HUNGARY: Israeli intelligence firm targeted NGOs during election campaign

(Lili Bayer on POLITICO) The Israeli private intelligence firm Black Cube was involved in a campaign to discredit NGOs ahead of Hungary’s April election, according to a former Black Cube employee and a person with knowledge of the company’s inner workings.

Between December 2017 and March 2018, Hungarian NGOs and individuals connected to American-Hungarian businessman George Soros were contacted by agents using false identities who secretly recorded them. The recordings, which began appearing in the Jerusalem Post and Hungarian government-controlled daily paper Magyar Idők three weeks before Hungary’s election, were used by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to attack independent civil society organizations during the last days of the campaign. Orbán’s right-wing Fidesz party went on to win in a landslide.

Black Cube is a Tel Aviv-based firm that has been implicated in scandals in the United States and Europe. The Hungarian campaign would represent the first time Black Cube’s work has been allegedly used in the run-up to an election.

“It is Black Cube’s policy to never discuss its clients with any third party, and to never confirm or deny any speculation made with regard to the company’s work,” a spokesperson for Black Cube told POLITICO. “It is important to note that Black Cube always operates in full compliance of the law in every jurisdiction in which it conducts its work, following legal advice from the world’s leading law firms.”

The two people familiar with the firm, who asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak about the company, said they don’t know who paid for the operation and whether the Hungarian government was involved.

A spokesperson for the Hungarian government did not respond to a request for comment.

The people who met and recorded the NGO officials used European and Arab cover names, but at least two of them spoke with discernible Israeli accents, according to people at the organizations who met with them.

One person with knowledge of Black Cube’s work confirmed that at least one of the individuals who met and recorded a target of the operation is employed by the Israeli company.

In the Hungarian operation, people using fake names met with their targets at hotels and upscale restaurants in Budapest, Vienna, Amsterdam, London and New York City.

The companies they purported to represent did not exist. LinkedIn accounts and websites presented to the targets of the operation were deleted shortly after the meetings. Most of the phone numbers used were disconnected in the weeks following the meetings.

In two cases, NGO leaders were approached by a woman calling herself Anna Bauer, and in one instance the woman presented herself as working for a firm called Tauro Capital.

“Tauro Capital” and “Anna Bauer” were covers created by Black Cube in the past for different company projects, the former employee said, noting that it is common for the firm to “reuse infrastructure.”

Warwick Street

Two individuals who claimed to represent a company called Orion Venture Capital provided one of the operation’s targets — Balázs Dénes, the Hungarian head of the Berlin-based, Soros-funded NGO Civil Liberties Union for Europe — with business cards bearing an address of 46 Warwick Street in London. Following the publication of a recording of Dénes, all traces of the firm, including its website and social media presence, disappeared.

Black Cube has used addresses on Warwick Street when setting up fake companies for other operations, according to documents seen by POLITICO.

Black Cube used a Warwick Street address in an email signature when targeting an actress who had accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of rape.

Black Cube was hired by Weinstein to collect information on actresses, as well as journalists investigating him. The Israeli company has apologized for that operation, first reported by the New Yorker.

As a part of the operation, an undercover Israeli Black Cube employee befriended actress Rose McGowan. She claimed to work for a company called Reuben Capital Partners, headquartered at 48 Warwick Street in London, according to an email signature from the Black Cube operative that McGowan shared with POLITICO.

Similarly, according to the New Yorker, Black Cube employees using false identities and pretending to work for fake firms sent emails to the family members of Obama administration officials who were involved in negotiating the Iran deal, as part of a broader effort to collect information on the former officials.

Black Cube has denied that it carried out operations targeting former Obama administration officials.

In May 2017, Rebecca Kahl, the wife of Colin Kahl, a former Obama administration official, received an email from a woman calling herself Adriana Gavrilo. In the email — first reported by the New Yorker and seen by POLITICO — Gavrilo presented herself as an employee of Reuben Capital Partners and listed 48 Warwick Street as the company’s address.

That address is home to an office rental facility, managed by Regus, a company that operates short-term office spaces around the world.

Black Cube uses Regus offices “nearly exclusively” when providing fake addresses, the former company employee said. The firm generally does not rent an office, but merely uses Regus addresses when signing emails to targets, the former employee said. Contacted by phone, Regus said that it has no firm by the name of Orion Venture Capital in its system. One phone number originally provided to the NGO leader is no longer in service, while another forwards to a mailbox for a different number.

Individuals targeting NGOs during the Hungarian election campaign provided addresses at Regus facilities in Berlin, Madrid, Paris and Bahrain.

Moreover, two people working for the firm were arrested in Romania in 2016 for spying on the country’s anti-corruption chief. At the time, the firm acknowledged that two of its employees were in custody, and they ultimately pleaded guilty in Romanian courts and received suspended sentences and mandatory community service. A third Black Cube employee fled Romania.

‘Soros’ people’

Black Cube employs a full-time Hungarian analyst at its Tel Aviv headquarters, according to the former employee.

The company is made up of primarily young analysts and operatives who previously worked for Israeli intelligence, the former employee said. While the firm is often portrayed in the media as associated with the Israeli national intelligence agency Mossad, in reality most of its employees are former soldiers who worked for the Israeli Defense Forces’ intelligence, this person added.

The recordings published in Hungarian media consisted of short, edited excerpts of conversations between the agents and targets, which were publicized by the government ahead of the April vote.

In one instance, Hungarian government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács wrote on his blog that “according to a recently uncovered statement by Tracie Ahern, former chief financial officer of the Soros Fund Management, the billionaire financier commands a quasi-mercenary force of at least 2,000 people, tasked with achieving three goals: bringing down Prime Minister Orbán’s government, dismantling the border fence, and promoting immigration to Hungary.”

According to a statement by the Open Society Foundations following the publication of the leak, Ahern had not said that Soros has 2,000 employees in Hungary, but rather that there are “around 2,000 people” working for the foundation “around the world.”

During the campaign, Orbán warned that Hungary was under threat by those he calls external and internal enemies, and used the recordings to try to discredit critics. “[George] Soros’ people will be instaled in government; this is what the ‘Soros Leaks’ recordings tell us,” Orbán said in an interview days ahead of the election.

“If Soros’ people have influence in government, they will occupy the Hungarian energy sector and the banking system. And the Hungarian people will pay the price for that. Against Soros’ candidates, the people can only rely on our candidates,” he said.

Some of the NGOs targeted, like the Open Society Foundations, are funded by Soros. Others, like Migration Aid, have no connection to Soros. Some of those targeted, such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, are among those independent civil society groups most often criticized by the Hungarian government.

Following the election, the Hungarian government approved legislation that impacts some of the NGOs that were targeted during the clandestine campaign. These organizations’ employees could now face jail time for their work promoting refugees’ rights and representing asylum seekers in court.

POLITICO reported earlier that the activities targeting NGOs initially attracted the attention of Hungary’s intelligence services, which became aware that Hungarian citizens were being targeted as early as January 2018. No legal case was opened.

In its announcement that it is leaving Hungary and moving employees to Berlin, the Soros-funded Open Society Foundations referred specifically to the clandestine campaign.

Featured image: Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images