by Mitchell Plitnick
The private Israeli intelligence firm, Black Cube, is back in the headlines. This time, ex-employees have spilled the beans on a program to throw shade on non-governmental organizations in Hungary to help ensure the electoral victory of nationalist president Viktor Orban.
Black Cube has been hit with several controversies in recent months. Back in November 2017, it was revealed that disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein engaged Black Cube to dig up dirt on his accusers and potential accusers. In an embarrassing turn for Israel, it turned out that former Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had introduced Weinstein to Black Cube’s leadership.
In May, journalist Ronan Farrow reported that Black Cube had been hired to dig up dirt on two officials—Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl—in Barack Obama’s administration who were deeply involved in negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran. Agents of the firm used phony identities to contact the officials’ spouses to try to find information they could, presumably, use to discredit Rhodes and Kahl and thereby cast a shadow on the entire effort with Iran.
Similarly deceptive tactics seem to have been used in Hungary. According to a report in the European edition of Politico, in the weeks before the Hungarian election, agents of Black Cube, posing as supporters of Hungarian progressive NGOs, contacted key figures in the NGO community, attempting to get damaging information. They secretly recorded their conversations and those recordings were used to bolster Orban’s demonization of the NGO sector in general, and philanthropist George Soros in particular.
Orban easily won the election, and no doubt would have even without the underhanded tactics Black Cube employed. But he used the recordings to great effect in bolstering his nationalistic and reactionary messages. Politico reported,
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 installed 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.
Orban’s anti-Semitism can be called dog-whistling only because he never actually says the word “Jew.” But his attacks on Soros have frequently employed anti-Semitic tropes, and his speeches have been bursting with them.
Orban has also been repeatedly embraced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That’s no surprise, as Netanyahu himself has employed similar tropes. After Orban’s win, Netanyahu tweeted, “I spoke with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, congratulated him on his election victory, and invited him to visit Israel. Thank you, Prime Minister Orban, for Hungary’s support for Israel in international forums!”
Ehud Barak is a different figure from Netanyahu, but he is obviously well acquainted with Black Cube through one of the firm’s board members, Giora Eiland, a retired Israel Defense Forces major general. Eiland worked very closely with Barak when the latter was prime minister. The Black Cube board of advisors is a mix of high-level administrators, IT professionals, and military and police leaders. The firm has an elaborate website that is still vague on specifics regarding both their clients and their operations.
When the operation targeting Obama’s people came to light, Ben Rhodes said, “This just eviscerates any norm of how governments should operate or treat their predecessors and their families. It crosses a dangerous line.” The Hungary case would seem to cross another one.
Black Cube v. EU
Black Cube is an Israeli firm hired by an anti-Semitic Hungarian leader to provide fodder for a smear campaign in his home country. One of Black Cube’s targets was Balázs Dénes of the Civil Liberties Union for Europe. After the recordings were made public, the story was published in both Hungary and, interestingly, in Israel. The Israeli write-up is telling.
Denes was working to overturn a Hungarian law that prohibits foreign funding of NGOs, something that has been a very big issue in Israel as well. These laws run contrary to European Union regulations, and the EU works to oppose them wherever they are employed, in or outside of the EU itself.
Summing up the “accusations” against Denes, the Jerusalem Post article stated,
Dénes’s remarks show a focused effort by his organization to influence Hungarian law by leveraging German influence against the country. He detailed attempts to convince Germany to put heavy economic pressure on Budapest to abrogate the NGO law, because German companies have invested heavily and are major employers in Hungary.
The framing of the actions here is key. Denes is working to change the law in Hungary and is working to get Germany to help him. This mirrors much lobbying work that Israeli NGOs have done in appealing to Europe and to supporters in other places, like the United States and elsewhere. But the Jerusalem Post characterizes it as “leveraging influence against the country” even though Denes was working to bring Hungary more in line with the EU principles to which Hungary is supposed to be committed. Granted, it’s a politically volatile act in Hungary, but characterizing it as working “against the country” is the worst kind of demagoguery.
This was the Israeli, not the Hungarian, report. Given the scope of Black Cube’s activities, it is hard to imagine they did not have a hand in shaping this coverage.
Black Cube and Israel
Although Black Cube is certainly not an arm of the Israeli government itself, its credibility rests on its association with well known retired Israeli officials. The reports frequently reference agents being former Isreali Defense Forces, Mossad, or other Israeli clandestine operatives. But apparently, when a government contracts experts from another country to undermine its own civil society, that is acceptable. It is only when civil society tries to work with other governments, through legitimate advocacy methods that are the very essence of political activity, that there is a problem.
It’s not clear who hired Black Cube to spy on Kahl and Rhodes, but suspicion immediately fell on the Donald Trump administration. Naturally, the administration denied it, and Black Cube said that it had no contact with anyone in the administration. Hardly unimpeachable sources, but Farrow also reported that a source told him it was a “private sector client” that had hired Black cube.
Black Cube goes out of its way to assert that its activities are always within the scope of applicable local laws, although two of their employees pled guilty in Romania to spying on that country’s anti-corruption chief. But legal or not, their activities are questionable. The common thread in the Weinstein, Rhodes/Kahl, and Orban controversies is spying on civilians for the purpose of getting information that can then be twisted, used only in part, or taken out of context to make a party who has incurred the wrath of a rich and powerful employer look bad.
That these people would engage in such activities is worrisome enough. That an Israeli-Jewish organization would do it on behalf of an anti-Semite is even more appalling.