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Latin America & Caribbean

EXCLUSIVE: Panama's ex-president wiretapped Americans, according to court documents

At least two Americans were among those targeted by President Ricardo Martinelli, according to a witness affidavit in the Miami extradition case against the former president. Martinelli's lawyers say he is being framed by the current government of Panama.
24 Jun 2017 – 05:37 PM EDT
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The former deputy manager of the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain and a decorated U.S. military officer were allegedly the subjects of illegal wiretapping ordered by Panama's ex-president Ricardo Martinelli, according to a former Panamanian official involved in the spy program.

Systems analyst Ismael Pitti acknowledged that he participated in the operation run by Panama's National Security Council, according to an affidavit obtained by Univision Investiga.

His remarks appear to be the basis of a U.S. government court filing in Miami this month backing a request by Panama to have Martinelli extradited to face charges of embezzlement and illegal spying.

Martinelli, a billionaire supermarket chain owner, was arrested in Miami last week. His lawyers say he is innocent and also claim the extradiition request is illegitimate. They allege Pitti is a tool of the current government of Panama and was intimidated to incriminate the former president.

A Miami judge is considering a request for bail and another request for the annulment of the extradition request.

In its detailed court filing last week the U.S. Justice Department said Martinelli used the espionage system without legal authorization to wiretap the phones of political enemies, judges, journalists, business competitors, as well as his own mistress.

The Americans

The list of targets also included the two Americans, political strategist Christian Ferry, and retired U.S. Army colonel Richard Downie, as well as staff at the U.S. embassy, according to Pitti's affidavit.

Ferry worked on the McCain campaign and was an advisor to the 2014 presidential campaign of Panama's president Juan Carlos Varela in 2014. He also managed the 2016 presidential campaign of Senator Lindsay Graham.

Before creating his own Virginia-based firm, The Trailblazer Group, Ferry worked at Davis-Manafort, the company of Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Ferry lived for three months in Panama in 2014 and visited the country regularly over the previous six months, he told Univision, adding that he had been unaware that he was named in the Pitti affidavit.

"It's a legal matter that's in the hands of the Justice Department," he said, declining further comment.

Ferry called the campaign "very dirty," in an interview in May 2014 with the newspaper La Prensa of Panama. Varela was Martinelli's hand-picked vice president, but they later fell out.

Pitti identified the other American as "Richard Downing," a retired U.S. military officer. A source familiar with the investigation explained to Univision that Pitti was referring to Col. Richard Downie, former director of the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University in Washington DC.

Downie confirmed to Univision that he worked as a Washington consultant on the 2014 election for another candidate Juan Carlos Navarro. "I helped plan a series of visits around DC," he said. "I was in and out of Panama four or five times," he added.

A Spanish speaker, Downie spent a large part of his career in Latin America, including a total of eight years in Panama. Part of that was with the U.S. Army at the former United States Southern Command in Panama.

He currently works for the Thayer Leader Development Group based at West Point, the foremost U.S. military training academy.

He was unaware of the Pitti affadavit, but was not entirely surprised after hearing stories about the campaign. "It makes me feel pretty uncomfortable but I'm pretty confident I don't have anything to hide," he said.

Martinelli's lawyers insist that his allegedly involvement in Pegasus is a trumped up case by the Varela government.

They point to another affidavit in the extradition court file by Pitti's former boss, National Security Council director, Ronny Rodriguez. In it, he alleges that the Varela government offered him a prestigious job on the Inter-American Defense Board (IADB) if he agreed "to incriminate former President Ricardo Martinelli in the illegal wiretapping."

Rodríguez said he rejected the offer but learned of another agent who died as a result of "psychological torture and threats" for not accepting it.

Univision tried to speak to Pitti but was unable to locate his whereabouts.

The affidavit

According to Pitti, Rodriguez formed the spy group under the direct orders of Martinelli.

"I want to say that I did this because I realized that during the administration of Ricardo Martinelli all these crimes were committed against the freedom of citizens," Pitti said in the affidavit.

Pitti acknowledged that he was in charge of eavesdropping on 25 people among whom was the opposition deputy Zulay Rodriguez, about whom the spy program later spread embarrassing personal information, including her of alleged infidelity.

"When I got a recording of a call in which Mrs. Rodriguez was arguing with her husband who accused her of infidelity, I immediately reported it to Ronny Rodriguez who informed Martinelli of the contents, '' Pitti explained.

According to Pitti, Martinelli ordered the audio edited and uploaded to YouTube from an internet cafe.

"The video became national news. I immediately recognized that the conversation in that video was the one I got from the spy system," Pitti stated.

On other occasions, he added, Martinelli published information gathered by Pegasus in media that he owned.

The contract

Univision obtained a copy of one of the contracts signed by Panama's National Security Council with NSO Group in July 2012.

The document indicates that Panama agreed to comply with an end user clause obliging the buyer country not to sell or transfer the equipment to third parties without the prior approval of the Israeli government.

