Department of Justice Should Investigate Complaint Documenting Violation of FARA Rules
(Washington D.C., July 21, 2022) – Prominent DC lobbyists Brian Finch, David Tamasi, Steve Rabinowitz, and Timothy Dickinson are contributing to, and benefiting from, the human rights abuses of NSO Group, the maker of the notorious Pegasus Spyware, in their lobbyist work for the company, said Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) in a new investigation it released today.
The group also charged the four lobbyists and their firms with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by misrepresenting the relationship between the Israeli spyware company and the Government of Israel, and filed a complaint with the FARA Unit at the Department of Justice (DOJ).
NSO Group is the maker of Pegasus spyware, which it sold to authoritarian governments who then used it to surveil and target journalists, human rights defenders, civil society leaders, politicians, and others. The Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO Group by adding the company to its Entity List on November 4, 2021, concluding that Pegasus "enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression" and that "[s]uch practices threaten the rules-based international order."
"Despite the well-documented human rights abuses committed with NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, these four lobbyists and their firms have chosen to contribute to the company's abuses by misleading public officials about its deservedly maligned reputation," said Adam Shapiro, Director of Israel-Palestine Advocacy at DAWN. "Our investigation also shows that the four lobbyists and NSO Group are misleading Congress, the Biden administration, and the American public by failing to register the Israeli government's control of the company in their FARA registration forms."
The four lobbyists representing NSO Group are Brian Finch, Partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, David Tamasi, Founding Partner and Managing Director of Chartwell Strategy Group, Steve Rabinowitz, President and Co-Founder of Bluelight Strategies, and Timothy Dickinson, Senior Counsel at Paul Hastings, LLP. With the exception of Finch and Pillsbury, each lobbyist signed contracts on their firm's behalf to register as lobbyists for NSO Group after the Department of Commerce added NSO Group to its Entity List. DAWN calls on these firms to immediately drop their contracts with NSO Group and for the Department of Justice to investigate these lobbyists and their firms for misrepresenting their relationship with the Israeli government on FARA registration forms.
Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, businesses, including lobbying firms, 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 companies that have enabled abuses, and including but not limited to misrepresenting or omitting information about their abuses, effectively contributes to, and benefits from, their abuses.
The lobbyists in our investigation have contributed to, and benefited from, human rights abuses through their activities for NSO Group. They have provided misleading information to members of Congress and U.S. government officials, as well as journalists, editors, and think tank staff, omitting material information about the well-documented sale of NSO Group's Pegasus Spyware to authoritarian governments to target a variety of individuals through transnational repression, as concluded by the Department of Commerce.
As documented in DAWN's investigation, Finch and Pillsbury have also sought to mislead the public and Congress by producing documents praising NSO Group's human rights record and due diligence standards even as members of Congress asked the Departments of State and Treasury to sanction the company for its link to warrantless surveillance, repression, and human rights abuses. Tamasi and Chartwell have sought to promote the interests of NSO Group by contacting members of Congress, think tank staff, journalists, and opinion page editors with emails and op-ed submissions to communicate on NSO Group's behalf. Rabinowitz and Bluelight 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 Department of Commerce. There is no evidence to suggest that Finch and Pillsbury, Tamasi and Chartwell, or 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.
"These lobbyists highlighted NSO Group's claims in their public relations work of how the company's technologies—including Pegasus—helped to fight crime and break up trafficking rings, but omitted evidence about how it sold the same technologies to target human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, dissidents, and political figures despite mounds of reporting," said Shapiro.
These lobbyists have also violated FARA rules by failing to disclose the Israeli government's control over NSO Group. DAWN's investigation, including information it examined regarding NSO Group's claims in the lawsuit brought against it by WhatsApp, NSO Group's public reports and statements made by its corporate officers, and disclosures made by the lobbyists in their contracts with NSO Group and lobbying materials, demonstrates that the Israeli government exerts control over NSO Group and over its policies and activities.
There are numerous examples that show the Israeli government's control over NSO Group. For example, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extended NSO Group's Pegasus contract with Saudi Arabia after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, overriding the Israeli Ministry of Defense regulatory office's order to terminate the contract. The Israeli Prime Minister's office also refused to allow NSO Group to sell Pegasus spyware to Ukraine out of deference to its relationship with Russia, only weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires lobbyists to register with the DOJ when representing foreign principals. When the foreign principal is a company, lobbyists must indicate if a foreign government exerts ownership, control, or direction over the company. According to FARA, "the term control or any of its variants shall be deemed to include the possession or the exercise of the power, directly or indirectly, to determine the policies or the activities of a person, whether through the ownership of voting rights, by contract, or otherwise." None of these four lobbyists or their firms indicated the Israeli government's control over NSO Group in their FARA registrations or subsequent filings. If a DOJ investigation confirms DAWN's findings, each lobbyist could face up to five years in prison and fines totaling $250,000.
"These four lobbyists are not just representing NSO Group, a company with an egregious record of enabling human rights abuses; they are in fact representing a company controlled by a foreign government, and they are misrepresenting this relationship to the U.S. government and the American public," said Shapiro.
The human rights abuses attributed to NSO Group through the sale of its Pegasus spyware to authoritarian governments is well documented. On July 17, 2021, Forbidden Stories launched The Pegasus Project, a global reporting initiative involving 17 media organizations. The Pegasus Project demonstrated the extent to which authoritarian governments utilized NSO Group's Pegasus spyware to conduct domestic spying and transnational repression. When the Commerce Department added the company to its Entity List a few months later, it concluded that NSO Group was "engaging in activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States."
In a press release explaining its decision, it stated that NSO Group had "developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers." It also noted that Pegasus "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," and that "[s]uch practices threaten the rules-based international order."
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."
"What more must a company do to support dictators, enable gross violations of human rights, and attack privacy rights before lobbyists in Washington will say no to a contract," asked Raed Jarrar, Director of Advocacy at DAWN. "Given President Biden's recent embrace of Israeli, Saudi, and Emirati leaders, all of whom have used Pegasus against human rights defenders, there must be lobbying reform in Washington to make the regulatory framework more transparent and to make sure that U.S. firms do not continue to profit from repression."
DAWN urged these lobbyists and their firms to terminate their contract with NSO Group considering its well-documented record of supporting unlawful surveillance leading to the arrest, torture, and even death of political targets, and to conduct a thorough due diligence review of all of its clients to ensure that its work does not serve, or contribute to the abuses of gross violators of human rights. These lobbyists should also conduct a review of their work, as required by the UN Guiding Principles, to evaluate whether they contribute to, or benefit from, adverse human rights impacts.
DAWN also urged Congress to promptly enact the For the People Act, which prohibits lobbyists from accepting compensation from foreign governments engaged in gross violations of human rights and makes other much-needed FARA reforms, and the Fighting Foreign Influence Act, which bans former members of Congress and senior political appointees from working as lobbyists for foreign countries and introduces important transparency measures requiring think tanks and other organizations to declare foreign funding. DAWN also has called on members of Congress to refuse to meet with lobbyists working for abusive governments and their affiliates and companies, like NSO Group, and to pledge not to work for such governments or their agents on leaving office.
DAWN's Lobbyist Hall of Shame will continue to expose American lobbyists—including lawyers, political operatives, former elected representatives and government officials—who are working as agents for abusive Middle East governments to garner U.S. government support, including military aid, weapons sales, and diplomatic protection. DAWN's complete set of recommendations to lobbyists and the U.S. Congress are available here.