NYT report on Pegasus triggers row; Opposition accuses govt of snooping, calls it 'treason'

New Delhi, Jan 29 (PTI) A New York Times report claiming India bought Pegasus spyware as part of a USD 2 billion defence deal with Israel in 2017 triggered a major controversy on Saturday with the Opposition alleging that the government indulged in illegal snooping that amounted to "treason".

The Opposition parties indicated that they would raise the issue strongly in the Budget Session of Parliament starting Monday, even as Union minister Gen (retd) V K Singh called The New York Times "Supari Media".

A government source said the matter related to the Pegasus software was being monitored by a committee under the Supreme Court -- headed by retired Supreme Court judge R V Raveendran -- and its report was awaited.

Reacting to NYT's report, Singh, Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways and Civil Aviation, said on Twitter: "Can you trust NYT?? They are known "Supari Media"."

The Congress launched an all-out attack on the government over the report, accusing it of deceiving Parliament, duping the Supreme Court, hijacking democracy and indulging in treason.

Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi said on Twitter, "The Modi Government bought Pegasus to spy on our primary democratic institutions, politicians and public. Government functionaries, opposition leaders, armed forces, judiciary all were targeted by these phone tappings. This is treason."

"The Modi Government has committed treason," he alleged.

The Congress said it intends to raise the issue in the budget session and demand accountability from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP government on the floor of Parliament.

The principal opposition party also urged the Supreme Court to take suo motu cognisance of the matter and initiate appropriate penal proceedings against the government for attempting to "deliberately and knowingly deceive" it.

Asked about the issue, Shashi Tharoor, senior Congress leader and chairman of the parliamentary panel on communications and information technology, told PTI, "The government has chosen not to be responsive to the IT Committee about Pegasus, and the stand taken by a number of BJP members - not to permit a quorum when the issue was to be discussed - has also meant that the Committee has made no headway in establishing the facts."

"The Supreme Court is pursuing the matter and I wish it well. If our government has used Pegasus in the manner alleged it would be a very grave threat to our democracy," he said.

In a tweet, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said, "The (Narendra) Modi government must explain on affidavit why it bought this cyber weapon, who gave the permission for its usage, how were the targets selected and who got these reports?"

"Silence on such a critical issue only means an acceptance of its criminal activity," he said.

CPI general secretary D Raja alleged that the government hid the truth on the issue from Parliament and they were now answerable.

In a tweet, Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi alleged the spyware was used not for defence purposes but to snoop on opposition and journalists.

"If there is BJP, it is possible. They have made the country into a Bigg Boss show," she said in a tweet in Hindi.

BJP MP Subramanian Swamy suggested that "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 asked.

Meanwhile, India's former permanent representative to the UN Syed Akbaruddin dismissed as "utter rubbish" the "insinuation" in the NYT report which cited India's 2019 vote in support of Israel at the UN's Economic and Social Council to highlight deepening of ties after a deal that included sale of Pegasus.

Tagging a tweet on the NYT report, Akbaruddin, who held the post at the UN from 2016-2020, said, "The insinuation about India's UN vote is utter rubbish".

Incidentally, India and Israel marked 30 years of diplomatic relations on Saturday.

The media report said Pegasus and a missile system were the "centerpieces" of a roughly USD 2 billion deal of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear between India and Israel in 2017.

The NYT, in its report titled 'The Battle for the World's Most Powerful Cyberweapon', said that the Israeli firm NSO Group had for nearly a decade been "selling its surveillance software on a subscription basis to law-enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world, promising that it could do what no one else -- not a private company, not even a state intelligence service -- could do: consistently and reliably crack the encrypted communications of any iPhone or Android smartphone".

The report also referred to Modi's visit to Israel in July 2017 - the first Indian prime minister to do so.

"For decades, India had maintained a policy of what it called 'commitment to the Palestinian cause', and relations with Israel were frosty. The Modi visit, however, was notably cordial, complete with a carefully staged moment of him and (then Israeli) Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu walking together barefoot on a local beach," it said.

"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 USD 2 billion -- with Pegasus and a missile system as the centerpieces.

"Months later, Netanyahu made a rare state visit to India. And 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 report said.

Last year, a row had erupted over Pegasus allegedly being used for targeted surveillance in India.

The government, however, had dismissed allegations of any kind of surveillance on its part on specific people.

In October last year, the Supreme Court set up a three-member independent expert panel to probe the alleged use of Pegasus for targeted surveillance in India, observing the state cannot get a "free pass" every time the spectre of national security is raised and that its mere invocation cannot render the judiciary a "mute spectator" and be the bugbear it shies away from.

The NYT report said that the FBI too had bought a version of Pegasus, "NSO's premier spying tool".

It was around last summer that the FBI "decided not to deploy the NSO weapons. It was around this time that a consortium of news organisations called Forbidden Stories brought forward new revelations about NSO cyberweapons and their use against journalists and political dissidents. The Pegasus system currently lies dormant at the facility in New Jersey".

An international investigative consortium had claimed that many Indian ministers, politicians, activists, businessmen and journalists were potentially targeted by the NSO Group's phone hacking software.

The report said that since 2011 when NSO "introduced" Pegasus to the global market, it had "helped Mexican authorities capture Joaquin Guzman Loera, the drug lord known as El Chapo".

European investigators have quietly used Pegasus to thwart terrorist plots, fight organised crime and, in one case, take down a global child-abuse ring, identifying dozens of suspects in more than 40 countries, it said.

"In a broader sense, NSO's products seemed to solve one of the biggest problems facing law-enforcement and intelligence agencies in the 21st century: that criminals and terrorists had better technology for encrypting their communications than investigators had to decrypt them. The criminal world had gone dark even as it was increasingly going global," according to the report.

However, over the years, "the many abuses of Pegasus had also been well documented".

"Mexico deployed the software not just against gangsters but also against journalists and political dissidents. The United Arab Emirates used the software to hack the phone of a civil rights activist whom the government threw in jail.

"Saudi Arabia used it against women's rights activists and, according to a lawsuit filed by a Saudi dissident, to spy on communications with Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, whom Saudi operatives killed and dismembered in Istanbul in 2018," the NYT report said.

The report said that its yearlong investigation, which included interviews with government officials, leaders of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, cyberweapons experts, business executives and privacy activists in a dozen countries, "shows how Israel's ability to approve or deny access to NSO's cyberweapons has become entangled with its diplomacy".

"Countries like Mexico and Panama have shifted their positions toward Israel in key votes at the United Nations after winning access to Pegasus," the report added.

Amid a raging controversy worldwide, Israel established a committee in July to review the allegations of misuse of the NSO group's surveillance software and hinted at a possible "review of the whole matter of giving licences". PTI

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