A Group of Former Israeli Spies Wanted to Influence American Elections. What Could Go Wrong?

In the February 18 & 25, 2019, issue of The New Yorker, in “Deception, Inc.” (p. 44), Adam Entous and Ronan Farrow investigate Psy-Group, a private Israeli intelligence firm that held discussions about helping the Trump campaign and attracted the attention of the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Psy-Group was part of a new wave of shadowy companies that recruited from the ranks of Israel’s secret services. It conceived of a variety of covert operations, many of which employed elaborate false identities designed to spy on and manipulate the company’s targets. Its services were similar to those used by Russian intelligence operatives, except Psy-Group charged clients as little as two hundred and seventy-five dollars an hour.

Psy-Group’s ambition was to break into the U.S. election market. In early 2016, it pitched a proposal to use avatars and other covert methods to aid the Trump campaign. The company and campaign say the proposal was never acted upon—but that wasn’t the end of the discussion. In an e-mail in May, 2016, Psy-Group’s owner, Joel Zamel, asked Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, to pitch Zamel’s campaign services to Jared Kushner. A month later, Zamel was in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he met with George Nader, a Lebanese-American with ties to Emirati leader Mohammed bin Zayed. According to a Nader representative, Zamel told Nader that he was trying to raise money for a social-media campaign in support of Trump and thought that Nader’s Gulf contacts might be interested in contributing financially. (Zamel, through a representative, denied pitching Nader on a campaign to help Trump.) After the 2016 election, Zamel bragged to Nader about his role in swaying the vote in favor of Trump, Nader’s representative said. Nader agreed to pay Zamel more than $2 million to learn how the campaign unfolded. “Here’s the work that we did to help get Trump elected,” Nader’s representative quotes Zamel as saying. (Zamel’s representatives disputed Nader’s account of the conversation, and denied that Zamel did anything during the campaign to help Trump. A Trump campaign official said, of Psy-Group and Zamel, “We didn’t use their services.”)

Psy-Group’s efforts to influence American elections continued in 2017. But instead of bidding on a campaign at the national level, Psy-Group intervened in a local election in the central California city of Tulare. They launched a covert campaign in the small town, targeting a group of local community activists. The July 11, 2017 election was a landslide—but not for Psy-Group’s client.

The Israeli company folded in early 2018 as Mueller’s team began to scrutinize its activities. “There was a lot of smoke,” one Psy-Group official acknowledged. “We had to show them it’s smoke . . . and not fire.” The company’s founder, a veteran Israeli intelligence officer named Royi Burstien, said he now believes new regulations are needed to protect average citizens from online manipulation. Ram Ben-Barak, a former Psy-Group adviser who served as deputy director of Mossad, said that he regrets working with the firm. “When you leave the government and you leave Mossad, you don’t know how the real world works,” he said. “I made a mistake.” He now considers the proliferation of avatars and other tools of online manipulation “the challenge of our time.” Please see this link:

What Did Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi Know About the WikiLeaks Hack?

In “Time in the Barrel” (p. 28), Jeffrey Toobin writes about Roger Stone and ­Jerome Corsi, the mismatched political operatives whose fates have become linked through the crucible of the Russia investigation. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors indicted Stone, in late January, and Stone has responded to Mueller’s charges with fevered hyperbole, telling Toobin, “Those who think the Mueller investigation will die out with a whimper are dreaming.” He continued, “This is a pretext to allow them to remove both Trump and Pence and replace them with Leather Face—I mean, Nancy Pelosi—and then she can appoint Hillary Clinton as V.P. That’s been the agenda from the beginning.” Corsi has not been charged, but, in December, he sued Mueller for three hundred and fifty million dollars, saying that the special counsel had engaged in prosecutorial misconduct and illegal surveillance, among other misdeeds. Also in December, Corsi published an e-book which recounts his experiences with Mueller’s team. His most ­bizarre accusation in the e-book is that one of the prosecutors, Jeannie Rhee, attempted to intimidate him with her choice of clothing during his grand-jury testimony. He wrote, “Maybe my seventy-two years were showing but I had never imagined any woman would appear before a grand jury exposing her breasts to public view through a see-through blouse.” The special counsel’s spokesperson declined to comment on this or any other subject.

