Steve Rabinowitz is President and Co-Founder of Bluelight Strategies, a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm, and a FARA-registered agent for NSO Group. The Commerce Department added NSO Group to its Entity List on November 4, 2021 for "engaging in activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States." NSO Group's Pegasus spyware has been used to target government officials, journalists, human rights defenders, and democracy activists throughout the world, including several American officials, journalists, and activists.
In his and his firm's work for NSO Group, Rabinowitz and Bluelight have breached their human rights responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by contributing to, and benefiting from, human rights abuses through their activities for NSO Group. They have sought to promote the interests of NSO Group by agreeing to provide government relations services, including outreach to the Executive Branch and Congress, despite evidence that showed ongoing abuses by the company leading to its sanction by the Commerce Department. There is no evidence to suggest that Rabinowitz and Bluelight disclosed accurate and complete information about NSO Group's record, including its sales of spyware to abusive governments known to misuse surveillance technology. In addition, Rabinowitz and Bluelight filed inaccurate information in their FARA disclosures to the Department of Justice, misrepresenting the fact that the Israeli government controls the work of NSO Group, as defined by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
On March 10, 2022, Bluelight Strategies, represented by Rabinowitz, registered with FARA to represent NSO Group, and stated that it "will provide government relations services to the foreign principal [NSO Group], which may include outreach to the Executive Branch and U.S. Congress." Although Bluelight registered with FARA on March 10, 2022, the contract between Bluelight and NSO Group entered into force on February 21, 2022, according to the FARA Registration Statement. The contract, which is eligible for extension, is for three months, at $50,000 per month. Bluelight also reserved the right to hire a consultant for an additional $20,000 per month, subject to NSO Group's approval.
Bluelight Strategies agreed to lobby on behalf of NSO Group after the Commerce Department sanctioned the company and after numerous reports detailed human rights abuses linked to the company's Pegasus spyware. In February 2022, only a month before Bluelight registered with FARA to lobby on behalf of NSO Group, Haaretz reported that the Israeli police had used Pegasus spyware to spy on Israeli citizens, which contradicted a previous claim that denied any wrongdoing. Numerous international and Israeli media outlets reported on this story, including the claim that Israeli police had used Pegasus Spyware to spy on Israeli citizens without court authorization since 2013.
According to Rabinowitz, Bluelight Strategies has "worked for much of the Jewish world, including the Conservative movement, Magen David Adom, BBYO, American Jewish Committee, Israel Policy Forum, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and Jewish Federations of North America." Among its current and former clients, Bluelight Strategies also lists several organizations dedicated to human rights and combating global poverty including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Earthjustice, International Campaign for Tibet, The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights, and One. It does not list NSO Group among its clients.
Bluelight's decision to represent NSO Group seems at odds with the majority of the firm's clients, many of which are center-left in American Jewish society, or human rights and global development organizations. When Bluelight launched, Politico hailed it as a "New Jewish Progressive Firm." Rabinowitz is a well-known Democratic operative with strong ties to Democratic Party leadership, as well as a key organizer in the Jewish community for the Democratic Party and its candidates.
In November 2021, the U.S. Commerce Department added NSO Group to its Entity List, which subjected the company to specific license requirements for the export, reexport, or transfer of specified items under Export Administration Regulations. For NSO Group, these licensing requirements fall under the restrictions on end-user to end-user-based items. In its press release explaining its decision, the Commerce Department stated that NSO Group "developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers." The Commerce Department also noted that Pegasus spyware "enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists and activists outside of their sovereign borders to silence dissent." It concluded that "[s]uch practices threaten the rules-based international order."
On November 23, 2021, Apple filed a lawsuit against NSO Group, claiming that the company violated numerous federal and state laws and seeking to ban the company from appearing on any Apple device. Apple also sent threat notifications to journalists, activists, and other individuals targeted by Pegasus. Apple's lawsuit followed a similar 2019 lawsuit filed by WhatsApp, alleging that NSO Group violated the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and California's Comprehensive Data Access and Fraud Act.
On December 15, 2021, U.S. lawmakers led by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), Chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, and Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), Chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, sent a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, calling on them to impose Global Magnitsky sanctions on NSO Group and three other cyber companies. Following the publication of the letter, Senator Wyden said, "These surveillance mercenaries sold their services to authoritarian regimes with long records of human rights abuses, giving vast spying powers to tyrants." Senator Wyden, who represents Oregon, also called on the Oregon state pension fund to drop its investment in NSO Group.
NSO Group has received widespread criticism for the use of its Pegasus spyware in human rights abuses and transnational repression. In July 2021, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet condemned the technology, stating, "Revelations regarding the apparent widespread use of the Pegasus software to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, politicians and others in a variety of countries are extremely alarming, and seem to confirm some of the worst fears about the potential misuse of surveillance technology to illegally undermine people's human rights."
These targets include Saudi dissident, journalist, and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) co-founder Jamal Khashoggi, as NSO Group's Pegasus spyware likely was used to facilitate his murder. Saudi operatives, acting under the direction of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, killed Khashoggi on October 2, 2018 after luring him to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. While NSO Group has repeatedly denied that its software was used by Saudi officials involved in Khashoggi's murder, Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident and close associate of Khashoggi, discovered Pegasus spyware installed on his phone before Khashoggi's murder. Saudi officials used the Pegasus software embedded on Abdulaziz's phone to spy on and monitor Khashoggi's movements in the months before his murder. Saudi officials also used the spyware to monitor Khashoggi's friends and associates, as well as other Saudi dissidents and human rights activists, after his murder.
Steve Rabinowitz previously worked as White House director of design and production under President Bill Clinton, creating and directing President Clinton's public events in Washington, DC. In 2004, prior to establishing Bluelight, the Jewish Forward newspaper named Rabinowitz among the 50 most influential Jews in America. Rabinowitz co-founded Bluelight Strategies with Aaron Keyak, in 2014, and in 2020, Keyak was named Jewish Engagement Director for Vice President Joe Biden's presidential campaign.
DAWN calls on Rabinowitz and his firm, Bluelight Strategies, to drop its contract with NSO Group immediately, to conduct a thorough review of all its clients, and to cease representation of clients such as NSO Group whose policies do not comply with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Under the Guiding Principles, businesses have a responsibility "to avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities" as well as "to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts." Lobbying on behalf of governments, agencies, officials, or companies responsible for serious human rights abuses, while misrepresenting or omitting information about their abuses of international human rights law or international humanitarian law, or obtaining, sustaining, or expanding military, political, or economic support for them, effectively contributes to, and benefits from, such abuses. Rabinowitz and Bluelight are contributing to, and benefiting from, NSO Group's abuses, supporting its business of selling Pegasus spyware to abusive regimes.
Moreover, by failing to accurately represent their client to FARA and in their lobbying activities, Rabinowitz and Bluelight are violating the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Principles for Transparency and Integrity in Lobbying, which recommend that all lobbyists conduct their professional activities with "integrity and honesty."
For additional information, see DAWN's detailed recommendations to Congress, lobbyists, and U.S. State Bar Associations on our Lobbyist Hall of Shame.