President Joe Biden faces a tricky decision as he travels to Israel and Saudi Arabia this week: Confront these nations’ sponsorship and use of spyware or ignore it for the sake of diplomacy.
The Biden administration has pledged to crack down on spyware companies and foreign governments that deploy it to snoop on journalists and dissidents. Officials are especially concerned about spyware from Israeli company NSO Group, which a joint investigation by The Guardian and other media groups alleged is used by the Saudi government.
But strong public pressure to bring down the price of gas by strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia, and a wish to foster peace in Israel, could force Biden to push spyware down the list of priorities.
NSO has complicated relations between the U.S. and Israel in recent months. The Commerce Department added NSO Group to its “entity list” last year, effectively blacklisting the company. The move was a major financial blow to NSO, and reportedly led to efforts by Israeli officials to pressure the Biden administration to remove NSO from the list. The White House shot down an effort by American defence group L3Harris to buy NSO, citing security and human rights concerns around the use of Pegasus.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment directly on whether Biden planned to address spyware during the trip. While the broad topic of cybersecurity appeared on the agenda of issues that will be discussed in Saudi Arabia, a State Department spokesperson said that no officials from the agency’s Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy would travel with Biden.
The White House provided a statement saying the administration was concerned that commercial surveillance tools, including Pegasus, “pose a serious counterintelligence and security risk to U.S. personnel and systems.”
The spokesperson also noted that the National Security Council is working on a rule to ban U.S. government agencies from purchasing or using foreign spyware that “poses counterintelligence and security risks for the U.S. government or has been improperly used abroad.” FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress in March that the agency bought Pegasus to test, but not to use.
Israeli officials are considering bringing up their discontent with the Biden administration’s handling of NSO themselves, said James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who has been in touch with Israeli officials ahead of the talks.
A spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. declined to comment on whether Israeli officials would bring up NSO Group with Biden.
The spyware issue will become even thornier when Biden travels to Saudi Arabia on Thursday.
He is set to meet with officials including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom United Nations experts in 2020 accused of using spyware to compromise the phone of former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also allegedly used Pegasus to compromise the devices of close associates and family members of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the U.S. intelligence community formally attributed Khashoggi’s murder to bin Salman last year. NSO Group strongly denied this charge.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is pushing for Biden to press the issue abroad.
“It’s my hope the president continues to send the strong message to mercenary hackers and authoritarians that America will punish anyone who uses technology to undermine our national security or to target journalists and dissidents,” Wyden said in an email Tuesday.
Another committee member, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), said in an interview that spyware should be on the agenda in Saudi Arabia.
But the leaders of the committee have recommended taking a lighter hand.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) told POLITICO last month that while he had “expressed concerns about the Saudi regime” to the Biden administration in the past, “they are a critical player in the international energy supply.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said last month that the “strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia” was important to keep in mind when discussing spyware. In Israel, there might be more potential to discuss the issue.
“With the Israelis, I imagined something like that might be raised discreetly,” Rubio said Tuesday.