Pegasus in Spain: Spy Chief Sacked Over Phone Hacking

Spain's spy agency admitted to wiretapping at least 18 pro-independence Catalan leaders with a court order; PM and DM also targeted, likely by another state

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez speaking at a press conference with his Danish counterpart last week. His government denies hacking Catalan politicians' phones.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez speaking at a press conference with his Danish counterpart last week. His government denies hacking Catalan politicians' phones.Credit: UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS S

The Spanish government sacked the country's spy chief Paz Esteban following the disclosure of the use of Pegasus software to snoop on Spanish officials, a government source told Reuters on Tuesday, confirming a report by El Pais newspaper.

Last month, Canada's digital rights group Citizen Lab said more than 60 people linked to the Catalan separatist movement had been targets of Pegasus spyware made by Israel's NSO Group.

This prompted Catalonia's leftist pro-independence party ERC, a key ally of the Spanish minority government, to say it would not support it until Madrid took measures to restore confidence.

The Spanish government reported days after it had detected the Pegasus spyware in the mobile phones of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Defence Minister Margarita Robles. On Tuesday, they also said that Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska was also targeted, making them the third Spanish government official whose phone was hacked, likley by another state.

The NSO Group's logo. The Israeli cyberoffense firm denies any involvement in the infection of 60 Catalans' phones.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Esteban, who took up her position in 2020 after years of service as an agent with the National Intelligence Centre as the spying agency is known, appeared last week before lawmakers in Congress to explain the eavesdropping on Catalan leaders.

The committee at which she appeared is subject to official secrecy but the lawmakers in attendance said Esteban acknowledged that the spy agency wire-tapped 18 pro-independence leaders but always under court order, as the law requires.

>> ‘Democracies don't spy on citizens’: Catalan leader infected with Pegasus speaks out

Among those targeted were the current president of the Catalan regional government, Pere Aragonès, and his two predecessors. In an interview with Haaretz, Aragonès said that his case shows how even the most democratic of regimes can apparently use the software for internal political goals – in this case against a legitimately elected democratic movement.

In an interview via video conference, Aragonès said that as president of the semi-autonomous region, he is “committed to a peaceful political solution to the conflict between Catalonia and Spain. We’re a democratic movement that is struggling for independence – but because we’re a pro-independence movement, they consider and treat us like a terrorist group.”

Catalan Regional President Pere Aragonès speaking to the media last week after reports said his and other politicians' phones were infected with the Israeli spyware Pegasus. Credit: JAVIER SORIANO - AFP

As for the rest of the possible eavesdropping, there was no official explanation and the government said it is investigating the allegations, but the unease over the hacking of the prime minister's mobile phone has been growing.

ERC leader Oriol Junqueras, who was jailed for his role in the Catalan secession attempt but later pardoned by the current Socialist government, said his party would resume supporting the government if "responsibilities were assumed".

ERC legislator Gabriel Rufian supported the decision to sack Esteban.

"(It) seems logical to me and I think it would also be good to declassify some documents and set up an investigation committee," he told reporters.

The hacks of the Spanish leadership took place just as Madrid was in the midst of a diplomatic crisis with Morocco over the former's coronavirus policies and the latter's decision to allow migrants to enter the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. Reports have said in the past the Morocco was a client of NSO, a claim the kingdom has denied.

Israel's NSO Group, the cyber offensive firm which developed Pegasus, said it was unfamiliar with the details of the specific case and, as a software provider, cannot know who the targets of its customers are.

Sánchez is the most senior official to have been confirmed to be infected with the spyware. During the Project Pegasus global investigation over the summer, other instances of world leaders being selected for possible snooping by NSO's clients were reported, including the leaders of France, Pakistan and Morocco. A number of former prime ministers were also on the list of possible victims, including France's Édouard Philippe and Lebanon's Saad Hariri. However, no confirmations were ever made.

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