Spy Firm Hired to Find ‘Dirt’ on Obama Officials, Possibly by Trump Allies: Report

Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the president’s visit to Israel last year. Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Getty Images

A year ago, a private Israeli intelligence agency was hired to run “dirty ops” against two former Obama administration officials in an attempt to discredit the Iran nuclear deal, according to a wild report in The Observer. It appears the agency was Black Cube, the same firm that disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein hired to go after women who accused him of sexual assault.

Even more stunning: The Observer reported that the firm was hired by unknown persons associated with the Trump administration, which would mean people close to the current president were attempting to “get dirt” on former White House aides in an effort to sabotage an international agreement. The targets of the campaign find that plausible, but in a report published on Sunday night, The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow said one of his sources told him the campaign was actually “part of Black Cube’s work for a private sector client pursuing commercial interests related to sanctions on Iran.”

On Saturday, The Observer reported that just after President Trump’s trip to Israel last May, Trump “aides” hired the agency to dig up dirt on Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl, two top advisers to President Obama who helped craft the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

Kahl noted on Twitter that after reading The Observer story, his wife recalled receiving a suspicious email from a stranger looking to meet with her to discuss contributing money to their daughter’s school. Said Kahl about his wife’s encounter: “This was not a generic ‘Nigerian prince’ scam. This person had all sorts of specific information on my wife’s volunteer duties at an obscure D.C. elementary school.” Reporter Laura Rozen later confirmed on Twitter that the emailer claimed they worked for Reuben Capital Partners, the same fake firm name that the Weinstein-hired intel agency, Black Cube, used in its attempts to target actress Rose McGowan and others:

Black Cube is a private intel company staffed by former agents of the Israeli spy agency Mossad. In a Pulitzer Prize–winning report about Weinstein, which was published in October, Farrow revealed that Black Cube investigators, using false identities, met with McGowan and a journalist in attempts to extract information that could be used to stop the publication of allegations of abuse against Weinstein.

On Sunday night, Farrow said the tactics used in the Iran and Weinstein operations were remarkably similar. Emails McGowan and Farrow received from someone claiming to be “Diana Filip” contained almost identical language to messages Norris and Kahl received from “Adriana Gavrilo” and “Eva Novak.” When Farrow dug into their backstories, their online identities started disappearing:

Adriana Gavrilo and Eva Novak appear to be aliases. LinkedIn pages for both Gavrilo and Novak at one point showed a slim blond woman advertised as fluent in Serbian. Shortly after The New Yorker contacted Black Cube about this story, Novak’s LinkedIn page was deleted. The e-mail addresses listed by both women do not work. Calls to the phone number Novak listed went unanswered. The Web sites for Reuben Capital Partners and Shell Productions have been taken down, but both were bare-bones pages constructed through the free site-building tool Wix. The addresses for both companies led to shared office spaces; there is no evidence that Shell Productions or Reuben Capital Partners had ever operated there.

Farrow also shed more light on the campaign against Rhodes and Kahl:

Black Cube agents were instructed to try to find damaging information about them, including unsubstantiated claims that Rhodes and Kahl had worked closely with Iran lobbyists and were personally enriched through their policy work on Iran (they denied those claims); rumors that Rhodes was one of the Obama staffers responsible for “unmasking” Trump transition officials who were named in intelligence documents (Rhodes denied the claim); and an allegation that one of the individuals targeted by the campaign had an affair.

Black Cube has also been linked to Cambridge Analytica, the now-shuttered, super-shady data firm founded by the Trump megadonors Robert Mercer and Rebekah Mercer, which worked for the Trump Campaign in 2016.

On Sunday, the company denied having done the work described by The Observer, with a spokesperson telling Haaretz that “Black Cube had nothing to do with this,” and that any claims to the contrary were “false.” (The company has never denied working for Weinstein.)

Trump seems certain to walk out of the nuclear deal with Iran later this week, after his previous attempts to do so were stymied by more rational advisers who have since departed his administration. He, or his anti-Iran-deal allies, may have been looking for more ammunition to justify doing so, per The Observer’s report:

A source with details of the “dirty tricks campaign” said: “The idea was that people acting for Trump would discredit those who were pivotal in selling the deal, making it easier to pull out of it.”

According to incendiary documents seen by the Observer, investigators contracted by the private intelligence agency were told to dig into the personal lives and political careers of Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, and Kahl, a national security adviser to the former vice-president Joe Biden. Among other things they were looking at personal relationships, any involvement with Iran-friendly lobbyists, and if they had benefited personally or politically from the peace deal.

Investigators were also apparently told to contact prominent Iranian Americans as well as pro-deal journalists — from the New York Times, MSNBC television, the Atlantic, Vox website and Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper among others — who had frequent contact with Rhodes and Kahl in an attempt to establish whether they had violated any protocols by sharing sensitive intelligence.

The campaign reportedly began days after Trump visited Tel Aviv and discussed the deal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last May. The Guardian acknowledges, however, that “although sources have confirmed that contact and an initial plan of attack [on the Obama administration officials] was provided to private investigators by representatives of Trump, it is not clear how much work was actually undertaken, for how long or what became of any material unearthed.”

There is also a lot of frustrating vagueness in the report over who worked to set up the campaign. Calling them “aides to Donald Trump,” “people in the Trump camp,” or “representatives of Trump” is a pretty broad way to refer to members or associates of a current U.S. presidential administration who may have paid a private intelligence agency in a foreign country to go after members of a previous administration.

That doesn’t mean that the claim is not plausible, however, considering the ever-growing number of people in Trump’s orbit who have been indicted or found to have behaved unethically. Kahl noted that around the same time Black Cube was allegedly targeting him, White House officials were attacking him and Rhodes in the conservative press:

In an earlier Twitter thread, Kahl said, at the very least, it’s disturbing that the Trump connection doesn’t sound utterly ridiculous:

Perhaps it was just a coincidence that this obvious scam targeting my family had all the hallmarks of an intel op and coincided with Team Trump’s reported efforts to “dig up dirt” on me. But the fact that I even have to think about the possibility that my family was targeted by people working for the President is yet another sign of the fundamental degradation of our country that Trump has produced.

Added Rhodes in a comment to The Observer: “digging up dirt on someone for carrying out their professional responsibilities in their positions as White House officials is a chillingly authoritarian thing to do.” It’s not clear if the operation targeted any other Obama administration officials who worked on the Iran deal.

This post has been updated to include Black Cube’s denial, and Farrow’s reporting.

Spy Effort, Maybe Trump-Linked, Targeted Obama Aides: Report