Stone and Corsi would seem to be in a position to answer one of the major questions in the Mueller investigation: whether anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign knew more about the WikiLeaks disclosures than has so far been acknowledged. They strongly supported Trump’s candidacy and their shared enthusiasm prompted them to meet, in February, 2016. In July, when, the week before the Democratic National Convention, WikiLeaks released thousands of e-mails that had been obtained during a hack of the Democratic National Committee, Stone and Corsi resolved to find out what else WikiLeaks had and to hasten its delivery into the political bloodstream. Stone reached out to his friend Randy Credico, a New York media figure who later interviewed Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, on his radio show. Stone recalled, “Credico tells me it’s coming in October. He never says what it is, other than that it’s devastating, it’s a bombshell, it’s dynamite.” On August 21st, Stone issued the most scrutinized tweet of the entire Mueller investigation: “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel. #CrookedHillary.” Corsi asked a friend for more information on future WikiLeaks disclosures, and evidence indicates that Corsi received relevant information and passed it on to Stone. The most dramatic part of Stone’s trial will probably involve the testimony of Credico. “I don’t know why Roger gave up my name to them as his source about WikiLeaks,” Credico told Toobin. “Why did he buckle without even getting a fucking subpoena? He gave up a name. That’s called ratting.” Credico said, of his dealings with Mueller’s office, “Those people are like Columbo and Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot combined, and you can’t fucking lie to them. Why would you try? They have all the e-mails. They know what happened.” The indictment states that, on several occasions, Stone told Credico that he should “do a ‘Frank Pentangeli’ ” before the Intelligence Committee. As the indictment explains, “Frank Pentangeli is a character in the film ‘The Godfather: Part II,’ who testifies before a congressional committee and falsely claims not to know critical information that he does in fact know.” “But this is all wrong. Randy is an impressionist,” Stone told Toobin. “He does impressions. I was asking him to do his Frank Pentangeli impression. I wasn’t telling Randy to lie.” Stone told Toobin, of Corsi, “He’s certifiably insane, and he has told multiple provable lies.” Last week, Corsi sued Stone for defamation, seeking damages “in excess of $25,000,000.” Please see this link:

Heidi Schreck’s Dramatization of the People’s Rights

In “A Living Document” (p. 38), Michael Schulman profiles Heidi Schreck, the actor and writer whose play, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” opens on Broadway next month, at the Helen Hayes Theatre. When Schreck was fourteen, in 1986, she entered the American Legion Oratorical Contest, in which high-school students give speeches on the U.S. Constitution for prize money. By tenth grade, Schreck was competing in the regional championships; by eleventh grade, she was winning four-figure checks. Almost two decades later, in 2007, when asked to perform a short piece at an avant-garde variety night, Schreck thought back to the oratorical contest. She recalls wondering, “What if I did that as an adult woman?” The result was a ten-minute piece, directed by her husband, the theatre director Kip Fagan, which Schreck titled “What the Constitution Means to Me.” She expanded it into a full-length play, and played to sold-out houses through the end of last year. Schulman writes, “ ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ captures the mood of a time when institutional protections feel shockingly vulnerable and the country is getting an unwelcome crash course in constitutional arcana.”

Schreck, who is forty-seven, describes the play as “relentlessly anti-theatrical.” For much of it, she stands alone on a set resembling a slightly exaggerated version of an American Legion hall. “What the Constitution Means to Me” is a living document—elements of the play change from night to night. Toward the end of the show, Schreck brings out one of two young female students who currently compete in debating contests. Schreck and the student flip a coin and face off in a semi-improvised debate about whether or not to abolish the Constitution, and an audience member picks the winner. The constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe heard about the show from his eleven-year-old granddaughter and went with his family. “I thought, This is something that needs a huge audience,” he told Schulman. Schreck said, “You can’t worship this document, because of the horrific compromises they made—and they called something a ‘compromise’ that’s viewing human beings as property! . . . So I look at it and think, What a magical thing. And what an appalling, appalling document.” Please see this link:

