Indian intelligence service bought Pegasus for ‘dozens of millions of dollars’, says NYT reporter
In an interview with ‘The Wire’, the correspondent Ronen Bergman, however, did not specify which Indian agency had acquired the spyware.
The Indian intelligence service purchased Pegasus from Israeli company NSO Group for “dozens of millions of dollars”, a The New York Times journalist involved in the newspaper’s investigation into the use of the surveillance system worldwide has said, reported The Wire on Wednesday.
On January 28, The New York Times had reported that India had purchased the Israeli spyware in 2017 as part of a $2-billion (now around Rs 14.96 thousand crore) defence package. The military-grade spyware and a “missile system” were the “centrepieces” of the package. However, it had not specified how much the spyware cost in particular.
Last July, several media organisations across the world had reported on the use of Pegasus. In India, The Wire had reported that 161 Indians were spied on through Pegasus.
In the interview, The New York Time’s Tel Aviv correspondent Ronen Bergman told The Wire that only top authorities in Israel could handle the sale and installation of Pegasus and such deals usually involved the prime minster and the national security advisor.
He also pointed to the involvement of Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad, which is “in charge of running secret intelligence and political relationships”, and the NSO engineers, who need to be physically present on-site to install the surveillance system and visit from time to time to maintain it.
“So this is a long comment to your question but basically saying that all the different components of [the] Israeli defence establishment and the Indian highest authority, the Indian intelligence service – have to be involved in the process,” Bergman told The Wire.
The Wire’s founding editor Siddharth Varadarajan, who interviewed Bergman, said that the examination done by his news portal had narrowed down the intelligence agency to the Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing.
Bergman, however, did not identify the specific agency.
“I [am] well, maybe not prepared to [give] those detailed answers,” he said. “I didn’t discuss the possibility of disclosing them because, as you see, the details as specified in our report were going through a very rigorous screening process of fact checking, on one hand, and sources’ security, on the other, so I need to check those details.”
In the interview, Bergman also said the pricing of the spyware depended on the number of licenses sold.
“License is the ability to monitor one phone at the concurrent time,” he told The Wire. “And this is... as far as I know, those [which] were sold to India, were between – I don’t remember what was the exact number – but it’s between 10 and 50. So each one can, it depends on what was decided, can monitor between 10 phones up to 50 phones [simultaneously].”
When asked if NSO had the power to review records of its clients, Bergman said that he has been covering the intelligence company since it was founded and has no proof to support this claim.
“And I would say, even more, the NSO group, the last thing they would want is to know what their clients are doing, meaning it may be good for the product to improve it, but I assume that they would at least have some kind of prediction that some of those Pegasus are going to be used for wrong causes, so the last thing – from their point of view – would like to know about that.”— Ronen Bergman to 'The Wire'.
The New York Times had also reported that ties between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “warmed” because of the $2-billion agreement.
In the interview, the correspondent said this his sources have indicated that there was “a specific interest and specific emphasis from the Indian leadership to the Israeli leadership to obtain that specific license”.
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FBI acknowledges it acquired Pegasus
Meanwhile, the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation on Wednesday acknowledged that it acquired Pegasus but claimed that it had not used it for any investigation, reported The Guardian.
“The FBI works diligently to stay abreast of emerging technologies and tradecraft – not just to explore a potential legal use but also to combat crime and to protect both the American people and our civil liberties,” the law enforcement agency told The Guardian.
In a statement, it said this meant the agency routinely identifies, evaluates, and tests technical solutions and problems for various reasons, including possible operational and security concerns.
“The FBI procured a limited license for product testing and evaluation only, there was no operational use in support of any investigation,” the statement said.
It added that the license for the surveillance system was no longer active.
The New York Times had reported that the US had acquired the surveillance system in 2019 under the administration of then President Donald Trump.
However, after Joe Biden became the president, his administration placed NSO on the commerce department blacklist, restricting US companies from doing business with it, over human rights concerns.
Among Pegasus’ potential targets were many Indian Opposition leaders, including Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa, The Wire founders Varadarajan and MK Venu and even the former Supreme Court staffer who had accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment.
More than 40 journalists and activists were also on the list.
Speaking in Parliament on July 19, Vaishnaw had dismissed reports about the use of Pegasus to spy on journalists, activists and Opposition leaders. He had said that with checks and balances in place, illegal surveillance was not possible in India. Vaishnaw had also alleged that the report was an attempt to malign the “Indian democracy and its well-established institutions”.
After the first reports about Pegasus came out, the matter was brought up by the Opposition in Parliament. Leaders had protested vociferously and pleas were filed in the Supreme Court against the government.
The court had set up a panel to look into the allegations. The court-appointed committee is conducting an inquiry into the matter.