Psy-Group

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Psy-Group
Private Limited Company
Industrysocial media influencing
Competitive Intelligence
Risk Consulting
Founded2014
Defunct2018
Headquarters
Tel Aviv & Washington
Key people
Royi Burstien
OwnerJoel Zamel
Number of employees
30 +

Psy-Group is a former Israeli private intelligence agency which was owned and operated by Joel Zamel from Petah Tikva, which closed after revelations that it was under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.[1][2][3][4] The company had conducted both online perception management, social media influencing/manipulation campaigns, opposition research honey traps and clandestine on-the-ground activities for clients.[1][5] Royi Burstien, a former lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army, headed an intelligence unit under Israel’s government before starting Psy-Group and acting as the vice-president of business development.[6][7]

Psy-Group structure was multilayered with a bank account in Cyprus under a company called IOCO, which was owned or partly owned at one point by British Virgin Islands-based Protexer Limited and Cornell Enterprises SA, which in turn was managed by Zurich-based Salix Services AG.[8][9][10] Ownership of IOCO would change annually. Protexer subsidary MGTM Financial Services Limited is owned by Metropol Group in Moscow and run by Mikhail Slipenchuk.[11][12] Psy-Group was operating under the name Invop Ltd., which was founded on December 22, 2014.[13][4] Most of the Israeli-based employees came from the same school Joel Zamel attended: the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. Among the employees was Eitan Charnoff, a former IDF commander of the Social Media Productions Desk[14] who ran the iVote Israel 2016 get-out-the-vote campaign for Americans in Israel.[15]

The work of Psy-Group was international and included services to Russian businessmen Oleg V. Deripaska and Dmitry Rybolovlev,[16] Saudi General Ahmed al-Assiri, and President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon. They sought Trump as a client in 2016.[1] Psy-Group and Black Cube made approaches to the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, offering their services against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that was rejected. Instead, Kela Shlomo was successful.[17]

Scott Mortman managed Psy-Group’s American clients, he was previously an advisor to Prime Minister’s Office in Israel and currently works for Greenberg Traurig LLP (where Marc L. Mukasey and Rudy Giuliani have both worked with, where both are representing Donald Trump and Mukasey is representing Zamel).[18][19][1][20][21][22][23]

On October 22, 2018, Senator Richard Blumenthal sent letters to Facebook, Google, Reddit and Twitter asking each company about Psy-Group and other firms affiliated with its founder, Joel Zamel, such as Wikistrat and White Knight, if they had purchased advertisements or used fake accounts on their platforms.[24]

There is a legal challenge to keep data left on computers that were used by Psy-group instead of being erased relating to the West Face Capital.[25] In June it was reported that the Israeli Central District Magistrate’s Court blocked the computers’ backup process in a closed hearing. Judge Irit Weinberg-Nutovitz announced that the data would be downloaded and given to the government’s Administrator General and Official Receiver. Psy-Group liquidator, Hayut Greenberg, and Calanit Hermelin-Vager, who represents the Official Receiver, oppose the forensic backup.[26]

The Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating Psy-Group by reaching out to Royi Burstien and Joel Zamel.[27]

History[edit]

Cambridge Analytica[edit]

Zamel signed a memorandum of understanding for Psy-Group with Cambridge Analytica on Dec. 14, 2016.[28][29] Alexander Nix the CEO of Cambridge Analytica described entrapping political opponents with bribes and sexual entrapment on a Channel 4 expose saying "We use some Israeli companies ... Very effective in intelligence gathering.” The Wall Street Journal confirmed that it was referring to Psy-Group.[30][31]

2016 US Election and Trump campaign[edit]

According to Bloomberg Psy-Group pitched its services to super-PACs and other entities during the 2016 election, those services "included infiltrating target audiences with elaborately crafted social-media personas and spreading misleading information through websites meant to mimic news portals." To create disinformation and propaganda through fake news entities.[32] Psy-Group prepared a document[33] that outlined how fake news had helped Trump during the election showing North Carolina as a case study in a state that was moved by social media manipulation to "poison the well" create "fake news" and "buzz".[34]

According to Republican party insiders, in 2016 Rick Gates then deputy chairmain of the Trump campaign, reportedly sought Psy-Group's assistance in a scheme referred to as "Project Rome" from George Birnbaum.[35] Shortly after Psy-Group hired Covington & Burling, a Washington-based law firm, to conduct a legal review of "Project Rome".[36] The project reportedly included multiple efforts aimed at assisting the Donald Trump campaign, ranging from opposition research to generation of fake online personas. Joel Zamel met Eric Trump later in 2016 but it is unclear if the Trump campaign ever secured Psy-Group's services.[37] The Wall Street Journal published Psy-Group propotioal material purportedly from the meeting.[38] The interaction between the Trump campaign and Psy-Group became part of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections.[39] Mueller also investigated money flows to Psy-group through Cyprus.[40] The FBI investigation into contacts between Joel Zamel and Trump campaign contacts has continued beyond the closure of Mueller's Special Counsel investigation.[41]

