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Reports: Intel Firm Was Hired To Discredit Former Obama Iran Deal Negotiators

An Israeli intelligence firm was reportedly hired last year to compile background dossiers on several former Obama administration officials, including Colin Kahl, seen here in 2012.
Chip Somodevilla
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An Israeli intelligence firm was reportedly hired last year to compile background dossiers on several former Obama administration officials, including Colin Kahl, seen here in 2012.

An Israeli intelligence firm was hired last year to do "dirty ops" research on former Obama administration officials who worked on the Iran nuclear deal, according to reports in the U.K.'s Observer and The New Yorker.

The firm is Black Cube, according to The New Yorker: the same company reportedly hired by Harvey Weinstein in 2016 to investigate the women and journalists he thought might come forward with allegations against him. Black Cube toutsthat the company is run by "a select group of veterans from the Israeli elite intelligence units."

The reports differ on who hired Black Cube.

The Observer reportsthat an Israeli intelligence firm was hired by aides to President Trump, "who contacted private investigators in May last year to 'get dirt' on Ben Rhodes, who had been one of Barack Obama's top national security advisers, and Colin Kahl, deputy assistant to Obama, as part of an elaborate attempt to discredit the deal."

Sources told the Observer that Trump's team had contacted the firm just days after he visited Israel last May. "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," a source told the newspaper.

A Black Cube spokesman told NPR that the firm was never hired by anyone within the Trump administration and said Black Cube's clients have business rather than political interests. But the company would neither confirm nor deny that a business client had hired the firm to do the work described in the New Yorker and Observer reports.

The White House did not respond to NPR's request for comment.

In the New Yorker, Ronan Farrow writes that a source told him "it was, in fact, part of Black Cube's work for a private-sector client pursuing commercial interests related to sanctions on Iran."

The documents he reviewed, Farrow says,

"show that Black Cube compiled detailed background profiles of several individuals, including Rhodes and Kahl, that featured their addresses, information on their family members, and even the makes of their cars. 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.

The campaign is strikingly similar to an operation that Black Cube ran on behalf of Harvey Weinstein, which was reported in The New Yorker last fall. One of Weinstein's attorneys, David Boies, hired Black Cube to halt the publication of sexual-misconduct allegations against Weinstein. Black Cube operatives used false identities to track women with allegations, and also reporters seeking to expose the story."

Kahl tells NPR that he first heard he had been a target of the firm's smear campaign about a week ago, "when reporters who were working on the story for The Observer and Guardian just sent me an email out of the blue, saying that in the course of their previous investigation on Cambridge Analytica, they had uncovered information suggesting that Ben Rhodes and I had been targeted by some firm. ... They asked if I had any information about it or ever heard about it, and I hadn't."

After reading the Observer story on Saturday, Kahl's wife remembered suspicious emails she had received in late May or early June last year, from someone who claimed to be with a finance company in the U.K. and wanted information about the Washington, D.C., school their daughter attended.

After a conversation with Farrow on Sunday, "it became clear that the fake company that had reached out to my wife was actually the same fake company that this Israeli firm, Black Cube, had used to try to discredit some of the accusers of Harvey Weinstein," Kahl says.

Farrow tells NPR that when he was reporting on the allegations against Weinstein, agents using false identities reached out to him, too, at Weinstein's behest — "in some cases using the same front companies used in the Iran operation."

Kahl, now a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, called the targeting "outrageous."

"There's the outrage that anybody would target former government officials and try to dig up dirt on them in their personal capacity to try to discredit the policy positions they had in government — that's just that just awful, period. It's especially awful that they not only went after me, but that they went after my family," he says. "So it's just creepy on a bunch of levels. And then you know even the mere possibility that it might somehow be tied to the current administration, of course, takes it to a stratospheric level of authoritarian creepiness."

Kahl says he doesn't know who hired Black Cube or why he and Rhodes were its targets. But he notes that during the same period when the firm was reportedly hired, he and Rhodes were repeatedly the subject of attacks by senior Trump aides.

Last May, former White House aide Sebastian Gorka referred on Fox News to "the Ben Rhodes/Colin Kahl nexus." A month later, a senior Trump official told The Washington Free Beacon that Rhodes and Kahl "provide marching orders to a broader group of people that are associated with the broader [Democratic Party] Podesta-Clinton network."

And Kahl notes one thing that makes him an odd target for spies: He is no longer working in government.

"I mean it happens in the intel world," he says. "Intelligence communities spy on foreign officials. It's, I think, rarer for them to spy on former government officials. And so one of the weird things about this is not that there would be intelligence collected on officials of the Obama administration, but why that intelligence would be collected on them after we left the Obama administration."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.
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