Day In and Day Out, Rachael Van Horn Tends to the Oil Wells of the Panhandle

In “Pumper’s Corner” (p. 58), Ian Frazier profiles Rachael Van Horn, an Army Reserves veteran and newspaper columnist who worked through her P.T.S.D. in the fields of the Oklahoma Panhandle. Frazier met Rachael while reporting on the wildfires that burned thousands of square miles of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas in 2018 and, like those who know her, wanted to learn more. Rachael, who is fifty-six years old, toured Iraq and was present at the mess-hall suicide bombing near Mosul on ­December 21, 2004, which killed twenty-five people. When she returned to Oklahoma, she decided to work in the oil field and become what is known as a pumper. Pumpers—almost all of whom are men—usually work alone, driving from well to well, tending anywhere from ten to forty or fifty wells a day. “Guys will sabotage you, sneak out to your wells and mess with your gauges, kick open a valve and see if you’ll notice it,” Rachael told Frazier.

When not in the oil fields, Rachael writes a monthly column, “Pumper’s Corner,” in the local paper, is a regular guest on K-101 FM, which has listeners across northwest Oklahoma, and is the director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau for the city of Woodward. In her role at the Visitors Bureau, she oversees events—the longhorn-cattle drive down Main Street that accompanies the Elks Rodeo; the Extreme Monster Truck Summer Nationals; the Twister Alley International Film Festival—and super­intends civic functions and other types of gatherings at the Convention Center, trying to put the city on the map. “I love the people I work with in my Convention and Visitors Bureau job,” Rachael said. “But pumping wells, working alone, is my meditation.” Please see this link:

A Journey Through Suicide

In “Everywhere and Nowhere” (p. 68), Donald Antrim reflects on the nature of suicide and his own voyage toward recovery, recounting an evening in April, 2006, when he hung from the roof of his apartment building in Brooklyn, preparing to fall, then catching himself again and again. “I did not want to die, only felt that I would, or should, or must,” he writes. “Here and there, I could see people having after-work cocktails on private decks on neighboring roofs. . . . Now, remembering that day, I wonder what those people might have thought of the man scrambling from fire escape to rooftop and back, letting go with one hand, flopping down on his belly to crane over the edge. Did they imagine that he was doing work, maintenance or repair, some job they couldn’t clearly make out? If they had known the man’s troubles, had known the man, would they have understood that he was about to die? Or would they have imagined that he was trying to live?” Please see this link:

Plus: In Comment, Jelani Cobb writes about H.R. 1, an omnibus electoral-reform bill championed by House Democrats that would protect voting rights and challenge the suppressive tactics that may have helped elect Donald Trump in 2016

in Shouts & Murmurs, Patricia Marx provides instructions for an optimal movie-viewing experience

a Sketchbook by Roz Chast and Patricia Marx

Joan Acocella reflects on the recent scandals of sexual harassment and violence at the New York City Ballet and considers who is best suited to lead the organization, which is currently without an artistic director

Jill Lepore takes stock of the life and political legacy of the socialist leader Eugene Debs

Alex Ross reviews two recent performances of works by lesser-known Baroque composers

Anthony Lane watches Asghar Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows” and Mike Mitchell’s “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part”

a special anniversary-themed Crossword by Natan Last

poetry by Marianne Boruch

and Ilya Kaminsky

and new fiction by Leïla Slimani 

Podcasts: Evan Osnos joins Dorothy Wickenden to discuss the new Republican and Democratic rhetoric about economic inequities, as the parties look toward the 2020 elections; and Leïla Slimani reads her short story “The Confession.”  

The February 18 & 25, 2019, issue of The New Yorker goes on sale at newsstands beginning Monday, February 11th.

Members of the media should e-mail [email protected] to request complimentary digital access to The New Yorker and

Cover by Kadir Nelson.

For Immediate Release: February 11, 2019

Press Contacts: Natalie Raabe, (212) 286-6591

Erica Hinsley, (212) 286-7936

Madison Heuston, (212) 286-4255