of Spain government On Tuesday, he fired the country’s chief spy as part of a growing scandal over hacking the cell phones of Catalan prime minister and separatist leaders.
The story broke out in April when Canadian cybersecurity watchdog Citizen Lab said the phones of more than 60 people linked to the Catalan separatist movement had been intercepted using Pegasus spyware after a failed bid for independence in 2017.
Last week, the government confirmed that the phones of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles were also targeted, raising cyber security concerns among Spanish executives.
Paz Esteban, the first woman to head Spain’s CNI intelligence agency, will be replaced, said Robles, whose ministry oversees the agency, confirming media reports.
“There are flaws, errors” in the way the affair was handled by the CNI, he told reporters.
Esteban appeared before a parliamentary committee on Thursday to be questioned about the phone hacking scandal that dominated the headlines for days.
He confirmed that 18 Catalan separatists, including Pere Aragones, the head of the regional government of Catalonia, had been spied on by the CNI but always with the approval of the court, according to participants in the closed-door meeting.
The affair triggered a crisis between Sanchez’s minority government and the Catalan separatist party ERC. Sanchez’s fragile coalition relies on ERC to pass legislation in parliament.
The scandal deepened after the government announced on May 2 that Sanchez and Robles’ phones were hacked by the same spyware, made by Israeli group NSO, in May and June 2021.
– ‘Not enough’ –
Sanchez is the first incumbent head of government to be targeted by the controversial Pegasus spyware.
The revelation raised questions about who is to blame and whether Spain has adequate security protocols.
Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska’s phone was also among those hacked last year, government spokeswoman Isabel Rodriguez said Tuesday after all government ministers’ phones were scanned.
Since then “there have been no traces” of other Pegasus infections on ministers’ phones, he said at a joint press conference with Robles.
The leader of the main conservative opposition party (PP), Alberto Nunez Feijoo, accused Sanchez of “offering the head of the head of the Cni” to Catalan separatists “to ensure his survival”.
But the regional government of Catalonia said that Esteban’s dismissal “was not enough”.
Some Spanish media pointed the finger at Morocco, which was in a diplomatic squabble with Spain at the time, but the government said there was no evidence of who could be responsible.
Esteban will be replaced as Head of Intelligence by Esperanza Casteleiro Llamazares, currently Secretary of State for Defense, the second highest-ranking officer in the Defense Ministry.
– criminals and terrorists –
Pegasus spyware infiltrates cell phones to extract data or activate a camera or microphone to spy on their owners.
The Israel-based NSO group says the software is being sold to government agencies only to target criminals and terrorists, with the green light from the Israeli authorities.
The company has been criticized by global rights groups for violating user privacy around the world and faces lawsuits from major tech companies like Apple and Microsoft.
There have been a number of scandals in Spain over illegal wiretapping by the intelligence services since the country returned to democracy following the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
In 1995 Deputy Prime Minister Narcis Serra, Defense Minister Julian Garcia Vargas, and then Head of Intelligence, Emilio Alonso Manglano, resigned following revelations of illegally monitoring the conversations of hundreds of people.
More recently, a former mistress of the former king of Spain, Juan Carlos, claimed that she was placed under illegal surveillance by the intelligence services.
She said former intelligence agency head Felix Sanz Roldan threatened her with physical harm unless she kept silent. Sanz Roldan denied the allegations in court.