How Regulatory Gaps in National Security Create Corruption – A Closer Look at Israel’s 8200 Unit

While much of the discussion of corruption focuses on traditional, illegal acts like embezzlement and bribery, other shadowy, nominally legal practices can contribute to corruption, and perhaps should be considered corrupt themselves. An important manifestation of this phenomenon is the pipeline between government military intelligence services and the private intelligence industry. Though this is an issue in many countries, Israel’s 8200 unit provides a useful and especially salient example.

Founded in 1952, Israel’s 8200 unit conducts intelligence and cybersecurity operations, as well as cyber warfare. It is consistently recognized as one of the world’s most effective intelligence units. Unfortunately, the Israeli government does not regulate what its former soldiers do with their skills and expertise. As a result, many 8200 veterans go on to develop technologies for private intelligence and to found or work for private intelligence companies like Psy GroupBlack CubeMitiga, and NSO Group, to name just a few. 

While many people believe that these private firms need to be more tightly regulated, it may not be immediately apparent why this issue relates to corruption specifically. While employed by the 8200 unit, Israel’s soldiers are not abusing their entrusted public responsibility for private financial gain—to the contrary, they are working for the public’s safety and security. And while they do seek private financial gain after they leave government service, and to market the special skills and experience they gained while in the military, this is not on its face that different from how any number of former public servants go on to monetize their government-acquired expertise in the private sector.

But there are at least two respects in which the public-private pipeline in the context of the 8200 unit, or intelligence services more generally, is of particular concern for anticorruption advocates:

  • First, while it is indeed the case, as noted above, that many former public servants’ government experience may make them more attractive to private employers, former intelligence officers are often marketing their familiarity with—and ability to replicate—the very same technologies that are used by the military intelligence services. This is not analogous to former government officials using their expertise to get more lucrative jobs in industry; it’s more like former government officials selling government-developed technologies and techniques for private gain. The violation of public trust is similar. After all, these former 8200 officers could not have developed these technologies without public resources that were entrusted to them for the benefit of the public.
  • Second, even if one sets to one side the question whether the very act of marketing one’s expertise in government-developed surveillance and intelligence technologies (and often the ability to take the same intelligence technologies and supply them to the private market) is in and of itself corruption, the client list for these private intelligence companies reads like a “Who’s Who” list of corrupt political and business figures, including Russian oligarchs Oleg Deripaska and Demitry Rybolovlev, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Ben Salman, the Trump campaign, and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Kabila. Government-developed intelligence and cyberwarfare tools have been deployed by private companies on behalf of these and other unsavory private clients to target anticorruption activists and reformers. To illustrate with one example, the Psy-group, a private Israeli intelligence company, produced and circulated a fake video purporting that Ukrainian anticorruption activist Daria Kaleniuk was embezzling American grant money. Their targeted efforts were successful in impeding Kaleniuk’s anticorruption practices.  

This example is not unique. In Romania, the Israeli company Black Cube targeted the country’s lead anticorruption practitioner, Laura Kovesi. Using private intelligence technologies, Black Cube operatives launched a campaign of harassment and intimidation to destabilize Kovesi’s team at Romania’s National Anti-Corruption Directorate. The fact that their strategy was to accuse Kovesi of corruption is all the more galling. 

There clearly needs to be more regulation of the commodification of military training and skills, in Israel and elsewhere. Importantly, when this issue garners significant media attention, it is not discussed in relevance to the anticorruption community. Nevertheless, while this issue is not corruption specific, it is one that the anticorruption community needs to put on its agenda. Anticorruption activists are being targeted, and very often themselves subjected to fabricated allegations of corruption. The community needs to step up to push for stricter regulation of the public-private intelligence pipeline, and to crack down on private intelligence firms more broadly. 

3 thoughts on “How Regulatory Gaps in National Security Create Corruption – A Closer Look at Israel’s 8200 Unit

  1. Very interesting issue. It relates to the dilemma raised in other posts on this blog, concerning when an official’s duties to the public end. You argue they should not end simply because someone has left their public position. In this case, an ex-military official maintains a duty to the public akin to a former employer’s duty not to misappropriate IP, especially when there’s a risk that the “IP” can be used against some of the public, or used at the expense of the nation’s goals and values. I wonder how the lack of regulation might backfire for the citizens of a country like Israel. (Obviously, that’s not the only concern. But from a corruption/duty standpoint, it may be salient).

    • Great point, Micah! The lack of regulation has already backfired. Profit-driven use of any intelligence data or technology isn’t going to spare Israeli citizens. There’s already evidence that these groups are being hired in Israel against more centrist/left Israeli activists and politicians. I think it’s salient for us anticorruption practitioners because concentrated, unchecked power will almost always lead to abuse of that power.

  2. Phenomenal post, Magd, and on an underdiscussed topic. Similar to Micah’s comment on lack of regulation, I wonder how states like Israel can and should come down on the shady practices by these private intelligence companies. On the one hand, cracking down on soldiers in the 8200 unit, for example by limiting what IP they can apply once they leave, could backfire on the unit’s ability to recruit and maintain high quality soldiers. States like Israel therefore may feel disincentivized to actually act in any tangible way, as it could have direct consequences on the strength of their own intelligence units.

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