Spy vs. Spy: Watchdog Group Turns the Tables on an Undercover Agent

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Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity watchdog organization at the University of Toronto, has published hard-hitting research on powerful targets in recent years: Chinese government censorship, Silicon Valley’s invasion of customers’ privacy, despotic regimes’ electronic surveillance of dissidents. It’s the kind of work that can make enemies.

So when John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, got an odd request for a meeting last week from someone describing himself as a wealthy investor from Paris, he suspected a ruse and decided to set a trap.

Over lunch at New York’s five-star Peninsula Hotel, the white-bearded visitor, who said his name was Michel Lambert, praised Mr. Scott-Railton’s work and pried for details about Citizen Lab. Then — “as I was finishing my crème brûlée,” Mr. Scott-Railton said — a reporter and photographer from The Associated Press, alerted by Mr. Scott-Railton and lurking nearby, confronted the visitor, who bumped into chairs and circled the room while trying to flee.

At least two other men nearby appeared to be operatives — one who stood at the door, another who seemed to be filming from a table, said Mr. Scott-Railton, who himself filmed his lunch companion.

The case of the bumbling spy is the latest episode involving undercover agents, working for private intelligence firms or other clients, who adopt false identities to dig up compromising information about or elicit embarrassing statements from their targets.

“Michel Lambert” is a pseudonym and the Paris company he claimed to represent does not exist. The New York Times, in collaboration with Uvda, an investigative television show on Israel’s Channel 12, has confirmed that the mysterious visitor was Aharon Almog-Assoulin, a retired Israeli security official who until recently served on the town council in a Tel Aviv suburb.

Contacted by The Times on Sunday, he said, “I do not have any interest in continuing with this conversation” and hung up. Mr. Scott-Railton, shown a photograph of Mr. Almog-Assoulin, said he was certain it was the man he had met.

The phenomenon of private spies drew widespread attention in 2017, when Black Cube, an Israeli private intelligence firm, was found to have used undercover agents to approach women who had accused Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer, of sexual misconduct. Black Cube later was identified as having sent agents, again under false cover, to investigate Obama administration officials who had worked on the Iran nuclear deal.

Black Cube denied that it had played any role in approaching Citizen Lab employees, but the same undercover agent turned up in an earlier case in Canada with a Black Cube connection.

In October 2017, a man who resembles Mr. Almog-Assoulin appeared in Toronto, using another pseudonym, to meet someone involved in long-running litigation between Catalyst Capital Group and West Face Capital, two feuding private equity firms. The person, who asked not to be named to avoid further legal trouble, said that when he saw the photo of “Michel Lambert” in an A.P. story on Saturday, he immediately recognized him as the man who had approached him, given him a false business card and questioned him about the lawsuits.

In court papers, Catalyst Capital has acknowledged that to provide support for its litigation, its law firm engaged a company that subsequently hired Black Cube as a subcontractor.

Asked by The Times whether Mr. Almog-Assoulin has worked for Black Cube, the company and its lawyer replied with letters threatening legal action and saying the company had no part in the Citizen Lab case. The letters did not directly answer multiple questions on Mr. Almog-Assoulin’s role.

At the lunch with Mr. Scott-Railton, the supposed Mr. Lambert had asked repeated questions about one aspect of Citizen Lab’s work: a series of damning reports since 2016 on NSO Group, an Israeli company that makes surveillance software used by multiple governments to spy on their opponents, including a friend of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was murdered by government agents last October. The company has received extensive media coverage, including in The Times, often citing the Citizen Lab work.

A spokesman for NSO Group denied that the company had any connection to the Citizen Lab encounters.

“NSO had absolutely nothing to do with this incident — either directly or indirectly. Furthermore, we did not hire Black Cube or anyone else to investigate Citizen Lab’s activities and we did not ask any person or organization to hire Black Cube or any other person or firm to investigate Citizen Lab,” the spokesman said. He said NSO is “quite familiar with Citizen Lab’s shoddy ‘research’ and its philosophical opposition to our work helping intelligence agencies fight terrorism and crime.”

Mr. Scott-Railton was especially alert to the possibility that Citizen Lab might be a target of hostile attention because a colleague of his, Bahr Abdul Razzak, had been approached by a different undercover agent. Mr. Abdul Razzak quickly determined that the name and company that visitor had given were false, and he warned other Citizen Lab workers to watch for similar approaches.

In both cases, according to the Citizen Lab employees, the mysterious visitors claimed to have money to invest and asked questions about Citizen Lab’s work, particularly its research on NSO Group. They also seemed to be trying to provoke the Citizen Lab researchers into making anti-Semitic or otherwise offensive comments.

“Do you hate Israel?” Mr. Abdul Razzak was asked by the first visitor, who gave his name as “Gary Bowman,” apparently a pseudonym.

Mr. Scott-Railton noted that private intelligence companies often claim that they target only wrongdoers and act ethically and legally. “Well, the conduct of those who commissioned this work against Citizen Lab, and whoever executed it, crosses every ethical and moral line,” he said.

The operatives, whoever they were working for, did not seem especially smooth. Mr. Almog-Assoulin, posing as “Michel Lambert,” claimed to be intrigued by Mr. Scott-Railton’s doctoral research on using kites to lift cameras aloft, though drones have made the work a bit out of date.

At their lunch meeting, he read questions from cue cards of three colors that seemed to be organized by topic, explaining that at his age he needed them to keep the details straight. He held the cards in one hand, while in the other he held and awkwardly pointed a pen that appeared to contain a video recorder, Mr. Scott-Railton said.

In a phone conversation, he had told Mr. Scott-Railton that he had a son about his age. When they met, he said the child was a daughter.

At one point, Mr. Scott-Railton said, the supposed Mr. Lambert suggested that they move their conversation to a nearby cigar bar, noting that he was especially fond of Punch cigars, a premium brand.

As it happens, Mr. Almog-Assoulin’s profile picture on WhatsApp, a tool for secure texts and calls, is an image of the Punch cigar logo.

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