Even for the world of covert intel operations, this one crosses boundaries in both fake-personae espionage and epic influence failure.
In 2017, the notorious Israeli spy-for-hire outfit known as Psy Group, known for its alleged role in social-media manipulation ahead of Donald Trump’s election and its spot on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s radar, got entangled in a local election in an obscure part of central California, after a Bernie Sanders die-hard convinced his immigrant mother to try to unseat one of the town’s hospital-board members.
But apparently it wasn’t the only time the Mossad-linked intelligence group tried to expand its practice in the U.S. On Monday morning, The New Yorker published “Private Mossad for Hire” by reporters Adam Entous and Ronan Farrow, which unravels additional disturbing details about the Psy Group’s other work in America, including a proposition to sabotage campus opponents of Israel and that out-of-proportion attack on the candidate in Rep. Devin Nunes’ home district.
Here, a look at the six most WTF bits in the report about this shadowy group.
Psy Started on Small Targets—Including U.S. Campus BDS Activists
Before it set its sights on the U.S. election market, Psy Group first practiced sowing false information in elsewhere, according to The New Yorker report. In recent years, it wrote a fictitious report about an Amsterdam-based religious sect called Brunstad Christian Church that stated that its Norwegian leader claimed to have written “a more important book than the New Testament.” It also spread disinformation about a rival of Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba under the code name “Operation Bentley” to ensure he retained power.
In New York, it reportedly developed “Project Butterfly” at the bequest of wealthy Jewish-American university donors in an effort to “embarrass and intimidate activists” who demanded U.S. entities put economic pressure on Israel because of its harsh treatment of Palestinians. In 2017, Psy operatives scouted the internet for supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, known as BDS. “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,” The New Yorker reports. “Psy Group would then release the information online using avatars and websites that couldn’t be traced back to the company or its donors.” Eventually, Psy Group was able to recruit Yaakov Amidror, a former national-security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to work as an adviser on Butterfly.
Psy’s Owner Asked Newt Gingrich to Offer Services to Jared Kushner
The New Yorker reports the group’s owner Joel Zamel asked Trump ally and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to get Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to sign on for the services that included “online deception.” In one draft strategy from early 2016, it promised to exploit their powers of sowing deceit to more than 50 political groups including the Republican National Committee, the Democratic National Committee, and major super PACs that were deemed influential among voters. By controlling the messages these groups were sending to potential voters, they promised to easily sway first the Republican primary and then the general election.
Entous and Farrow report Kushner checked around with the team, including Brad Parscale, who was in charge of the Trump campaign’s web-based strategies, but concluded that they didn’t need Psy Group’s expertise.
Psy Advertised ‘Honey Traps’ and Low, Low Prices
The company’s glossy publicity campaign included printed brochures with a price list for services like “honey traps,” which they depicted with a cartoon cat casting the shadow of a lion to refer to using a sexy spy to get information from various targets, according to the report. It also used a goldfish with a shark fin attached to its back to back up its motto: “Reality is a matter of perception.” The cost of these services? An average package price of $350,000, or just $275 an hour.
It Also Used Fake Avatars to Infiltrate Think Tanks
In a project proposal called “Project Mockingjay” (after the fictional bird in The Hunger Games) designed to influence the local Tulare hospital board election, Psy Group created identities meant to represent consultants. These fake avatars were then used to “uncover and deliver actionable intelligence” against those trying to unseat the embedded hospital board members who had drawn attention with outsize contracts with the struggling small-town facility. It launched later-deleted websites—Tulareleaks.com, and Draintulareswamp.com—to mount negative campaigns against rival candidates, promising that to the outside eye, the efforts would appear to be “grassroots” in nature.
It also used these avatars to hack systems and hire local analysts for think tanks, and in at least one separate case in Europe, it even created sham think tanks that would disseminate reports meant to undermine the reputations of campaign rivals. The New Yorker piece says Psy even created an avatar who was designed to win regulatory approval in Europe for one of its clients. “Over time, the avatar became so well established in the industry that he was quoted in mainstream press reports and even by European parliamentarians,” the reporters state, quoting a former Psy Group operative as saying, “It’s got to look legit.”
Other Firms Tricked Jihadis With Fake Online Personae
Gadi Aviran, owner of Terrogence, was one of the first to capitalize on Israeli intelligence and set the pace for agencies like Psy Group. “There was this huge pipeline of talent coming out of the military every year,” Aviran told The New Yorker. “All a company like mine had to do was stand at the gate and say, ‘You look interesting.’” Terrogence was the first major Israeli company to use these fake identities in counterintelligence work by engaging with jihadi groups in online communities. Terrogence even gave its avatars histories or “backstories–often as Arab students at European universities.” But the scheme soon got out of hand and chat rooms were suddenly completely filled with fake avatars who were collecting false information on each other.
Psy Group disabled a virtual Christian female Chicago teen named Madison —“Finally! I’m a Muslim,” Entous and Farrow report Madison wrote on Facebook. “I feel at home.” She added a smiley-face emoticon—who converted to Islam and was asked to consider becoming an ISIS bride. It pitched a similar idea to the State Department for a project “modeled on the successful ‘Madison’ engagement,” intended to “interrupt the radicalization and recruitment chain.” The New Yorker says the State Department apparently never acted on the proposal.
However, Psy’s Candidate Couldn’t Even Win the Hospital Election
Back in Tulane, the home of Alex Gutiérrez, the Bernie Sanders fan who convinced his immigrant mother to run to unseat the powerful hospital board chairman, was burned to the ground shortly before election. Psy Group denied involvement in the fire, and Gutiérrez’s mother won with 75 percent of the vote. The unseated board member was later investigated for fraud—and refused to answer any questions about Psy Group’s involvement. “It was like they organized a concert and nobody showed up,” a computer-security expert who reviewed local data from Psy Group’s campaign told The New Yorker.
In February 2018, Psy Group shuttered its doors, but many of its operatives are thought to have been picked up by other spy-for-hire services with Israeli ties.