A massive package of Israeli sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear, including the NSO Group’s dreaded spyware Pegasus, worth around $2 billion (nearly Rs 12,880 crore) was the reason for the bonhomie between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his then-Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu on Olga beach in July 2017.
The Modi government has denied purchasing the malicious software since it was first used to hack phones of journalists, lawyers and activists in October 2019. However, a January 28 New York Times (NYT) investigation has revealed that India purchased the spyware in 2017 itself as part of the package.
The NYT report, titled ‘The Battle for the World’s Most Powerful Cyberweapon’, states that Pegasus and the missile system were “the centrepieces” of the deal. Bibi visited India later that year, and in June 2019—as if to return the favour to the Israeli leader—India voted in support of Israel at the UN’s Economic and Social Council to deny observer status to Palestinian human rights organisation Shahed.
Mentioning how Modi junked India’s decades-old policy of supporting the Palestinians to revive the frosty ties with Israel, the NYT reports: “In July 2017, Narendra Modi, who won office on a platform of Hindu nationalism, became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. For decades, India had maintained a policy of what it called ‘commitment to the Palestinian cause’ and relations with Israel were frosty.”
Explaining the reason for India’s newfound bonhomie with Israel, the American daily further reports: “The Modi visit, however, was notably cordial, complete with a carefully staged moment of him and Prime Minister Netanyahu walking together barefoot on a local beach. They had reason for the warm feelings. Their countries had agreed on the sale of a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear worth roughly $2 billion—with Pegasus and a missile system as the centrepieces.”
Subsequently, Netanyahu “made a rare state visit to India”. In June 2019, “India voted in support of Israel at the UN’s Economic and Social Council to deny observer status to a Palestinian human rights organisation, a first for the nation”, the NYT reports.
In the yearlong investigation, the NYT interviewed dozens of government officials, leaders of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, cyberweapons experts, business executives and privacy activists in around 12 countries.
The NYT report mentions how Israel has used its “ability to approve or deny access to NSO’s cyberweapons” to gain global support. “Countries like Mexico and Panama have shifted their positions toward Israel in key votes at the United Nations after winning access to Pegasus”.
The use of Pegasus as a diplomatic tool has led to the powerful spyware “ending up in the hands of a new generation of nationalist leaders worldwide”, the daily reports. “Though the Israeli government’s oversight was meant to prevent the powerful spyware from being used in repressive ways, Pegasus has been sold to Poland, Hungary and India despite those countries’ questionable records on human rights.”
The sale of Pegasus also secured the support of Arab nations in Israel’s campaign against Iran and even in negotiating the Abraham Accords, the 2020 diplomatic agreements that normalised relations between Israel and some of its long-time Arab adversaries, the NYT reports.
In April 2017, it was reported that India had signed a $2 billion deal with Israel Aerospace Industries for the supply of air defence missiles to the Army.
In July 2021, Paris-based non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International’s Security Lab coordinated with more than 80 journalists from 17 media outlets in 10 countries, including The Wire in India, to reveal how Pegasus was used in countries across the world.
According to the international investigation, 300 mobile phone numbers in India—including that of 40 journalists, three opposition leaders, one constitutional authority, one Supreme Court judge, were hacked. Forensic analysis conducted by Security Lab revealed that more than 10 cases of Pegasus infection were found in India, according to The Wire.
After the revelations triggered a major controversy and uproar in the media and the Opposition, the Modi government was evasive when asked whether it had purchased Pegasus or used it. In August 2021, the defence ministry stated that it never had business dealings with the NSO Group.
The Opposition immediately seized upon the NYT revelation to slam the government with Congress leader and Lok Sabha MP Rahul Gandhi terming the spying on “the primary institutions of our democracy, state leaders and the public” as “treason”.
Even Bharatiya Janata Party MP Subramanian Swamy criticised the government and drew parallels with the Richard Nixon-era Watergate scandal.
“Modi Govt bought Pegasus to spy on our primary democratic institutions, politicians and public. Govt functionaries, opposition leaders, armed forces, judiciary all were targeted by these phone tappings. This is treason. Modi Govt has committed treason,” Rahul tweeted.
Modi Govt bought Pegasus to spy on our primary democratic institutions, politicians and public. Govt functionaries, opposition leaders, armed forces, judiciary all were targeted by these phone tappings. This is treason.
Modi Govt has committed treason.
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) January 29, 2022
Mallikarjun Kharge, the leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, questioned the Modi government for using a “warfare weapon against Indian citizens” and termed it treasonous. “Why did Modi Govt act like the enemies of India and use a warfare weapon against Indian citizens? Illegal snooping using Pegasus amounts to treason. No one is above the law and we will ensure that justice is served, he tweeted.
Why did Modi Govt act like the enemies of India and use a warfare weapon against Indian citizens?
Illegal snooping using Pegasus amounts to treason. No one is above the law and we will ensure that justice is served.https://t.co/qTIqg3yNdq
— Mallikarjun Kharge (@kharge) January 29, 2022
Rajya Sabha MP and senior Congress leader Shaktisinh Gohil alleged that the report implied that the government “misled” the Supreme Court and Parliament on the issue. “Why @narendramodi is silent? It is @PMOIndia’s duty to clarify. New York Times revelations today that It did indeed subscribe by payment from tax payers money of ₹ 300 crores to spyware Pegasus sold by Israeli NSO company. This implies our Govt misled Supreme Court & Parliament,” he tweeted.
Tweaking Rahul’s 2019 anti-Modi jab of ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’, Youth Congress chief Srinivas BV tweeted, “Hence Proved! Chowkidar Hi Jasoos Hai..”
Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi alleged that Pegasus was to snoop on opposition leaders and journalists. “If there is BJP, it is possible. They have made the country into a Bigg Boss show,” she tweeted in Hindi.
Swamy said that the government must rebut the NYT report and come clean. “Modi government must rebut New York Times revelations today that It did indeed subscribe by payment from tax payers money of ₹ 300 crores to spyware Pegasus sold by Israeli NSO company. This implies prima facie our Govt misled Supreme Court and Parliament. Watergate?” he tweeted.
Modi government must rebut New York Times revelations today that It did indeed subscribe by payment from tax payers money of ₹ 300 crores to spyware Pegasus sold by Israeli NSO company. This implies prima facie our Govt misled Supreme Court and Parliament. Watergate ?
— Subramanian Swamy (@Swamy39) January 29, 2022