Following press reports overseas that Israeli private intelligence company Black Cube was hired by oil drilling company Oro Negro to expose a bribery scam at Mexican state-owned energy company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), resulting in a lawsuit against Pemex, "Globes" spoke to Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, who has advised Black Cube for the past two years, about the company's role in the Pemex affair and its operating methods.
"The investigation in Mexico is a typical Black Cube operation," Eiland says."In this case, Oro Negro obtained a franchise to sell oil to Pemex, a government agency. The parties agreed a price, but Pemex was afterwards unwilling to pay it. It was hinted to Oro Negro that the prices had been lowered because it wasn't paying a bribe, or 'success fees.' The resulting losses amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars. It was obvious that something wasn't right, but there wasn't any proof. The hints that the company received weren't documented, and in any case could have been interpreted differently."
"Globes": This is where Black Cube entered the picture?
Eiland: Yes. The call doesn't necessarily come from Black Cube's final client. In this case, we received a call from one of the largest law firms in the US, which works with Black Cube in the US and Europe. Lawyers are good at proving things with documents, but when someone talks about someone else using hints, lawyers don't always know what to do with it."
Black Cube, founded by veterans of the IDF Intelligence Corps, is managed by Avi Yanus and Dan Zorella. Many of its employees previously worked in the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the Mossad. Its senior advisors include former Mossad director Efraim Halevy and former Israel Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino.
Eiland says that the company relies on only two intelligence gathering techniques: human intelligence (HUMINT), and gathering and analyzing information from non-confidential sources, such as reports in the communications media and social media, or understanding the structure of the company being investigated and the existing law in that country.
After constructing an intelligence picture of the target, agents employed by Black Cube enter the arena.
"This is the HUMINT method, in which we make contact with people and induce them to talk and perhaps say things that they did not intend to say, and perhaps even against their interests."
That is what happened with an executive at Pemex. Agents talked with him at a restaurant in Mexico City, and he opened a Pandora's box.
"That's right. Now you will presumably want to ask why people talk and why people tell people about things? There's a psychological element here that everyone has to one degree or another. Let's assume that I used my cleverness to steal $10 million from you. I got rich and you went bust, and nobody knows about it. I'm happy - I have $10 million, and I'm so proud that I'm smart and you're dumb - so I have to tell somebody about it.
"This is a temptation that cannot always be resisted. Call it ego, or call it anything you like. People eventually talk. Obviously, you don't go to someone and ask him to tell you how he gave a bribe. You use trickery. You usually pretend that you're somebody else."
In recent years, Black Cube has been linked to various affairs in Israel and elsewhere, including the case of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The company has been accused of surveillance of women who accused Weinstein of sexual assault and journalists involved in publicizing the case.
According to Eiland, since these affairs, the company has introduced internal procedures aimed at avoiding entanglement in another scandal. "We established a procedure in which every approach that we receive is assessed by someone who functions as a chief compliance officer, who colors it green, yellow, or red," he says. A case colored yellow requires further clarification with the client, while red means an an approach from a criminal organization or an Iranian company. "Then there's a committee that decides which clients to accept and which to reject. I or one of three former high-ranking intelligence officers on this committee have veto power. We have set limits for ourselves that we don't cross: the company doesn't deal in political or policy matters; doesn’t engage in actions that are illegal in the countries in which it operates; always acts on behalf of the injured party, not the injuring party; and all of its activity is for the purpose of litigation and legal proceedings taking place in a Western country. The company makes a good profit, and its owners can also sleep well at night."
Four months ago, the Uvda television program on Channel 12 (Keshet) broadcast an investigation into Black Cube's activity on behalf of Idan Ofer on the issue of royalties on potash mining at the Dead Sea. The investigation mentioned information gathering on legal counsel and senior officials at the Ministry of Finance involved in those proceedings.
"Everything described there was from three or more years ago, before I began advising the company, and before the procedures I'm talking about were established. This was a case of a journalist who wasn't at her best. Some of the things broadcast in the program are the subject of legal proceedings, and not just because they were portrayed unfairly, but because they were wrong. They accused us of bugging, which is a criminal offense. We never touch it. The same is true of passport forgery. It's forbidden for a commercial company to do this."
Black Cube swiftly sued Uvda for £15 million in a UK court, which is an unusual step.
"There was no other way out. The company has two centers, in the UK and in Israel, and the main law firms that it works with are in the UK, so it was convenient and preferable to file the lawsuit there. In this case, it's also likely that the UK court will be far more balanced in its view of what happened or didn't happen."
This can also be perceived as a lawsuit designed to silence journalists.
"There was damage in this case. If you're a journalist, you're allowed to criticize and write harsh things, and I'm always in favor of this, unless you write lies. Then we, as a company, have no other resort but to do this. Even if you write things that I don't like, no one will try to silence you."
Some people will regard you, a major general in the reserves, and other former high-ranking intelligence officers like Halevy and Danino, as a fig leaf for a company that may be acting underhandedly. You are people known for your honesty and your good name. You are the company's external face. Does that bother you?
"I hear this argument now and then. If I thought that the company was acting unethically or doing harmful things, I wouldn't go anywhere near them, if only for my own selfish reasons. When you reach a certain age, your good name is more important to you than anything else. In this case, I was convinced that Black Cube badly needed responsible adults to set boundaries both for the way it accepts projects and for its modus operandi, and particularly to help it avoid actions that run counter to Israel's interests."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 24, 2019
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