Israeli Spyware May Have Helped Khashoggi Killers, Snowden Says

(Bloomberg) -- Israel-based NSO Group Ltd. may have helped Saudi Arabia track and kill government critic Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul last month, fugitive U.S. whistle-blower Edward Snowden told an Israeli audience by video conference.

NSO said the former American intelligence contractor isn’t familiar with the group’s operations and has nothing authoritative to back up his claims.

Speaking late Tuesday from an undisclosed location in Moscow, Snowden said Israeli companies like NSO Group are among the leaders in selling spyware programs that allow governments to monitor their political opponents.

The company’s Pegasus software, which can infect a target’s smartphone and in effect turn it into a spying device, had been installed on the phone of another Saudi dissident who was in contact with Khashoggi, Snowden said, citing the Canadian internet security think tank Citizen Lab. This could have helped the Saudis track Khashoggi and lure him to the consulate, Snowden said, without giving any evidence that it did.

NSO Group is “the worst of the worst in selling these burglary tools, that are being actively used to violate the human rights of dissidents, opposition figures, activists, to some pretty bad players,” Snowden said, speaking from an undisclosed location in Moscow. “But they are not alone.”

Whistle-blower or Traitor?

The Israeli company said it sells its systems only to authorized governments for use in fighting crime and terrorism.

NSO Group “is the only company of its kind in the world that has an independent ethics committee, including outside experts with a background in law and international relations, to prevent its products from being used for bad purposes,” it said in a statement Wednesday. “In contrast to what’s published in the media, the company does not sell and does not allow their use in many countries.”

Snowden, 35, a former CIA employee and National Security Agency contractor, has lived in Russia since 2013, when he fled the U.S. and exposed clandestine NSA programs that collect phone and Internet data.

His videoconference, organized by Tel Aviv-based public relations firm Orenstein & Hoshen, was billed as his first appearance before an Israeli audience. He said he had rejected pressure from anti-Israel boycott activists to cancel the event.

Free Speech

Invited to give a rejoinder, Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy director of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, called Snowden a “traitor” to the U.S. who should be prosecuted. He depicted Snowden as a naïve young man who didn’t understand the way the world works.

“How nice to be a liberal, to say nice things about freedom of expression,” but Snowden’s description of inimical government surveillance is far from reality, Ben-Barak told the audience. “The system is there to protect you, to protect us.”

Presented by the moderator with two descriptions of Snowden, about two-thirds of audience members said they view him as a “freedom fighter,” while the rest said they saw him as a criminal.

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