Why Did a Creepy Israeli Intel Firm Spy on Obama Alums?

Colin Kahl said Trump officials were uniquely obsessed with him and Ben Rhodes.

On Saturday, the British newspaper The Observer published an article that, if true, should rocket into the top tier of Donald Trump scandals. Aides to the president, it said, “hired an Israeli private intelligence agency to orchestrate a ‘dirty ops’ campaign against key individuals from the Obama administration who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal.”

The Israeli agents, said The Observer, specifically targeted Ben Rhodes, who had been one of Barack Obama’s national security advisers, and Colin Kahl, a deputy assistant to Obama and national security adviser to Joe Biden. The idea, apparently, was to smear them as corrupt in order to discredit the Iran deal as a whole.

The Observer did not identify the Israeli intelligence firm. But on Twitter, Kahl described a strange overture made to his wife last year, when she was serving on the fund-raising committee for their daughter’s elementary school. A woman claiming to represent a British private equity firm interested in donating to the school emailed his wife and insisted that they meet. (Kahl and his wife were suspicious, and the meeting never happened.)

Credit...Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

As Laura Rozen, a foreign policy journalist, reported, the woman who emailed Kahl’s wife claimed to work for Reuben Capital Partners. That’s the same fake firm that a female operative for the Israeli intelligence firm Black Cube used as a cover when she spied on the actress Rose McGowan for Harvey Weinstein.

Sure enough, on Sunday, The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow confirmed that it was Black Cube that targeted Kahl and Rhodes. (The company had also tried to get to Rhodes through his wife.) Additionally, wrote Farrow, Black Cube “compiled a list of more than 30 reporters who it believed were in touch with Obama administration officials, annotated with instructions about how to seek negative information.”

In a remotely normal America, Congress would immediately plan hearings into Black Cube. Of course, that’s not the America we live in. “We’re in an era right now in which there’s so many scandals that it’s impossible to appropriately react to all of them because we would just be completely emotionally drained,” said Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council and author of “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy.”

During the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations, Parsi, who was an informal adviser to Obama during negotiations with Iran, said that an American intelligence source warned him, through a third party, that Trump would try to discredit him and other supporters of the Iran deal. Parsi recently discovered, thanks to a reporter covering the Black Cube story, that he had been interviewed last year by a Black Cube operative posing as a journalist. Speaking of the warning and the Black Cube encounter, he told me, “I have little reason to believe that they’re not linked.”

There are still a great many unknowns in this story, which, like so much of this administration, has a wild, dystopian implausibility. Contrary to the Observer’s reporting, a source told Farrow that Black Cube was working on behalf of a private-sector client, not the Trump administration. Black Cube itself denied working for Trump or anyone close to him. A report in the Israeli media said the operation was related to a dispute between shipping companies.

But at a minimum, it’s outrageous that Black Cube, a company of former Israeli intelligence agents, appears to have spied on Americans to undermine the Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump seems poised to pull out of on Tuesday. It’s grotesque that Black Cube did so by targeting the spouses of former Obama administration officials. And if Trump’s team had any role at all in using foreign spies against American citizens, it should end his presidency, even if it probably won’t.

When I spoke to Kahl on Monday, he described the shipping company explanation as “laughably implausible.” Kahl emphasized that he has no idea who was behind the approach to his wife. But he points out that Trump officials were obsessed with him and Rhodes; on Fox News, the former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka spoke darkly about the “Ben Rhodes-Colin Kahl nexus.”

“In the spring of last year, there was a group of senior aides at the White House who, maybe because of Ben and my social media presence on Twitter, were convinced that somehow we were the puppet-masters that were pulling all the strings of the deep state,” he said. “I know that sounds crazy. It is crazy.” But to Kahl, it’s hard to imagine why someone who wasn’t caught up in conspiracy theories about him and Rhodes would single out the two of them for surveillance.

“I have zero — zero — evidence that Trump aides did this,” Kahl told me. “None. But it needs to be explained, this weird coincidence of this strange fixation on Ben and me by a handful of White House aides at the exact same moment in time that this Israeli firm gets hired to dig into us and our families.”

Parsi believes it will be. “I think this is just the beginning,” he said. “I think we’re going to find out more about what this firm has done, and what this administration has done.” If so, it will be up to the rest of us to make sure that it matters.

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