Peter Jukes on evidence that a former Guardian writer working for the Israeli security company threatened the award-winning Observer journalist.
It was a dark time. Six months earlier, Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr had broken one of the biggest political scandals of our times: the role of Cambridge Analytica in the shock 2016 Brexit referendum result in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US.
Her revelations that the data electioneering company had hacked up to 75 million Facebook users wiped billions off the social media giant’s share value. Numerous criminal investigations were initiated, as were congressional and parliamentary inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic.
But the pressure was still on.
I first got to know Carole a year earlier at the 2017 Byline Festival and, at that point, the threats she was facing were mainly legal. Carole and the Observer were being pursued by Cambridge Analytica’s powerful lawyers, Squire Boggs Patton, who also happened to act for Russian President Vladimir Putin and had hired Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen as a consultant. She joined Byline Festival for a spin-off event in New York that November where she was in talks with the New York Times about a secret Cambridge Analytica whistleblower. She was also due to present a Channel 4 News documentary on the subject.
Soon after, I met the whistleblower, Chris Wylie, in London and everyone was confident that the story would be out by Christmas – so confident that I wrote a fictional BBC radio play that December inspired by what was already in the public domain.
But, as the legal and professional quagmires wore on over that winter, more concerns about security rose.
Wylie appeared to be under surveillance and was sent a photo from an anonymous source of him leaving his lawyer’s office. There were rumours that Cambridge Analytica had employed Black Cube, a shadowy private investigations company staffed by ex-Israeli intelligence officers with headquarters in Tel Aviv and London.
Online, the threats made to Carole were more open and concerted, mostly led by Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign, which had boasted of working with Cambridge Analytica during the EU Referendum. The group posted a doctored version of a sequence from the movie Airplane, with Carole’s face clumsily superimposed on a hysterical woman being slapped and hit, with a queue of people with more lethal weapons lining up to assault her. The accompanying soundtrack was the Russian national anthem. The millionaire who had funded the Leave.EU campaign, Arron Banks, was often reminding Carole that she would be “less lippy in Russia”.
The Russian element was no idle threat.
By June 2018, I had helped Carole reveal that Banks and his team had multiple undisclosed meetings with the Russian Embassy in London during the EU Referendum, discussing lucrative gold and diamond deals and aligning their messaging. Banks said he had reported us to two police forces, falsely alleging that we had hacked his emails. Soon, even the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was involved, now tagging Carole (and Byline) into their tweets. A nuclear state, infamous for its treatment of journalists and targeting of critics in the UK with plutonium and nerve agents, was now focused on one sole investigative journalist.
But then came a threat from closer to home.
The Black Cube Operative
Ever since the Cambridge Analytica story broke in the spring of 2018, Carole had been in conversation with a former Guardian writer who had been introduced to her by another journalist.
The man, who I only knew at that time as “SF3”, had served in the Israeli military and said he had a relative who helped found Black Cube. He claimed that the company had also been “hired by Trump”. Carole was wary and told me that she felt he was prompting her to make anti-Israeli comments. They only met once.
In mid-August 2018, as information emerged that other Israel-based investigations and campaigning firms such Psy Group and Wikistrat worked for the Trump campaign, Carole wondered (in a now-deleted tweet) whether Israeli intelligence had played any part in domestic British politics.
Almost immediately, on 17 August, she received a series of threatening WhatsApp messages from her Black Cube confidante. SF3 said he was “disgusted” to see her “antisemitism” and that he was “no longer with you but very much against you”.
Although Carole agreed that anti-Semitism was horrifying and dangerous and that she didn’t mean to underplay it in any way, the threats mounted. “Gonna gun for you every time you rear your ugly head, you anti-Semitic scum,” the former IDF soldier wrote. “We will out you at every turn,” he continued – without being clear who the “we” was.
“F*ck you and yours,” he concluded, claiming to have secretly recorded their previous phone conversations. “My tapes of our many calls are going to bury you,” he told Carole, signing off with “habibi” (the Arabic for “darling”), accompanied by emoticons of the UAE flag and a unicorn.
Carole forwarded the text messages to me. I could see how alarmed she was. This guy was unpredictable and knew where she lived. After more than a year of online attacks, Carole was in a dark place and this was the last straw. She left social media for a month.
It wasn’t until over a year later, when the American journalist Ronan Farrow published his book Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators about the Harvey Weinstein scandal, that it became clear why Carole had every reason to be worried about SF3.
