The Spanish government on Tuesday fired the country’s intelligence chief as part of a scandal over hacking the mobile phones of the prime minister and Catalan separatist leaders.
The case began in April, when the Canadian cybersecurity service Citizen Lab said that the phones of more than 60 people associated with the Catalan separatist movement were tapped by Pegasus spyware after a failed request 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 concerns among Spanish leaders about cybersecurity.
Pass 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, mistakes” in the way CNI handles business, she told reporters.
Esteban appeared before a parliamentary committee for questioning on Thursday over a phone hacking scandal that has dominated newspaper headlines for several days.
She confirmed that 18 Catalan separatists, including Per Aragones, head of Catalonia’s regional government, had spied on CNI, but always with the court’s permission, according to meeting participants behind closed doors.
The case sparked a crisis between the Sanchez minority government and the Catalan separatist party ERC. Sanchez’s fragile coalition is counting on the ERC to pass legislation in parliament.
The scandal deepened after the government announced on May 2 that Sanchez and Robles ’phones had been hacked by the same spyware made by the Israeli NSO group in May and June 2021.
– ‘Not enough’ –
Sanchez is the first incumbent head of government to confirm that he has been the target of controversial Pegasus spyware.
The revelation has raised questions about who is to blame and whether Spain has adequate security protocols.
The phone of Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaschi was also hacked last year, government spokeswoman Isabelle Rodriguez said on Tuesday after analyzing the telephones of all cabinets.
Since then, there have been no “traces” of other Pegasus infections on ministers’ phones, she told a joint news conference with Robles.
The leader of the main opposition Conservative People’s Party of Spain (PP) Alberto Nunez Feijoo accused Sanchez of “proposing the head of the CNI” to the Catalan separatists, “to ensure his survival.”
But the Catalan regional government said Esteban’s dismissal was “insufficient”.
Some Spanish media pointed to Morocco, which at the time was in a diplomatic dispute with Spain, but the government said it was not evidence of who could be held accountable.
Esteban will be replaced by Esperanza Castellera Llamasarez, who is currently Secretary of State for Defense and the second highest-ranking official in the Ministry of Defense.
– Criminals and terrorists –
Pegasus spy software infiltrates mobile phones to retrieve data or activate a camera or microphone to spy on their owners.
The NSO Group, based in Israel, claims that the software is sold only to government agencies to fight criminals and terrorists from the green light of the Israeli authorities.
The company has been criticized by global human rights groups for violating the privacy of users around the world, and it faces lawsuits from major technology firms such as Apple and Microsoft.
Since the country’s return to democracy following the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, a number of scandals have erupted in Spain over illegal intelligence tapping.
In 1995, Deputy Prime Minister Narcis Serra, Defense Minister Julian Garcia Vargas and then-intelligence chief Emilio Alonso Manglan resigned after it was revealed that they had illegally monitored the conversations of hundreds of people.
Most recently, the former mistress of former King of Spain Juan Carlos said she had come under illegal surveillance by the security services.
She said former intelligence chief Felix Sans Roldan threatened her with physical injury if she did not remain silent. Suns Roldan dismissed the charges in court.