The New York Times reported on May 19, 2018, that Donald Trump Jr. met with United Arab Emirates and Saudi intermediary George Nader, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, and Joel Zamel in Trump Tower on August 3, 2016. Nader reportedly told Trump Jr. the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE were eager to help his father win the election, and Zamel pitched a social media manipulation campaign. Trump Jr. reportedly responded favorably and Nader subsequently had frequent meetings with Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner.[42]The Times reported that Prince had arranged the August 2016 meeting; Prince had stated in his November 30, 2017, testimony to the House Intelligence Committee that he had no formal communications or contact, nor any unofficial role, with the Trump campaign.[43] After Mr. Trump was elected, Mr. Nader paid Mr. Zamel up to $2 million.[44] Nader has reportedly made 13 visits to the White House in 2017 to meet Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and campaign manager.[45]

In February 2018 FBI agents assisting Mueller traveled to Israel to interview employees of Psy-Group, the company whose founder, Joel Zamel, pitched psychological operations to the Trump campaign in 2016. The Daily Beast reported that agents asked about Psy-Group's financial structure, its ownership and its communications with Team Trump during the 2016 campaign.[46] Mueller also subpoenas records for payments made to PSY Group's bank account in Cyprus.[47]

On April 5, 2019 the Senate Intelligence Committee sends letter to Walter Soriano the owner of USG Security Limited based in Britain and Israel for his communication with Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Psy-Group, Wikistrat, and Black Cube, Orbis Business Intelligence (a firm co-founded by Christopher Steele).[48][49]

Tulare Regional Medical Center[edit]

In 2016 Psy-Group was hired to conduct a covert campaign to maintain Parmod Kumar on the board of Tulare Regional Medical Center, a hospital in Tulare, California. The campaign failed and Kumar, along with hospital physician Yorai Benzeevi, were charged in 2018 for an alleged scheme to defraud and embezzle from the hospital.[1][3]

Project Butterfly[edit]

In February, 2016, Psy-Group started a campaign against B.D.S. activists on U.S. college campuses. Psy-Group collected any "derogatory information" on activists from social media, and from HUMINT sources. (Mossad is not allowed to spy on American citizens, but this does not apply to private groups like Psy-Group, which used ex−Mossad operatives.)[7]

Psy-Group operated a now-defunct website, outlawbds.com, which published information about B.D.S. activists and leaders.[7] People working for "Project Butterfly" included Yaakov Amidror and Ram Ben-Barak.[7] Benjamin Netanyahu, also became an adviser to Psy-Group for the project.[1]

"Project Butterfly" showed particular interest in people connected with American Muslims for Palestine, including its founder, Hatem Bazian.[7]

West Face Capital[edit]

Canadian hedge fund West Face Capital Inc alleged in court that a rival employed Psy-Group and BlackCube to conduct a sting operation and defamation campaign against it.[50][51][52] According to the complaint, Psy-Group — whose operatives in the Canadian project allegedly included former Israeli television journalist Emmanuel Rosen — worked in tandem with Black Cube, publishing defamatory articles and social media posts about West Face and using sophisticated masking techniques to hide their tracks. West Face learned of Black Cube and Psy-Group’s activities when its employees recognized the image of Stella Penn Pechanac in news reports about rape and harassment accusations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Pechanac was a Black Cube employee who reportedly posed as a woman’s rights activist and who befriended actress Rose McGowan in a bid to gather intelligence on behalf of Weinstein. Employees of West Face recognized Pechanac as the same woman who had reached out to them. The judge in the case Frank Newbould was allegedly targeted.[53] Mr. Rosen is alleged to have worked with Brooklyn-based public relations professional Virginia Jamieson in order to plant “highly negative media coverage” of Mr. Newbould. West Face said the campaign included defamatory press releases, online blog posts, tweets, and videos against West Face and its executives, using information gathered or manufactured by the Israeli companies and Mr. Rosen, using aliases including “Samantha Beth,” “Alex Walker,” “Jordan Brown,” and “Judge Frank Newbould.”[54]

Other Activity[edit]

In January 2017 Zamel met with Ahmed al-Assiri (who is implicated in the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi[55][56]) and Trump adviser Michael Flynn in regard to Iran.[57] The talk regarded regime change in Iran and were also attended by Steve Bannon and Lebanese-American businessman George Nader, a representative of the United Arab Emirates.[58]

WhiteKnight[edit]

Bloomberg reported that there were discussion in Psy-Group to rebrand itself WhiteKnight.[59] WhiteKnight is a private intelligence agency has been reported by Bloomberg as being part owned by Joel Zamel and New York Times as having links to Zamel.[60][59] Along with Psy-Group that had an agreement with Cambridge Analytica WhiteKnight also has links to Cambridge Analytica and the Brexit Leave campaign.[61] WhiteKnight rose to prominence when George Nader turned to this company for information on the 2016 election, it was the second time he reached out to a company owned by Zamel the first being Psy-Group that was talked about in a high level meeting with Nader representing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and Trump officials including Trump Jnr, Erik Prince, Stephen Miller to assist the then candidate Trump to secure the election via social media manipulation against his rivals.[60][62] In December 2016, Mr. Nader to WhiteKnight, based in the Philippines — to purchase a presentation demonstrating the impact of social media campaigns on Mr. Trump’s electoral victory.[60] Mr Nader made a payment to Mr Zamel of $2 million for services.[60] WhiteKnight has stated that it is global in operations.[63]On October 22, 2018, Senator Richard Blumenthal sent letters to Facebook, Google, Reddit and Twitter asking each company about companies associated with Joel Zamel including WhiteKnight, Psy-Group and Wikistrat and if they had purchased advertisements or used fake accounts on their platforms.[64]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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