Seth Freedman and Black Cube
Seth Freedman is a Londoner brought up in Golders Green who became a city trader at 18 before joining the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) at the age of 24.
According to the Times of Israel, Freedman spent 15 months in an active service unit stationed on the occupied West Bank and the experience radicalised him. While he didn’t “act immorally” on combat duty, he said he was disillusioned with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
On returning to London in 2006, Freedman became a writer on the Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF) pages, where he was respected as a former IDF volunteer with liberal sensibilities.
According to Freedman’s own blog, he also began spying for corporate clients while writing for the Guardian and was hired by a shipping tycoon to probe rival ship owners. In 2012, he worked in the energy pricing sector and became a well-known whistleblower over allegations of price-fixing.
Contemporaries at the Guardian describe Freedman as one of the most successful authors on CiF – edgy, funny but also with an explosive temper. He fell out with a fellow CiF writer, Richard Silverstein, over the Israeli incursion into Gaza and his threats to destroy Silverstein’s reputation were so hostile and vituperative that the matter was referred up to the then editor, the late Georgina Henry.
By 2015, Freedman had written more than 300 paid articles for the Guardian and a semi-autobiographical fiction Dead Cat Bounce, in which a character with many similarities to the book’s author is planted at the Guardian by the Israeli spy service, Mossad, using his press credentials to spy on the Palestinian resistance.
A year or so later, Freedman was indeed using his press credentials to spy on alleged victims of Harvey Weinstein, working for Black Cube – described as a “private Mossad” by others and as a “group of veterans from the Israeli elite intelligence units that specialises in tailored solutions to complex business and litigation challenges” by itself.
With an office at that time in New York, Black Cube was introduced to Weinstein by the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2016 and won a $1.6 million contract to investigate 91 women alleging sexual assault, harassment and even rape against the movie producer, complete with ‘success fees’ for stopping harmful stories coming to print.
In a recent op-ed in The Times, Freedman admitted that he tricked his subjects into giving long interviews by pretending to still work for the Guardian. Among Freedman’s targets was the actress Rose McGowan, who alleged Weinstein had raped her. By Freedman’s own admission, he spoke to McGowan at length on many occasions on the pretext that he was doing a wider story for the Guardian on careers in Hollywood – conversations he routinely would tape.
He also approached another alleged rape victim Annabel Sciorra (who appeared in court last week to testify against Weinstein), but she didn’t trust him. He was in more prolonged contact with Ronan Farrow, who details the many conversations in his book.
“I don’t feel guilty about anything I did for Black Cube,” Freedman told BBC’s HardTalk earlier this month. “I’m a cog in a machine. It’s not my job to moralise.” He denied ever breaking the law as an investigator and said claims that Black Cube was “hired to silence and intimidate, and harass victims, all of which is illegal” never happened.
However, the texts Freedman sent to Carole Cadwalladr were intimidating, to say the least, and succeeded in silencing her for a time.
The question then remains: who was the “we” Freedman referred to in his abusive messages? And who was he working for when he targeted Carole and her Cambridge Analytica story?
Private Mossads for Hire
Byline Times has approached both Seth Freedman and Black Cube for comment and is still waiting to hear back. However, in his recent BBC interview, Freedman said he only works as a private spy on a “case-by-case basis” and insisted that he no longer works for Black Cube. He then added: “You’ve got no idea if I’m telling the truth.”
Given the nature of Carole Cadwalladr’s scoop, one possible employer who could explain the “we” in his messages is Cambridge Analytica.
Black Cube had many affiliations with Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer’s now-defunct political campaign company. Vincent Tchenguiz, an Iranian-born property dealer was the main investor in SCL – Cambridge Analytica’s parent company – from 2005 to 2015. A major donor to Britain’s Conservative party, Tchenguiz was an investor in the Israeli private intelligence sector and helped to start Black Cube with its first contract in 2006. Black Cube also worked for Tchenguiz when he was arrested by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in 2011 as part of an investigation into the collapse of the Icelandic bank Kaupthing. The case was subsequently dropped and Tchenguiz won £3 million in compensation for wrongful arrest in 2014.
Meanwhile, SCL’s former head of research, Chris Wylie, told British Members of Parliament in 2018 that Black Cube was hired by Cambridge Analytica to hack Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari during an election campaign which the company worked on. Black Cube has denied this vehemently. Alexander Nix, the former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, has not responded to requests to comment on whether the company hired the Israeli spy company at any time.
If these denials are true, and Freedman was working to contract as suggested by the use of “we”, there are other more alarming possibilities.
