Information warfare is as old as warfare itself. In “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu declared that “all warfare is based on deception.” In modern times, both Soviet intelligence and its American counterpart used disinformation as a tool of persuasion and a weapon to destabilize the other side. Long before the advent of social media, Moscow concocted fantastical rumors that the aidsvirus had been manufactured by American government scientists as a biological weapon. The C.I.A. supported the publication of underground books in the Soviet Union by such authors as Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a ploy that the agency knew would enrage the Kremlin leadership and deepen anti-Soviet sentiment among dissident circles inside the country.
…Aviran was formerly the head of an Israeli military intelligence research team, where he supervised analysts who, looking for terrorist threats, reviewed data vacuumed up from telephone communications and from the Internet. The process, Aviran said, was like “looking at a flowing river and trying to see if there was anything interesting passing by.” The system was generally effective at analyzing attacks after they occurred, but wasn’t as good at providing advance warning.
…Aviran began to think about a more targeted approach. Spies, private investigators, criminals, and even some journalists have long used false identities to trick people into providing information, a practice known as pretexting. The Internet made pretexting easier. Aviran thought that fake online personae, known as avatars, could be used to spy on terrorist groups and to head off planned attacks. In 2004, he started Terrogence, which became the first major Israeli company to demonstrate the effectiveness of avatars in counterterrorism work.
When Terrogence launched, many suspected jihadi groups communicated through members-only online forums run by designated administrators. To get past these gatekeepers, Terrogence’s operatives gave their avatars legends, or backstories—often as Arab students at European universities. As the avatars proliferated, their operators joked that the most valuable online chat rooms were now entirely populated by avatars, who were, inadvertently, collecting information from one another.
…In some respects, Psy-Group emerged more directly from Terrogence. In 2008, Aviran hired an Israel Defense Forces intelligence officer named Royi Burstien to be the vice-president of business development. Social networks such as Facebook—whose profiles featured photographs and other personal information—were becoming popular, and Terrogence’s avatars had become more sophisticated to avoid detection.
…Russia’s intelligence services had begun using a variety of tools—including hacking, cyber weapons, online aliases, and Web sites that spread fake news—to conduct information warfare and to sow discord in neighboring countries. In the late two-thousands, the Russians targeted Estonia and Georgia. In 2014, they hit Ukraine.
….Burstien boasted that Psy-Group’s so-called “deep” avatars were so convincing that they were capable of planting the seeds of ideas in people’s heads.
..Psy-Group stood out from many of its rivals because it didn’t just gather intelligence; it specialized in covertly spreading messages to influence what people believed and how they behaved. Its operatives took advantage of technological innovations and lax governmental oversight. “Social media allows you to reach virtually anyone and to play with their minds,” Uzi Shaya, a former senior Israeli intelligence officer, said. “You can do whatever you want. You can be whoever you want. It’s a place where wars are fought, elections are won, and terror is promoted. There are no regulations. It is a no man’s land.”
…Psy-Group went to great lengths to disguise its activities. Employees were occasionally instructed to go to libraries or Internet cafés, where they could use so-called “white” computers, which could not be traced back to the firm. They created dummy Gmail accounts, often employed for one assignment and then discarded. For particularly sensitive operations, Psy-Group created fake front companies and avatars who purported to work there, and then hired real outside contractors who weren’t told that they were doing the bidding of Psy-Group’s clients. Psy-Group operatives sometimes paid the local contractors in cash.
In one meeting, Burstien said that, before a parliamentary election in a European country, his operatives had created a sham think tank. Using avatars, the operatives hired local analysts to work for the think tank, which then disseminated reports to bolster the political campaign of the company’s client and to undermine the reputations of his rivals. In another meeting, Psy-Group officials said that they had created an avatar to help a corporate client win regulatory approval in Europe. Over time, the avatar became so well established in the industry that he was quoted in mainstream press reports and even by European parliamentarians. “It’s got to look legit,” a former Psy-Group employee said, of Burstien’s strategy..
…In another project, targeting the South African billionaire heirs of an apartheid-era skin-lightening company, Psy-Group secretly recorded family members of the heirs describing them as greedy and, in one case, as a “piece of shit.” In New York, Psy-Group mounted a campaign on behalf of wealthy Jewish-American donors to embarrass and intimidate activists on American college campuses who support a movement to put economic pressure on Israel because of its treatment of the Palestinians.
…In early meetings with donors, in New York, Burstien said that the key to mounting an effective anti-B.D.S. campaign was to make it look as though Israel, and the Jewish-American community, had nothing to do with the effort. The goal of Butterfly, according to a 2017 company document, was to “destabilize and disrupt anti-Israel movements from within.” Psy-Group operatives scoured the Internet, social-media accounts, and the “deep” Web—areas of the Internet not indexed by search engines like Google—for derogatory information about B.D.S. activists. If a student claimed to be a pious Muslim, for example, Psy-Group operatives would look for photographs of him engaging in behavior unacceptable to many pious Muslims, such as drinking alcohol or having an affair. Psy-Group would then release the information online using avatars and Web sites that couldn’t be traced back to the company or its donors.
