MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And we begin this hour with a story that sounds too crazy to be true, a story involving former Israeli Mossad operatives, the wives of Obama administration officials and an effort to undermine the Iran nuclear deal. Now, to unpack that a little bit, the former Israeli spies reportedly work for a private intelligence firm called Black Cube, and the wives reportedly include Rebecca Kahl, who is married to Colin Kahl, former Obama administration foreign policy adviser. He told NPR today he believes his family was targeted through an undercover email campaign.
COLIN KAHL: It's just awful, period. It's especially awful that they not only went after me but that they went after my family, in particular going after my wife and in particular going after my wife for the volunteer work she was doing for my daughter's D.C. public charter school - elementary school (laughter). So it's just creepy on a bunch of levels.
KELLY: All right, let's bring in Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker. He is one of the journalists working this story. Hello again.
RONAN FARROW: Good to be with you, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Good to have you with us. Lay out for us briefly how this operation allegedly worked.
FARROW: So Black Cube, as you said, is staffed by these former members of various Israeli intelligence agencies. And this kind of action is very typical of the kind of undercover operations they engage in. We spoke to a number of Obama administration officials, including Colin Kahl, who you played the sound of there, who had received emails from individuals we report to be using aliases, using front companies, including in one case a film production company called Shell Productions, which is obviously quite on the nose to call your shell company Shell Productions.
KELLY: Quite clever if you were thinking about it deeply.
FARROW: And it appeared that, according to multiple sources adjacent to this operation and extensive documentation that we reviewed internal to it, this was an effort very specifically targeted at officials involved in the brokering of the 2015 Iran deal. And the effort was to discredit and smear them. You know, this was pretty vicious, heavy stuff, and the entryway into it was, you know, emails of the type that you described.
KELLY: And so to pull a couple of the threads that you just cast out for us there - for starters, the people being targeted were these former Obama advisers and - but also their family members, their wives were the ones who were actually getting a lot of this email outreach. Is that right?
FARROW: That's right.
KELLY: The two targets who you name - the two reported targets are Colin Kahl and Ben Rhodes, another Obama adviser. Do we know why these two? And is it clear that it was only these two, that the operation ended there?
FARROW: It is not at all clear that it is only these two. In fact, at least one of the sources with knowledge of this operation described it as being a small component of larger work that was ongoing. You know, one of the disputes after this initially began emerging is as to exactly what providence this has. And those sources also said that that larger project involving more individuals than just these two was commercially motivated rather than politically. But I'll tell you, you know, reviewing the materials and looking at exactly what they were targeting, it really does appear to be very narrowly tailored around the Iran deal and discrediting the people behind the Iran deal.
KELLY: OK, you bring me to the huge question lurking behind all of this, which is if Black Cube was these Israeli former intelligence agents for hire sent to dig up dirt on former Obama administration officials, who sent them?
FARROW: So that's a subject of a great portion of our story. And the answer is, I think there'll be more to learn over time on that. I want to be very careful to stick to what we have reported so far.
KELLY: What you've been able to confirm so far - yeah.
FARROW: Precisely. And, you know, initially, there was a lot of speculation in the wild about this being done directly through Trump administration intermediaries.
KELLY: We should mention one of the other news organizations reporting on this, The Observer, has sources telling them this; there were links to the Trump administration.
FARROW: That's right. And, you know, what a number of individuals involved in our reporting said was, you know, that that remains speculative. Now, the idea presented by some of our sources and some of the documents we've seen that this was an offshoot of a commercially interested private sector client is not necessarily incompatible with the idea that there was also a political motive at play.
You know, very often you see with these operations that there are private sector individuals with the resources to command these kinds of operations that also are working at the behest of people with the political interests to dismantle this kind of a deal. So I think there will be more to unravel on the question of where this came from.
KELLY: So to boil that down - a lot of murky threads you're still reporting. But in terms of what you can confirm right now, we don't know who may have been paying Black Cube.
FARROW: Yeah, you know, what we can confirm is that there was an expansive campaign to smear and discredit government officials of a type that aren't usually targeted in this way.
KELLY: As you continue to dig on this and report, it sounds like top of your list is trying to nail down who might have been paying for such an operation to take place. What else? What are the other key outstanding questions here?
FARROW: Well, I would say actually more significant than, you know, the clients involved in this particular operation and even the unfolding details of the scope of this campaign is what we are learning about the kinds of resources and exotic tactics marshaled by a certain echelon of powerful person. You know, we saw that obviously in the Harvey Weinstein story. He was an individual who also hired Black Cube through his attorney David Boies to stop the publication of my story about him and the one in The New York Times.
KELLY: I should point out you have been reporting on the Harvey Weinstein story for The New Yorker and actually just won the Pulitzer Prize for your reporting on that.
FARROW: Thank you. And, you know, there was considerable adversity for all the many reporters who worked on these types of stories precisely because of these tools that are at play - you know, the hiring of agents using undercover, false identities, you know, who reached out to me, in some cases using the same front companies involved in the Iran operation at the behest of Harvey Weinstein. So this is systemic. This is bigger than this particular Iran initiative. It is bigger than Harvey Weinstein. You know, these are tools being deployed all the time by a certain kind of powerful individual. And I think that the scrutiny those systems are receiving is a good thing for all of us.
KELLY: Thanks, Ronan.
FARROW: Thank you.
KELLY: That's Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker. NPR reached out to the private intelligence firm Black Cube for comment. The firm says it wasn't hired by the Trump administration. It says its clients are businesses, not politicians. But Black Cube did not rule out that it was hired by someone outside the Trump administration to do the work described in Ronan Farrow's story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.