Spanish intelligence chief sunk by Pegasus scandal

The head of the Spanish intelligence services was dismissed by the government on Tuesday after the scandal caused by the revelation that the phones of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Catalan separatists had been tapped using the Israeli spyware Pegasus. “The government has decided today to make a change in the leadership of the CNI”, the National Intelligence Center, announced Defense Minister Margarita Robles, minister responsible for the intelligence services, at the end of the council. ministers. There were “failures” and “errors” in the handling of this case by the CNI, even if it acted “in accordance with the law”, she added.

First woman appointed (in 2020) at the head of the CNI, Paz Esteban appeared for several days as the designated victim of this spy scandal which caused a crisis between the separatists and the government, threatening the survival of the latter. Aged 64, this graduate in philosophy and letters had worked for almost 40 years at the CNI. She will be replaced by Esperanza Casteleiro Llamazares, Margarita Robles’ current number two at the Defense Ministry.

Read also: Catalan separatism under cyber surveillance

Questioned Thursday by a parliamentary commission, Paz Esteban admitted that 18 Catalan separatists had been listened to by the CNI, but always with the green light of justice. Among them was the current regional president, Pere Aragonés, when he was vice-president. The Catalan regional government judged that the dismissal of Paz Esteban was “not enough” and demanded “convincing explanations” to find out “who ordered” and “who allowed” these wiretaps and “who knew about it”.

External attack

Preparing the ground for the ousting of Paz Esteban, government sources quoted in the media assured for several days that the executive had not been informed of these wiretaps, despite the extremely sensitive nature of the Catalan question. This scandal has agitated Spain since the publication, on April 18, of a report by the Canadian organization Citizen Lab claiming to have identified more than 60 people from the separatist movement whose laptops were allegedly hacked between 2017 and 2020 by the Pegasus software. .

But it took on a whole new dimension with the announcement on May 2 by the government that Pedro Sánchez and Margarita Robles had themselves been spied on in May and June 2021 via this same software, created by the Israeli company NSO, within the framework of an “external attack”. The executive – which revealed on Tuesday that Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska’s cell phone had also been tapped in June 2021 and that Agriculture Minister Luis Planas’ cell phone had been the subject of an attempt to espionage during the same period – claims however not to know who can be at the origin of it, in the face of questions from the press on a possible involvement of Morocco.

Read also: In Switzerland, wiretapped Catalan separatists could file a complaint

The Spanish media have abundantly underlined that these taps took place just after the outbreak of a serious diplomatic crisis between Madrid and Rabat caused by the admission to Spain, to be treated there for covid, of the leader of the Sahrawi separatists of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, sworn enemy of the Moroccan authorities. This crisis ended after the surprise announcement on March 18 by the Spanish Prime Minister of his support for Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony controlled by Rabat.

Catalan threat

Since the revelations of Citizen Lab, Catalan separatists have been threatening to withdraw their support in Parliament for the minority government of Predro Sánchez, with the risk of causing its fall before the end of the legislature, scheduled for the end of 2023. Supported by Podemos, a radical left party member of the government, they also claim the head of Margarita Robles, who had initially strongly supported the outgoing leader of the CNI, but the Prime Minister maintained his confidence in her. For his part, the new leader of the Popular Party (main right-wing party), Alberto Núñez Feijóo, accused Pedro Sánchez of “offering the head of the director of the CNI to the separatists […] to ensure its survival.

Read also: Catalan president: “Political opponents must only be fought with democratic tools”

Pegasus – which allows access to messaging, data or remote activation of the cameras and microphones of a smartphone – and the Israeli company NSO which designed it have been the subject of serious accusations since a consortium of media revealed last summer that this software had been used to spy on the phones of hundreds of politicians, journalists, human rights activists and business leaders. Pedro Sánchez is the first head of state or government to have announced that he had been spied on using Pegasus.

Leave a Comment