The two founders of Cambridge Analytica – hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon – were important figures in Donald Trump’s orbit. Bannon served, not only as his election campaign manager but also as his White House Chief Strategist until he was fired in 2017. So there were other players who might have had an interest in the Observer’s ongoing exposé of Cambridge Analytica.
Freedman claimed that Black Cube had been “hired by Trump” in a conversation with Carole in 2018, and suggested that it was a deniable operation for the US President during his BBC HardTalk interview two years later. The alleged investigation involved Black Cube’s targeting of Colin Kahl and Ben Rhodes, Obama Administration advisors, who were proponents of the Iran nuclear deal which was a particular bugbear to the incoming US President.
According to the New York Times, a Black Cube dossier compiled on Rhodes contained “pictures of his apartment in Washington, telephone numbers and email addresses of members of his family, as well as unsubstantiated allegations of personal and ethical transgressions”.
Meanwhile, Black Cube employees have been linked to another Israeli cyber company, the NSO Group, the software of which – Pegasus – can be used to crack encrypted smartphones. Researchers at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto claimed that NSO Group surveillance software was used to spy on the inner circle of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi just before his murder in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey. The NSO Group denies any involvement, but a retired Israeli security official previously linked to Black Cube was caught trying to discredit the NSO Group investigations by Citizen Lab by trying to “bait researchers into making anti-Semitic remarks”.
Whatever the extent of these spyware and human intelligence operations, and whether he was acting in a freelance capacity or not, Freedman’s defence for his undercover work is that he doesn’t pick sides. “Had McGowan hired Black Cube to find out what Weinstein was saying about her, they would have been the heroes of the day,” he told the BBC. “For my part, I would have done the same job for her as I did for Weinstein.”
But, Black Cube does seem to pick sides, which appear to align with pro-Trump policies and against transparency activists and citizens’ rights. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Black Cube also worked with Viktor Orban’s Government, with agents secretly recording NGOs linked to financier George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, which Orban has accused of trying to topple his administration.
Freedman’s passing shot at Carole – threatening to bury her, calling her habibi and adding an emoji of a UAE flag to the message, suggests that his motives were more than monetary or purely mercenary.
The Impact on Journalism
Byline Times asked the Guardian why there are no disclaimers or warnings stated on Seth Freedman’s work on its site given his recent admissions, and why his articles and biography are still there. It was also asked whether, given Freedman’s military background and the nature of the threats, the publication had done a security assessment on him, and what it thought of journalists working as ‘spies’.
A Guardian spokesperson said that Freedman had only been a freelance contributor and that it “deplored anyone pretending to be a Guardian journalist” and “takes the safety of our journalists very seriously.”
Freedman remains unapologetic about his spying work. This is “the new normal,” he wrote in The Times. Even so, this is a new normal which puts journalists directly in the firing line and their investigations in great danger – even without personal threats.
The most dangerous consequence of spies posing as journalists is the impact this has on other journalists who are frequently disbelieved or dismissed for being ‘shills’ and stooges in the US and the UK, and imprisoned, expelled, tortured or murdered by repressive regimes on the pretext that they are involved in espionage.
Richard Silverstein, Freedman’s colleague on CiF, says that the Black Cube employee has clearly abused his former publisher. He has complained to the Guardian on Twitter since the allegations and says that the fact Freedman’s behaviour has gone “unremarked” damages “the credibility of all journalism”. “Now, when a reporter approaches a source using their publication as a bona fide to establish credibility, the latter will be far more likely to mistrust that journalist,” he told Byline Times.
But the risks of hacking and surveillance are even higher for some journalists. The former chief correspondent of the Sunday Times – sister paper of The Times, which allowed Freedman to opine without challenge in his op-ed – was killed in Homs in 2012, targeted by the Syrian army using satellite phone signals, according to some accounts.
When, in 2015, former journalist and Day of the Jackal author Frederick Forsyth revealed that he had also been spying for the British secret service MI6 while working as a journalist, the award-winning investigative journalist Nick Davies pointed out that “any reporter who is also a spy puts other reporters in jeopardy”. Vaughan Smith, founder of the Frontline Club, agrees that any such duplicity “undermines trust in journalism at a time when we can barely afford it.”
Journalists-cum-spies like Seth Freedman are not just a threat to individual journalists such as Carole Cadwalladr, but the whole burgeoning industry brings one of the mainstays of democracy – a free, fair and transparent press – into dire disrepute.