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Israeli defense minister in France with Pegasus spyware on the agenda

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz arrives for a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 27. (Maya Alleruzzo/Pool/Reuters)
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PARIS — Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with his French counterpart on Wednesday as Israel ramped up its investigation of a spyware firm accused of facilitating surveillance against human rights activists, dissidents, as well as world leaders, including France's Emmanuel Macron.

"Israel is investigating the matter with the utmost seriousness," Gantz said in the meeting, according to a statement released Wednesday by Israel's Defense Ministry. He said "representatives" of several Israeli security branches had visited the Herzliya office of NSO Group that morning to advance the investigation into the allegations against the Israeli surveillance giant.

Gantz added that "Israel gives cyber licenses exclusively to countries, and exclusively for dealing with terrorism and crime," according to the statement.

The Washington Post and other news organizations reported last week that phone numbers for Macron and other world leaders, as well as for activists and journalists, were found on a list that included some people targeted by government clients of NSO Group and its Pegasus spyware tool.

None of the world leaders’ devices were forensically examined by The Post or its reporting partners, but tests of other phones on the list turned up evidence of attempted or successful spyware intrusions.

On the list: Ten prime ministers, three presidents and a king

NSO Group has said the inclusion of numbers on the list does not prove the phones were selected for surveillance. But in France and other countries, the revelations have prompted uncomfortable questions for the company, its presumed clients and Israeli diplomats. The numbers of several French ministers also were on the list.

Ahead of the Israeli-French meeting, French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said Wednesday afternoon that Defense Minister Florence Parly would use the talks to “question her counterpart about the knowledge the Israeli government had of the activities of NSO’s clients.”

Attal said the French minister would also inquire about what measures have been put in place, or will be in place in the future, “to prevent a misuse of these tools that are highly intrusive.”

The Élysée presidential palace has emphasized that further investigation into the Pegasus allegations is needed. But in a sign that French officials are taking the reports seriously, Macron called an emergency cybersecurity meeting to discuss the revelations last Thursday, and the government has ordered several investigations.

Attal cautioned that those inquiries are ongoing, but he suggested Wednesday that the government may take additional measures if the accusations are confirmed.

In a statement Tuesday, Israel’s Defense Ministry said Gantz would “update [Parly] on the topic of NSO” during his visit. The ministry added that they would also discuss “the crisis in Lebanon and the developing agreement with Iran.”

The Israeli statement said “the trip was planned approximately one month ago, regardless of the NSO issue.”

The recent revelations have significantly raised the diplomatic stakes of the visit, amid heightened public scrutiny of Israel’s role. “Victims of Pegasus spyware should not only point the finger at the countries that targeted them,” France’s Le Monde newspaper wrote in an editorial Tuesday. “Their complaints should also be addressed to Israeli authorities, who validated the contracts concluded by the NSO Group.”

Israel has set up a task force of senior officials to examine the spyware allegations, Reuters reported last week, citing two Israeli sources.

Gantz said last week at a cyber conference at Tel Aviv University that Israel authorizes the “export of cyber-products solely to governments, only for lawful use and exclusively for the purposes of preventing and investigating crime and terrorism.” He added that countries acquiring the systems “must abide by their commitments” to those requirements.

The recent revelations have also prompted unease among French journalists and activists. Reporters Without Borders said in a statement last week that the group, along with two journalists holding joint French and Moroccan nationality, has filed a complaint with French prosecutors alleging invasion of privacy and other crimes based on the Pegasus allegations.

Forensic analysis also showed that phones belonging to staffers with the investigative French news site Mediapart were infected with Pegasus software. Mediapart has complained to the Paris prosecutor’s office, accusing Morocco of being behind the surveillance.

Moroccan officials have denied the accusations. In a statement, the Moroccan government also expressed “great astonishment” at the publication of “erroneous allegations . . . that Morocco has infiltrated the telephones of several national and foreign public figures and officials of international organizations.”

Rubin reported from Tel Aviv. Michael Birnbaum in Riga, Latvia, and Drew Harwell in Washington contributed to this report.

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