US Leaders Evasive in Response to Queries on Israel’s Influence Campaign

Dell Cameron

Federal lawmakers in the US have dodged repeated inquiries over the past week about a covert operation ordered by the Israeli government to artificially boost support among Americans for its war in Gaza. At the same time, senior White House officials charged with advising President Joe Biden on matters of national security are claiming to have no knowledge of the operation—first disclosed publicly more than four months ago.

The operation, formally tied to the Israeli government by a New York Times reporter last week, kicked off in October 2023 following the surprise attack by Hamas in southern Israel. Researchers internationally began work to expose the campaign in February, identifying a flood of “suspicious accounts” on US-based social networking apps, most masquerading as Americans avowing support for the Israeli military response.

In addition to eroding support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides assistance to 5.6 million Palestinian refugees, a chief aim of the Israeli operation, researchers say, was to sway the opinions of Black Americans. Per the Times—which cited four current and former Israeli officials in confirming their government had commissioned the campaign—its primary targets included the account of US congressman Hakeem Jeffries, the leader of the Democrats in the House, among others who are “Black and Democratic.”

Accounts connected with certain activities, many still active on X though banned on other networks, propagated a Black Lives Matter hashtag and shared altered images of Martin Luther King Jr. with incorrect quotes. They also set up a website featuring articles like “The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and Their Support of Jewish People and Israel.” Several of these accounts, created just weeks before the Hamas attack on October 7, which resulted in approximately 1,200 deaths, presented themselves as “Christian.”

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Repeated queries to senior members of Jeffries’ team, like communications director Andy Eichar, have not been responded to after several days. WIRED is trying to determine if Jeffries was ever informed about the operation by the US intelligence during debates over approving $14 billion to support Israel’s military efforts.

Israeli forces have taken the lives of over 36,000 Palestinians since the October 7th attack by Hamas, according to estimates by Gaza health officials, including many at a United Nations school compound last Thursday where there have been accusations of “misuse” of an American-made bomb.

Despite claims from the White House’s National Security Council of being unaware of the activities, and the Senate Intelligence Committee chair Mark Warner’s intention to seek a briefing, efforts to get information about Israel’s clandestine attempts to sway US perspectives on the war have consistently encountered silence.</ to sway US perspectives on the war.

By Matt Burgess

By David Robson

By Joseph Cox

By Boone Ashworth

It is unclear whether Biden may have received a briefing on the operation that included information not shared with his own national security advisers. Said a spokesperson for the National Security Council: “We take all allegations of foreign malign influence seriously.”

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, led by Avril Haines—formerly No. 2 at the CIA—declined to say whether US intelligence had any knowledge of the operation prior to the June 5 New York Times’ story. It would not reveal whether it issued any notifications to Jeffries or any other US officials targeted by Israel.

The ODNI maintains what it calls a “disclosure framework” for notifying victims of influence operations connected with US elections. It is unclear, however, whether the ODNI considers the operation election-related, despite national elections approaching and the deep political divide among US voters over Congress’ support for the Israeli war effort.

Haines has previously spoken publicly about how US intelligence handles certain scenarios: “When relevant intelligence is gathered about a foreign influence operation targeting our elections,” she mentioned, there exists a “notification framework” to provide “appropriate notice to those targeted so that they can react accordingly.”

Multiple attempts to solicit comment from the House Intelligence Committee over the past week have also gone unanswered by representatives Mike Turner and Jim Himes, the committee’s chair and ranking member, respectively. It remains uncertain if they are taking similar investigative measures as their Senate counterparts.

Many of the fake posts by the Israeli operation were created using ChatGPT, the digital assistant software developed by OpenAI, which is now integrated into products from Apple’s new iPhones to the upcoming Microsoft Windows operating system. OpenAI’s CEO, Sam Altman, was recently appointed as an adviser to the Homeland Security Department, tasked with advising the US government on how to “prevent and prepare for AI-related disruptions.”

Both OpenAI and the social media giant Meta have confirmed that a Tel Aviv–based company called Stoic was behind the operation. However, neither company has confirmed any knowledge of Stoic being commissioned by the Israeli government.

Oft described as an Israeli “campaign marketing firm,” Stoic is reminiscent of Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which similarly used fake accounts registered on social media to promote the Kremlin’s interests, notably by aiming to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. OpenAI disclosed earlier this month that Stoic had similarly been tracked using fraudulent accounts in an effort to influence the outcome of India’s recent elections.

Meta and OpenAI have not responded to requests for comment.

A US intelligence assessment published in February that identified threats from foreign countries accused of launching malign influence operations against the US references Israel dozens of times; however, it strictly portrays the Middle East ally as the victim of such campaigns.

By Matt Burgess

By David Robson

By Joseph Cox

By Boone Ashworth

The annual assessment, published by the ODNI three days after Israel’s “multi-platform deception operation” was first revealed publicly by Marc Owen Jones—an assistant professor of Qatar University specializing in disinformation—speaks only broadly of the influence efforts of US rivals and contains few if any details about any specific operations. The report mentions, for instance, that the Chinese government “reportedly targeted” US politicians on TikTok using accounts run by a propaganda office ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

The disclosure of Israel’s role came after several hearings in Washington addressing the concerns of US intelligence about harmful foreign influence campaigns. There has been significant attention by lawmakers on claims regarding China’s potential use of TikTok to influence American public opinion.

Jeffries, who is speculated to be the next Speaker of the House for the Democratic party, was one of the 360 US representatives who supported taking significant measures in April that could soon result in the prohibition of TikTok in US app stores.

Alongside other US leaders, Jeffries has extended an invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress in the coming month. In a letter to the prime minister, Jeffries and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed: “To strengthen our lasting alliance and to affirm America’s unity with Israel, we invite you to outline the vision of the Israeli government for defending democracy, battling terrorism, and achieving a fair and enduring peace in the region.”

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