publicidad

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

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.

Martinelli and Pegasus contract

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.

Lea esta nota en español.

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.

Christian Ferry visiting the Panama Canal
Christian Ferry visiting the Panama Canal

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.

Panamamian president Juan Carlos Varela at the White House with presiden...
Panamamian president Juan Carlos Varela at the White House with president Donald Trump on June 19, 2017.

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.

Col (Rt) Richard Downie served in Panama
Col (Rt) Richard Downie served in Panama

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.

publicidad

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."

Ronny Rodriguez, NSC
Ronny Rodriguez, NSC

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.

Relacionado
Former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli.
Former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli arrested Monday in Miami
Martinelli served as president of Panama from 2009 to 2014 and is wanted there on corruption charges involving an alleged wire-tapping scheme.

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.

Pegasus contract between the government of Panama and NSO Group Technologies Ltd.

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.

publicidad

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


NSO Group Technologies Ltd
NSO Group Technologies Ltd

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.

publicidad

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.

publicidad

"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.

publicidad

"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.

Relacionado
The presidents of Panama and Mexico are caught up in alleged abuses of a...
Growing scandal in Latin America over 'Pegasus' spy-hacking program
First it was Panama, now Mexico. The spyware Pegasus is at the center of allegations of government spying in both countries. Panama's president, Ricardo Martinelli, is in jail in Miami for allegedly using Pegasus to spy on enemies, journalists, union leaders and his own mistress, according to a federal indictment.
publicidad
publicidad
A search for the word 'deportation' on platforms like GoFundMe and YouCaring brings up hundreds of people raising money to support family members and friends.
The Colombian soldier Mauricio Calvo shares his experience as part of a burgeoning industry of men who travel the world to fight in other people's wars.
Immigrants advocacy groups report 300 shootings aboard the train known as the The Beast. Migrant victims point to security guards hired by the government.
They grew up in Chicago and their husbands, the Flores twins (aka ‘Los Mellizos’), worked for the Sinaloa cartel. The twins later became DEA informants in Mexico who helped bring down El Chapo Guzman. They have written a book, Cartel Wives, telling their story as a lesson to others not to fall for the narco life, and they regret what they put their families through. "Our fathers put on their suit of armor and their badge, and they are going out there on the streets of Chicago,” Mia confesses. “It’s the very same streets that our husbands were flooding with drugs.”
The Rio Abajo bridge was swept away leaving the town of Utuado cut off. Neighbors engineered a pulley system to haul supplies over the river but they wonder when their lives will return to any semblance of normality.
A scene form the new documentary A Long Way From Home about the desegregation of professional baseball.
Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz reacted to comments on Twitter by President Trump in which he said Puerto Ricans “want everything done for them."
It is estimated that there are almost as many Puerto Ricans living off the island as the 3.4 million that reside there. After Hurricane Maria, almost all communication was lost between those on the island and in the diaspora. Univision sent a reporting team to the island before Maria's arrival. Part of their job now is helping connect families.
Two reporters from Univision News followed the track of Hurricane Maria, starting from the southeast where the eye made landfall all the way to the capital. This is what they saw from the road ...
An "extremely dangerous" Category 4 hurricane, Maria made landfall near Yabucoa in southeast Puerto Rico, causing widespread flooding across the U.S. territory of 3.4 million inhabitants. Maria caused rivers to flood all over the island. This video was taken in Guayama, on the south coast.
After a strong earthquake shook Mexico City, thousands of people evacuated their homes. The epicenter was 7.5 miles southeast of Axochiapan, in the state of Morelos.
Had Irma tracked 50 miles further north along Cuba's coast, the results could have been dramatically different, meteorologists say, causing devastation to the densely populated Greater Miami region. Also by tracking up Florida's west coast close to the shoreline deprived Irma of the warm Gulf water that fuels storms. Here is a compilation of the hurricane satellite images shared by NASA on social media.
The program was established in 2012 by President Barack Obama to protect certain undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Nilsa Huete is an undocumented Honduran immigrant living in Key West, Florida. In the last five months, five of her family members have been arrested by agents from the Monroe County Sheriff's Office. Now she’s fighting against the deportation of her daughter and brother.
Christopher Barker, leader of the 'Loyal White Knights' of the Ku Klux Klan and his wife Amanda Barker discussed their views on President Donald Trump during an exclusive interview for Aquí y Ahora.
That's what Christopher Barker, leader of the KKK's 'Loyal White Knights,' told Univision's late night news anchor in an interview for Aquí y Ahora. "To me you're a ni**er," he added.
Myrka Dellanos regresa a Univision y esto es lo que te podemos contar
La conductora que fuera rostro de Primer Impacto durante una década y madre de Alexa estará en la edición número 30 de los Premio Lo Nuestro.
Así pensaba detener al pistolero de Parkland el cantante Charlie Zaa
El salsero colombiano, cuya hija fue una de las sobrevivientes del tiroteo en la Florida, cuenta que al saber la noticia pensó en meter el auto a la escuela, pero era demasiado tarde.
¿Dónde está y cómo luce la escuela más segura de Estados Unidos?
Un alguacil de Indiana dice que está en su condado. En el centro educativo las puertas son a prueba de balas, hay bombas de humo en los techos y cada maestro tiene un dispositivo para alertar a las autoridades.
publicidad
Hallan culpable al senador texano Carlos Uresti de todos los cargos de fraude
El político y empresario fue encontrado culpable de los 11 cargos de los que se le acusaba entre los que se encuentran fraude electrónico, conspiración para cometer fraude electrónico, conspiración para lavado de dinero y comercio de valores no registrados.
Activistas intensifican campañas para que inmigrantes soliciten la ciudadanía
Expertos buscan que los inmigrantes con posibilidad de obtener la ciudadanía podrían transformar el entorno sociopolítico a través de su voto en elecciones nacionales.
Dreamer de Georgia se une a caminata para luchar por un Dream Act
Eduardo ha caminado más de 100 millas en camino a Washington D.C. para exigir a congresistas una solución para beneficiarios de DACA.
22 estados están bajo advertencia por tiempo invernal
Nuestro meteorólogo Albert Martinez nos explica por qué está lloviendo tanto y también nos informa en que estados de la nación nevará.
Lobos y Veracruz se juegan la vida y algunos millones de dólares
Con base en los antecedentes, Lobos BUAP y Veracruz podrían definir al equipo que descenderá en el enfrentamiento del sábado en Puebla.
Opinión | Aquel que diga que no le guarda un poquito de cariño a Oribe Peralta, miente
Hace 15 años, el 22 de febrero del 2003, "El Hermoso" debutó en la Liga MX. Tras tres lustros es uno de los jugadores más representativos en México.
Para reír una y otra vez: recuento por los mejores momentos del 'Tuca' en honor a su cumpleaños 64
El técnico de Tigres ha dejado instantes memorables por su peculiar forma de ser. En nuestra sección especial Univishow, Fer Gay revivió, a su manera, estas únicas imágenes en su aniversario.
Tiro desviado de Felipe
Tiro desviado de Felipe on February 22, 2018