Tal Hanan, leader of the Israeli ‘Jorge Group’
(Photo Credit: Erem News)
In his live news segments, prominent TV presenter Rachid M’Barki of France’s BFM-TV has been including information provided to him by a private Israeli intelligence firm, known only as the “Jorge Group.” M-Barki did so without the knowledge or approval of the station’s editors, the French newspaper Le Monde reported on 15 February.
The shadowy “Jorge Group” is also the subject of an investigation by Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. The paper reported that the firm is led by Tal Hanan, a 50-year-old Israeli with close ties to senior US and Israeli intelligence officials, and specialized in information operations, a domain typically reserved for state actors. The firm markets itself to clients as providing “Intelligence on Demand,” with the capability of carrying out “computer hacks, tricking journalists by publishing false information, cyberattacks and other deceptions.” Such covert information operations for hire included past efforts to “influence elections in 33 presidential-level election campaigns” around the world, “in 27 of them successfully,” most notably in several African states.
SCOOP: We went undercover & discovered a secret disinformation-for-hire group called Team Jorge selling election interference, hack-and-leak & influence as a service. They claim to have meddled in 33 elections THREAD #TeamJorge @FredMetzo @GurMegiddo https://t.co/bLAQYlnimN
— Omer Benjakob (@omerbenj) February 15, 2023
In Kenya, the Israeli team hacked the Telegram and email accounts of five senior officials related to the campaign of the man who was about to be named as next president: William Ruto@GurMegiddo @omerbenj
— avi scharf (@avischarf) February 15, 2023
Haaretz reported further that the firm “offers its customers all the services of a private intelligence agency: hacking, creation of false documents, gigantic network of fake accounts on social networks … and ‘placement’ of articles or sequences in media.” Tal Hanan’s “clients include billionaires, election candidates, corporations, authoritarian governments and crime suspects.” Notably, an Israeli security agency paid Hanan’s firm hundreds of thousands of dollars 15 years ago for a fabricated report alleging to detail Iran and Hezbollah’s financial assets.
The software used by Jorge Group for the creation and activation of humanized social media avatars is called Advanced Impact Media Solutions (AIMS). The AIMS avatars do not only perform individually but can be activated in coordination as a campaign to disseminate messages by “scattering the tweets or posts across ranges of time that imitate the genuine behavior of web users.”
M’Barki of BFM-TV, the most popular news channel in France, was suspended with pay last month when allegations that he incorporated information from “outside sources” that were not approved by his editors emerged, as reported by Politico and AFP. The news channel opened an investigation at the time to confirm the allegations.
But with the Le Monde report, it is confirmed that the French journalist participated in information operations initiated by the Jorge Group on behalf of unknown clients. Whether or not M’Barki did so wittingly is unclear.
Tal Hanan’s links to US and Israeli intelligence suggest that the role of governments in funding the information operations involving M’Barki and BFM-TV cannot be ruled out.
Collaboration between elements of the western media and respective intelligence agencies to manipulate public opinion is not new, as several cases in recent years have illustrated.
As the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WGSPM) notes, a former editor of Le Monde, Natalie Nougayrede, was part of the Integrity Initiative, a UK foreign office-funded project dedicated to “setting up covert networks (‘clusters’) of journalists, academics and military/foreign service StratCom practitioners” in various countries. The initiative was dedicated to “covert manipulation of the public sphere, including campaigns to smear and suppress dissenters,” critical of UK foreign policy. WGSPM notes that in 2013, “Nougayrede had a role in information operations in Syria. Under her direction, two Le Monde journalists acted as couriers to transfer samples provided by the opposition, allegedly from chemical attacks, to French intelligence agents in Jordan. Le Monde was then given the scoop of reporting that these samples had tested positive for sarin at the French chemical weapon detection lab at Le Bouchet.”
This effort to blame the Syrian government for carrying out chemical attacks was part of a broader US, UK, French, Gulf, Israeli, and Turkish effort at regime change in Syria, known as Operation Timber Sycamore, as a report from the Libertarian Institute details.
In another case, La Figaro journalist Edith Bouvier covertly embedded with French mercenaries in the Syrian city of Homs, at the height of the fighting there in early 2012. The mercenaries were involved in training Salafist armed groups fighting the Syrian government under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner. Bouvier was then evacuated from Homs along with the French mercenaries, whose presence she did not reveal, in an operation organized by French and Lebanese intelligence, as reported by noted French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot.
Though rarely acknowledged, infiltrating the media to disseminate propaganda has long been a core function of Western intelligence agencies, as detailed by the 1975 Church Committee hearings. Former CIA operative John Stockwell described for example how the CIA would set up reporters, first by providing them true stories to establish trust, followed by providing them false stories the agency wished to disseminate. The agency would also regularly recruit journalists to work directly with the agency on its payroll, but covertly, as well as establish and fund complete media outlets. In a practice that likely continues to the present, Stockwell described a network of 400 journalists who cooperated with the CIA in the 1970’s, including some of the most prominent in the country, to consciously disseminate false stories desired by the agency to the public.