Private Mossad for Hire
Inside an effort to influence American elections, starting with one small-town race.
February 18 & 25, 2019
By Adam Entous and Ronan Farrow
(...) Psy-Group had more success pitching an operation, code-named Project Butterfly, to wealthy Jewish-American donors. The operation targeted what Psy-Group described as “anti-Israel” activists on American college campuses who supported the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, known as B.D.S. Supporters of B.D.S. see the movement as a way to use nonviolent protest to pressure Israel about its treatment of the Palestinians; detractors say that B.D.S. wrongly singles out Israel as a human-rights offender. B.D.S. is anathema to many ardent supporters of the Israeli government.
In early meetings with donors, in New York, Burstien said that the key to mounting an effective anti-B.D.S. campaign was to make it look as though Israel, and the Jewish-American community, had nothing to do with the effort. The goal of Butterfly, according to a 2017 company document, was to “destabilize and disrupt anti-Israel movements from within.” Psy-Group operatives scoured the Internet, social-media accounts, and the “deep” Web—areas of the Internet not indexed by search engines like Google—for derogatory information about B.D.S. activists. If a student claimed to be a pious Muslim, for example, Psy-Group operatives would look for photographs of him engaging in behavior unacceptable to many pious Muslims, such as drinking alcohol or having an affair. Psy-Group would then release the information online using avatars and Web sites that couldn’t be traced back to the company or its donors.
Project Butterfly launched in February, 2016, and Psy-Group asked donors for $2.5 million for operations in 2017. Supporters were told that they were “investing in Israel’s future.” In some cases, a former company employee said, donors asked Psy-Group to target B.D.S. activists at universities where their sons and daughters studied.
The project would focus on as many as ten college campuses. According to an update sent to donors in May, 2017, Psy-Group conducted two “tours of the main theatre of action,” and met with the campaign’s outside “partners,” which it did not name. Psy-Group employees had recently travelled to Washington to visit officials at a think tank called the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which had shared some of its research on the B.D.S. movement. In a follow-up meeting, which was attended by Burstien, Psy-Group provided F.D.D. with a confidential memo describing how it had compiled dossiers on nine activists, including a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. In the memo, Psy-Group asked the foundation for guidance on identifying future targets. According to an F.D.D. official, the foundation “did not end up contracting with them, and their research did little to advance our own.”
Burstien recruited Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy director of Mossad, to help with the project. As the director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, from 2014 to 2016, Ben-Barak had drawn up a plan for the state to combat the B.D.S. movement, but it was never implemented. Ben-Barak was enthusiastic about Butterfly. He said that the fight against B.D.S. was like “a war.” In the case of B.D.S. activists, he said, “you don’t kill them but you do have to deal with them in other ways.” (...)