A former reporter for The Wall Street Journal claims that a law firm hired cyber mercenaries to hack into his emails and circulate embarrassing material that ultimately led to his firing from the paper.
Jay Solomon, formerly the Journal’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, was unceremoniously sacked in 2017 after a tranche of emails were leaked to the web that purported to show impropriety between him and one of his sources. The source—a wealthy defense contractor and alleged CIA asset named Farhad Azima—had offered the journalist a minority stake in one of his businesses. Solomon hadn’t turned him down, the emails showed, and had even expressed interest in the deal. After his editors confronted him about the chats, Solomon was canned.
However, this story, which is already pretty weird, is now getting a whole lot weirder: turns out, Solomon is accusing a major American law firm, Dechert LLP, of hiring hackers from India to illegally steal his emails and leak the very messages that led to his termination. In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. on Friday, the disgraced journalist claims that Dechert used illegal tactics to “malign and discredit him.” These tactics allegedly included hiring two Indian cyber firms—BellTrox InfoTech Services and CyberRoot Risk Advisory—to surveil, steal, and publish information about him.
In his suit, Solomon alleges that what Dechert did was blatantly illegal and led to the destruction of his career:
...Mr. Solomon’s employment with the Wall Street Journal was terminated in response to the publishing...of confidential communications between Mr. Solomon and his source Farhad Azima (“Mr. Azima”), which were illegally obtained by the hacking of Mr. Azima’s email account—as directed and orchestrated by the Defendants and/or their Cohorts — and which presented suggestive language creating a wrongful appearance of alleged improper, unethical and/or fraudulent dealings...
Azima, who was also allegedly targeted by the hackers, has also filed a lawsuit against Dechert. The lawsuits claim that the smear campaign was initiated on behalf of one of Dechert’s clients, a Saudi ruler, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi, who used the material to win a different lawsuit filed against Azima.
When asked by Gizmodo about the litigation, Dechert responded merely, “The claim against the firm is denied and will be defended.”
If the idea of law firms hiring hackers sounds like outright lunacy, it unfortunately might not be. The frightening trend of powerful entities procuring the services of “cyber mercenaries” to target journalists, political activists, and other targets, has been widely reported on over the past several years.
Meanwhile, Solomon has consistently dismissed the allegations against him, claiming that he never took any money from Azima or agreed to a business relationship with him. “None of the allegations was true,” he wrote, in a 2018 op-ed for Columbia Journalism Review. While Solomon admits to making “serious mistakes in managing” his relationship with Azima, he ultimately denies wrongdoing:
“Rather than leaving to protect myself and my reputation, I was glued to the exotic surroundings and the guests I’d meet through Azima over the years. This contributed to the toxic misunderstandings that led to the end of my tenure at the Journal,” he writes.
However, the original reporting on Solomon’s termination makes him look...well...not very good. In 2017, the Associated Press wrote that a leaked operating agreement showed the journalist had been offered a 10 percent stake in a small company called Denx LLC. Two other Denx “partners,” former CIA officers Gary Bernsten and Scott Modell, told the AP that Solomon had been “involved in discussing proposed deals with Azima at the same time he continued to cultivate the businessman as a source for his stories for the Journal.” Solomon has portrayed these communications as his clumsy attempt to maintain ties to sources but maintains he never intended to go forward with any sort of business dealings.