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Report: Israeli private security firm tried to discredit Obama officials tied to Iran nuclear deal

Nearly three years since the Iran deal was sealed, The Guardian reports that top Obama White House national security officials Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl were the targets of elaborate efforts to delegitimize the agreement. An Israeli private intelligence firm allegedly tried to dig up information that might discredit the men. John Yang learns more from Julian Borger of The Guardian.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    President Trump has been weighing whether or not to remain part of the 2015 Iran deal, a decision he says he will announce tomorrow.

    But John Yang now has the strange tale of how and why two Obama administration staffers who helped to shape the pact are suddenly back in focus.

  • John Yang:

    Amna, it's been nearly three years since the Iran deal was sealed. But this weekend, the British newspaper The Guardian reported that last year, two top Obama White House national security officials who helped negotiate the agreement, Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl, were the targets of elaborate efforts to delegitimize it.

    The newspaper said an Israeli private intelligence firm tried to dig up information that might discredit the two men.

    With us now to explain this story is The Guardian's world affairs editor, Julian Borger, who helped break the story.

    Julian, thanks for being here.

    First off, I know that you have got a new story that was posted on The Guardian's Web site this afternoon our time. What's the latest?

  • Julian Borger:

    Well, this is about Trita Parsi, who is the head of the National Iranian American Council, who is a very fierce advocate of the Iran nuclear deal.

    And during the transition in late 2016, he was approached through an intermediary with a message from U.S. intelligence, someone in — high up in U.S. intelligence, warning him to look out because the Trump crowd were coming after him and would seek to discredit him as a means of discrediting the deal.

    And several months later, he was approached by someone he believed to be a journalist who turned out to be working for this Israeli private security firm who was asking him, after asking general questions, asked him about whether these two these two officials, Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl, had in some way maybe profited or benefited from the deal.

    He didn't think anything more about it other than to think it was a bit odd, until we read from the transcript of that conversation that we got ahold of from sources close to that firm.

  • John Yang:

    So that was what they were looking for. They were looking — they were trying to say, according to your reporting, that these two officials who negotiated the deal were profiting from it?

  • Julian Borger:

    Yes, they were, I think, looking for two areas, one in ways they were benefiting from the deal, and the other the possibility that they may have shared classified information with supporters of the deal or journalists during the negotiation or in the defense and the attempt to promote the deal afterwards.

  • John Yang:

    And, from your reporting, who was behind this? Who asked this or who hired this Israeli security firm to do this?

  • Julian Borger:

    Our understanding is that this was political — had a political intention behind it, from and was commissioned by people close to Donald Trump, with the intention of discrediting people connected to the Iran nuclear deal, so, when the deal was torpedoed, there would be less backlash against it, it would help discredit the deal itself.

  • John Yang:

    You say people close to Trump. Were you able to take this inside the White House in your reporting?

  • Julian Borger:

    We — I'm not sure in terms of whether this is people who were in the White House or business associates.

    But our sourcing who are close to this private security firm said it was clear that, when the tasking for this went out, that the ultimate customer was the Trump team, the Trump camp.

  • John Yang:

    And you did reach out to the White House. What did they say?

  • Julian Borger:

    They said they refused to comment on it.

  • John Yang:

    And this Israeli security firm called Black Cube, tell us about this.

  • Julian Borger:

    Well, this is a security firm made up of former Israeli intelligence officers.

    They have been involved in Nigeria. They have been involved in Central Europe. And they have been involved in the scandal around Harvey Weinstein, one of his lawyers, New Yorker, hired Black Cube to go after the accusers of Harvey Weinstein, see if they could get anything on them to — as a way of stopping the claims of sexual misconduct against him.

    Some of the same fake firms that were used to approach Harvey Weinstein's accusers were used to approach the wives of Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl.

    And so, to some extent, it is somewhat sloppy of them, using the same cut-out firms, using the same photographs of people who are acting under aliases, to approach people both in the Harvey Weinstein case and in the Iran nuclear deal case.

  • John Yang:

    This is an intriguing story, and I'm sure there's going to be more.

    Julian Borger, thanks so much.

  • Julian Borger:

    Thank you.

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