The “Indian intelligence service” purchased Pegasus from Israeli company NSO in a deal pegged at “dozens of millions of dollars”, a The New York Times (NYT) reporter involved in the newspaper’s investigation into the use of the surveillance system worldwide has said.
The New York Times said the purchase was finalised during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel and cleared by the then Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in 2017.
Describing the NSO procedure for Pegasus, which is a high-grade cyberweapon on Israel’s export control list, The New York Time ’s Tel Aviv-based correspondent Ronen Bergman said the Israeli Ministry of Defence had cleared the contract, and that NSO engineers would have had to travel to India to install the system themselves and Israeli intelligence agency Mossad liaised with them. However, neither the NYT nor Mr. Bergman specified whether they meant the Intelligence Bureau (IB) or the Research and Analysis wing ((R&AW), or any other agency reporting to the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) under National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval.
Mr. Bergman also said that the entity that signed the Pegasus purchase agreement would have had to give three guarantees to the Israeli Ministry of Defence: that it would use it only by itself, that it would get prior written permission to share it with any other entity, and that it would use it Pegasus surveillance against terrorism and organised crime.
“While the ongoing technical maintenance is done by NSO vis-a-vis, in this case, Indian intelligence service, which was the entity that purchased Pegasus – the overall connection is also with the involvement of the agency in Israel that is in charge of running secret intelligence and political relationships, which is the Mossad,” Mr. Bergman said in an interview to Indian news portal The Wire, which had taken part in the global investigation by several agencies that found thousands of phones belonging to civilians, including politicians, judges, journalists, activists with no criminal record had been hacked using the Pegasus software. Journalists belonging to The Wire , The Hindu and other Indian agencies were also on the list.
The Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs declined to comment on the New York Times story and the latest interview.
Last July, in Parliament, IT and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, whose phone was also on the list of Pegasus- hacked devices, said the news reports were “sensational” and “had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties including in the Supreme Court,” referring to an ongoing case in the apex court, which subsequently ordered its own enquiry committee to investigate the allegations against the government. Separately, the Ministry of Defence had said it had“not had any transactions” with the NSO group.
Significantly, the NSCS had for the first time seen a 10-fold increase in budgetary allocation in 2017-18, when its allocation shot up to ₹333 crore and it was further increased to ₹841.73 crore in 2018-19 but was revised to ₹140.92 crore in 2019-20, and officials did not respond to The Hindu report requesting explanations for the sudden surge in outlay.The functioning of the NSCS, IB and the R&AW are exempted from the provisions of the Right to Information Act (RTI) and also from Parliament scrutiny. The organisations cannot be financially audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) also.
Offers no evidence of claims
In the interview, Mr. Bergman offered no evidence of the NYT’s claims, but detailed the workings of NSO and procedure involved by each of the countries, including India, Mexico, Hungary, Morocco, KSA etc, who had purchased the Pegasus programme. He said he couldn’t divulge his sources, but The New York Times had conducted an extensive multi-country investigation based on documents that he was privy to.
“Some of the details that are specified, this comes from a very sensitive, a long-time dealing with sources,and, therefore, I’ll be a little bit cagey in some of the details… we have been working for a year in 12 different countries, speaking with intelligence officials, with leaders of law enforcement agencies, politicians, leaders, cyber experts, human rights activists, etc. and I think we got as close as possible to the full picture – if not the whole picture,” Mr. Bergman stated.
As the programme is on a controlled export list, NSO officials have said all their contracts are cleared by the Israeli government. The NYT story had linked the Pegasus purchase in each of the countries to relations between their leaders and Mr. Netanyahu and claimed that those governments had changed their foreign policy, and votes at the United Nations as a result of the relationship.
“[In] India, [there is] the relationship, a close personal relationship between the leaders of India and Israel that gave birth to, I would say, a new generation of military expenditure as well as a new Indian stand, including international public steps towards Israel,” Mr. Bergman said, adding that according to his sources, there was “a specific interest and specific emphasis from the Indian leadership to the Israeli leadership to obtain that specific license” for Pegasus.