….Psy-Group also conducted “off-line” operations, as the company sometimes termed clandestine on-the-ground activities, according to a former company employee. Early on the evening of June 9th, a woman with short blond hair knocked on Senovia’s front door, and told Senovia’s adult son Richard, who answered, that she was a supporter of his mother’s campaign. …Richard noticed that a man was standing across the street, next to a Yukon Denali S.U.V., taking photographs with a telephoto lens.
…Some of the photographs soon appeared on Draintulareswamp.com, under the title “Who Is Pulling Senovia’s Strings?” The photographs seemed designed to make it appear as if Senovia had taken a bribe.
…Other articles on Draintulareswamp.com questioned whether Senovia was fit to manage finances, and published records showing that she had filed for bankruptcy in 2003. (The bankruptcy records were authentic.)
…On June 15th, campaign flyers ridiculing Senovia for having “zero experience,” and directing residents who “want proof” to visit Tularespeaks.com, appeared on door handles around town. The small businessman who printed and distributed the flyers said that he had been paid in cash by a stranger who used the name Francesco Manoletti, which appears to be a made-up persona.
…On the eve of the election, Alex’s house burned down and he lost almost everything, including his final batch of campaign flyers. He suspected that the blaze could have been election-related, but local fire-department officials said that they saw no evidence of foul play.
……Psy-Group’s larger ambition was to break into the U.S. election market. During the 2016 Presidential race, the company pitched members of Donald Trump’s campaign team on its ability to influence the results.
….Some viewed Nader as an influence peddler; others said that he had been intimately involved in high-stakes negotiations in the Middle East for decades. Martin Indyk, an adviser to Presidents Clinton and Obama on Middle Eastern affairs and now a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “We used to joke that George was in the pay of at least three intelligence services—the Syrian, the Israeli, and the Iranian.”
…Erik Prince, the founder of the Blackwater security firm, helped arrange a meeting at Trump Tower among Zamel, Nader, and Donald Trump, Jr. (Prince, whose sister Betsy DeVos became Trump’s Education Secretary, was a major Trump donor and had access to members of his team.)
…Shortly after the election Zamel bragged to Nader that he had conducted a secret campaign that had been influential in Trump’s victory. Zamel agreed to brief Nader on how the operation had worked. During that conversation, Zamel showed Nader several analytical reports, including one that described the role of avatars, bots, fake news, and unattributed Web sites in assisting Trump. Zamel told Nader, “Here’s the work that we did to help get Trump elected,” according to the Nader representative.
…Burstien started making the rounds in Washington with a new PowerPoint presentation, which some Psy-Group employees called the “If we had done it” slide deck, and which appeared similar to the one that Nader saw. Titled “Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential Campaign—Analysis,” the presentation outlined the role of Web sites, avatars,and bots in influencing the outcome of the election. In one case highlighted in the slide deck, pro-Trump avatars joined a Facebook page for Bernie Sanders supporters and then flooded it with links to anti-Hillary Clinton articles from Web sites that posted fake news, creating a hostile environment for real members of the group. “Bernie supporters had left our page in droves, depressed and disgusted by the venom,” the group’s administrator was quoted as saying. As part of the presentation, Burstien pointed out that Russian operatives had been caught meddling in the U.S.; Psy-Group, he told clients, was “more careful.”
…The [F.B.I.] had taken an interest in George Nader for helping to organize a secretive meeting in the Seychelles ahead of Trump’s Inauguration, with the aim of creating an unofficial channel with Vladimir Putin. In January, 2018, F.B.I. agents stopped Nader, an American citizen, at Dulles International Airport and served him with a grand-jury subpoena. Nader agreed to coöperate, and told F.B.I. agents about his various dealings related to the Trump campaign, including his discussions with Zamel. (Nader has been granted immunity in exchange for testifying truthfully, according to one of his representatives. “Someone who has this kind of immunity has no incentive to lie,” the representative said.)
..According to a former company official, Zamel decided to shut down Psy-Group in February, 2018, just as Mueller’s team began questioning employees.
…Despite embarrassing missteps, which have exposed some Psy-Group and Black Cube operations to public scrutiny, a former senior Israeli intelligence official said that global demand for “private Mossads” is growing, and that the market for influence operations is expanding into new commercial areas. In particular, the former official cites the potentially huge market for using avatars to influence real-estate prices—by creating the illusion that bidders are offering more money for a property, for example, or by spreading rumors about the presence of toxic chemicals to scare off competition. “From a free-market point of view, it’s scary,” a former Psy-Group official said, adding that the list of possible applications for avatars was “endless.” Another veteran of Israeli private intelligence warned, “We are looking at the tip of the iceberg in terms of where this can go.”