, you have to keep the electorate angry enough to vote. To stop a recall, you have to diminish the voters’ anger.” The attacks, McKinney felt, had the opposite of the intended effect: they motivated Senovia’s supporters to turn out on election day. When McKinney asked Kumar about the Web sites, Kumar said that he didn’t know where they had come from. McKinney said that he also confronted Benzeevi, urging him to tell whoever was orchestrating the campaign to “knock it off.” Benzeevi stopped returning McKinney’s calls after that. “It didn’t really hurt Senovia,” McKinney said. “It made it look like she was being harassed. It hurt Kumar. It backfired.”
On the eve of the election, Alex’s house burned down and he lost almost everything, including his final batch of campaign flyers. He suspected that the blaze could have been election-related, but local fire-department officials said that they saw no evidence of foul play. A former Psy-Group official told me, “I never initiated any physical fire on any project whatsoever.”
Burstien hoped that Psy-Group’s work in Tulare would help the company land other small campaigns, but that proved overly optimistic. He told colleagues that he was close to finalizing several deals, but the new clients fell through, and, in February, 2018, Burstien found that he couldn’t make payroll.
Psy-Group’s financial woes coincided with sudden scrutiny from the F.B.I. The Bureau had taken an interest in George Nader for helping to organize a secretive meeting in the Seychelles ahead of Trump’s Inauguration, with the aim of creating an unofficial channel with Vladimir Putin. In January, 2018, F.B.I. agents stopped Nader, an American citizen, at Dulles International Airport and served him with a grand-jury subpoena. Nader agreed to coöperate, and told F.B.I. agents about his various dealings related to the Trump campaign, including his discussions with Zamel. (Nader has been granted immunity in exchange for testifying truthfully, according to one of his representatives. “Someone who has this kind of immunity has no incentive to lie,” the representative said.)
The following month, F.B.I. agents served Zamel with a grand-jury subpoena. Agents also tracked down Burstien in the San Francisco area, where he was on a business trip. Burstien returned to his hotel room and found a note under his door informing him that the Bureau wanted him to come in for questioning. Burstien told friends that he was “in shock.” The F.B.I. also visited Psy-Group’s so-called D.C. office, at the WeWork, and seized a laptop computer that had been hidden in a desk drawer, where it had been running continuously.
The F.B.I. questioned some of Burstien’s employees about Psy-Group’s activities. In the interviews, agents acted as if “there’s no smoke without fire,” a former company official said. “There was a lot of smoke,” the official acknowledged. “We had to show them, it’s smoke, it’s smoke, it’s smoke, and not fire.” Psy-Group officials referred the F.B.I. to the letters they had received from law firms, attesting to the legality of their activities and telling the company that it didn’t need to register as a foreign agent. “The F.B.I. seemed genuinely surprised that this shit wasn’t illegal,” a former Psy-Group employee said.
In an interview, Burstien said that he was comfortable with how Psy-Group had operated but believed that changes were needed to protect average citizens. “I’m coming from the side of the influencer, who really understands how we can make use of online platforms,” he said. “There needs to be more regulation, and it’s up to our legislators, in each and every country. What have U.S. legislators done since they learned, more than two years ago, about the potential of these new capabilities? They have the power to move the needle from A to B. Nothing substantial has been done, as far as I know.”
Ram Ben-Barak, who helped woo Benzeevi on behalf of Psy-Group, said that he decided to leave the company after he learned about the extent of its operations in Tulare, which he objected to. Ben-Barak said that he regrets his decision to work with the firm. “When you leave the government and you leave Mossad, you don’t know how the real world works,” he said. “I made a mistake.” Ben-Barak, who is now running for a seat in Israel’s parliament, said that he believes new regulations are needed to stem the proliferation of avatars and misinformation. “This is the challenge of our time,” he said. “Everything is fake. It’s unbelievable.”
Gadi Aviran, the Terrogence founder, said that he “never dreamed” that the business of fake personae, which he helped establish, would become so powerful. “In order to understand where we are, we have to understand where we started,” he said. “What started as a noble cause ended up as fake news. What you have today is a flooded market, with people that will, basically, do anything.”
In Tulare, the test of Psy-Group’s strategy came on the night of July 11, 2017. The hospital-board election resulted in a landslide—but not for Psy-Group’s client. There were more than a thousand ballots cast, and only a hundred and ninety-five people voted for Kumar to keep his seat. Senovia Gutiérrez won with seventy-five per cent of the vote. In the end, the Web sites attacking Senovia attracted scant attention in the community. “It was like they organized a concert and nobody showed up,” a computer-security expert said after reviewing trace data from the sites, which were taken down after the election.
After Senovia’s victory, Benzeevi’s contract was rescinded. Larry Blitz, a hospital-turnaround specialist, stepped in as the interim C.E.O., and discovered that the hospital’s financial records were completely disorganized, with “entries that indicated artificial means of balancing the books.” Eventually, Blitz said, his team realized that the accounts contained a “hole as big as the Grand Canyon.” The hospital was more than thirty-six million dollars in debt, and had to close for nearly a year. (It reopened in October, 2018.) One morning, Blitz’s chief financial officer found police carting away computers and telephones. The local district attorney has issued more than forty search warrants as part of a fraud investigation, one of the largest such investigations in Tulare County history. Benzeevi and his legal team refused to respond to questions about Psy-Group. At first, Kumar said that he wasn’t aware of the covert campaign and that he wanted to help with this story. Then he stopped returning calls.
According to a former company official, Zamel decided to shut down Psy-Group in February, 2018, just as Mueller’s team began questioning employees. But its demise hasn’t suppressed the appetite for many of the services it provided. Some of Psy-Group’s former employees have met with Black Cube to discuss job opportunities. Black Cube has been criticized for some of its recent work, including for the producer Harvey Weinstein, but there’s no sign that the notoriety has hurt business; one person familiar with the company’s operations bragged that there was booming interest from a variety of corporations. Recently, Efraim Halevy, who served as the director of Mossad from 1998 to 2002, joined Black Cube’s advisory board. Uzi Arad, a Mossad veteran and a former national-security adviser for Netanyahu, said that he was ashamed to see some of his former colleagues become “mercenaries for hire,” adding, “It’s highly immoral, and they should know it.”
Last year, Black Cube moved to one of Tel Aviv’s most expensive neighborhoods, where it now occupies a sleek, full-floor office in the Bank Discount Tower. The entrance is unmarked, and painted black; doors are controlled by fingerprint readers. One area of the office is decorated with spy memorabilia, including an old encryption machine.
Some Psy-Group veterans expressed regret that the firm had closed. “Had the company still been open, all this so-called negative press would have brought us lots of clients,” one said. Despite embarrassing missteps, which have exposed some Psy-Group and Black Cube operations to public scrutiny, a former senior Israeli intelligence official said that global demand for “private Mossads” is growing, and that the market for influence operations is expanding into new commercial areas. In particular, the former official cites the potentially huge market for using avatars to influence real-estate prices—by creating the illusion that bidders are offering more money for a property, for example, or by spreading rumors about the presence of toxic chemicals to scare off competition. “From a free-market point of view, it’s scary,” a former Psy-Group official said, adding that the list of possible applications for avatars was “endless.” Another veteran of Israeli private intelligence warned, “We are looking at the tip of the iceberg in terms of where this can go.”
Adam Entous is a staff writer at The New Yorker.
Ronan Farrow is a contributing writer to The New Yorker and the author of the book “War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence.” His reporting for The New Yorker won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for public service.