Details of PM Modi's Israel visit in 2017 are publically available: MEA reacts to NYT report on Pegasus spyware

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Reacting to New York Times' report that Israeli spyware Pegasus and a missile system were the "centerpieces" of a roughly USD 2 billion deal of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear between India and Israel in 2017 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first Indian PM to visit the country, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on Thursday rubbished the report. "As regards PM's visit to Israel in 2017, seven MoUs were signed, details of which are publically available," said MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi.

Speaking on the Pegasus spyware controversy, Bagchi said the "alleged matter is under investigation by a committee set up by Supreme Court". "No information is available with MEA on this matter," he added.

What did NYT report say?

The report titled 'The Battle for the World's Most Powerful Cyberweapon' said that the Israeli firm NSO Group had for nearly a decade been "selling its surveillance software on a subscription basis to law-enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world, promising that it could do what no one else -- not a private company, not even a state intelligence service -- could do: consistently and reliably crack the encrypted communications of any iPhone or Android smartphone."

"For decades, India had maintained a policy of what it called "commitment to the Palestinian cause," and relations with Israel were frosty. The Modi visit, however, was notably cordial, complete with a carefully staged moment of him and (then Israeli) Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu walking together barefoot on a local beach," it said.

"They had reason for the warm feelings. Their countries had agreed on the sale of a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear worth roughly USD 2 billion -- with Pegasus and a missile system as the centerpieces. "Months later, Netanyahu made a rare state visit to India. And in June 2019, India voted in support of Israel at the UN's Economic and Social Council to deny observer status to a Palestinian human rights organisation, a first for the nation," the report said.

Last year too, a massive controversy had erupted when the NSO Group hit the headlines with the alleged use of its Pegasus software by some governments to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, politicians and others in a number of countries, including India.

In related development, Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu today said he is examining the privilege motions moved against Union Minister for Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw for 'misleading' parliament on the Pegasus issue.

After examination, a clarification will be sought from the minister. The decision to admit or reject would be taken depending on that. Naidu said in the Rajya Sabha that Congress' KC Venugopal and two more MPs have given notice of privilege against the IT minister.

"I am examining it," he said. "Once I examine it, I will have to seek the clarification of the minister and then we will get back to you." Leaders of the Congress, TMC and CPI have moved privilege motions against Vaishnaw following the NYT report.

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