Cargando galería

However, the Pegasus computers are missing and there is no indication that the Panamanian government has notified Israel of its sale or transfer. One laptop was recovered after Martinelli left office, from which the wiretapping evidence was recovered.

NSO Group has not commented. The Department of Justice's court filing in the Martinelli extradition case says that when the office was dismantled after the elections in May 2014, a metal rack that housed the computer server was recovered from the offices of Super 99, the supermarket chain owned by Martinelli.

According to the extradition complaint, the Panamanian government paid $13.4 million for Pegasus via a company named M.L.M. Protection Ltd. The purchase was made using money diverted from a Social Investment Fund that was supposed to be used for raising living standards of low income families.

The contract states that the equipment was delivered to Building 88 in Quarry Heights, the former United States Southern Command headquarters overlooking the Panama Canal.

Pegasus' stated purpose was "to collect and gather information from mobile devices for the exclusive use of the Government of Panama."

The end-user certificate, issued by the Israeli government, is an international verification method to ensure that weapons, warplanes and intelligence equipment are not transferred to third parties by the governments that purchase them.

NSO Group

Little is known about NSO Group. After the Pegasus scandal in Panama the company deactivated its website.

The end user clause to which Panama is committed says:

The representative of NSO Group who signed the contract is its co-founder Shalev Holy (or Shalev Hulio), a Tel Aviv-based entrepreneur who has set up several mobile technology startups in Israel, and who has some patents registered in his name .

Univision Investiga contacted NSO's other co-founder, Omri Lavie, to seek more information about the negotiation with the Panamanian government, but he declined to comment. Lavie has promoted Pegasus as the only system that does not depend on cellphone networks to intervene a cell phone.

"We do not penetrate cellular networks, we do not need to work with network operators, and we do it without an expensive and heavy infrastructure. All we need is a phone number, an internet connection and a signal," Lavie said in August. 2013.

According to press reports both Shalev Holy and Omri Lavie belonged to Unit 8200, an Israeli government intelligence unit specializing in data collection, and from which various cyber counterintelligence companies have emerged.

According to CrunchBase, the global database of technology companies, NSO Group was sold in 2014 to Silicon Valley private equity fund Francisco Partners for $120 million. Prior to the sale, two NSO Group companies hired Michael Flynn, the former senior advisor to the 2016 Trump campaign.

According to the newspaper La Prensa of Panama, some of the payments to the NSO Group were made through triangulations of private companies of Panama, the United States and Israel and with the participation of Aaron Mizrachi, brother-in-law of Martinelli.

In 2015 Mizrachi left the country for Miami on a plane owned by Martinelli, according to La Prensa.

Martinelli's role denied

Martinelli's lawyers state that the former president had no involvement in the spying operation that allowed access to phone conversations, text messages and video.

Martinelli's lawyer in Panama, Sidney Sittón, told a Miami court this week that there is no proof that Martinelli's government had acquired the Pegasus espionage system, or the creation of an NSC team to supervise the wiretapping.

Asked about the existence of the contract, Sittón clarified that the allegations regarding the acquisition and the abuse of the Pegasus system was never included in the original extradition request by Panama, and was "illegally" inserted at a later date.

"This is unlawful evidence," Sittón told Univision. "They sat him down in the Panamanian embassy in Washington and gave it [the affidavit] to the State Department, which is why that case is weak."

The embassy did not respond to calls or e-mails from Univision.

Sittón handed Univision a copy of the original complaint by Panamanian Attorney General Harry Diaz, which forms the basis of the extradition request. In that document the Pegasus system is not mentioned.

However, Panama's request did provide a detailed outline of the accusation against Martinelli, alleging that he unlawfully directed a state agency that "provided the necessary equipment, resources and personnel" to intercept "emails, memory cards, telephone directories, audio, recording of confidential and personal conversations of cell phones and landlines, as well as photographs, surveillance and tracking of people."

Among the 72 witnesses named in the complaint was Jubilo Graell, who stated that Rodríguez, the NSC director, issued instructions to follow people "who were directly interested in N. 1 [Martinellí].'' He said he took Rodríguez every morning to the presidential palace "with a manila envelope."

The victims

The Pegasus records detail the communications of more than 150 people, though only 15 decided to file a complaint against Martinelli.

One of the alleged Panamanian spying victims, opposition critic Yassir Purcait, told Univision how he learned that his privacy had been violated after he was summoned by the Panamanian Attorney General to identify some of the seized Pegasus evidence.

"When we arrived ... we were able to see volumes and volumes of transcripts of my personal phone calls, conversations with my family, with my wife, communications from WhatsApp, from BlackBerry and even my emails," he said.

Purcait randomly began to check the transcripts and described the indignation he felt while corroborating that they were indeed his personal communications.

"Once I saw all this exposure of my intimacy ... I felt humiliated, offended," he said.