Spain’s intelligence agency accused of gross negligence after top officials hacked spyware

Hacking revelations involving politicians’ cell phones have put Spain’s usually observant intelligence agency in an uncomfortable spotlight.

In one case, Spain’s National Intelligence Center has been accused of gross negligence in allowing unidentified sources to tap the phone in Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s pocket. Pegasus Spyware Although Spain has refused to point the finger at Morocco, the date of the phone hacks of Sanchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles last year coincides with a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

The intelligence agency, known by its Spanish acronym CNI, is also accused of using the Pegasus program to hack the phones of more than 60 Catalan separatists. Amidst back-to-back scandals involving alleged espionage, plans for a public event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of CNI were postponed.

Agency director Paz Esteban López is appearing behind closed doors on Thursday before a select parliamentary committee on where she will be able to break the secrecy code that prevents members of the government from disclosing her agency’s workings.

Esteban, the first woman to serve as director of the CNI, will speak to only 11 members of parliament, all of whom will have to take an oath not to reveal what has been said. Spain’s parliament voted for members of the Catalan and Basque separatist parties to sit on a special committee.

The much-anticipated meeting at Spain’s Parliament House in Madrid is set to take place inside a rigid meeting room at one end of the hallway surrounded by portraits of Spanish parliament speakers.

Catalan separatists, who want to create a new state for northeastern Spain around Barcelona, ​​are expected to question Esteban about the CNI’s alleged use of spyware. He directly accused CNI of being behind the hack that came to light two weeks ago when Citizen Lab, a Canadian-based digital rights group, cited the use of Pegasus to hack the phones of dozens of pro-independence supporters in Spain’s northeast. Published a report. Catalonia region, which includes politicians, lawyers and activists.

The Spanish government has repeatedly stated that the CNI cannot tap phones without prior judicial authorization. Also, the government said that the privacy law shielding all CNI activity prevents the agency from verifying whether it has Pegasus, a spyware sold by the Israeli company NSO Group.

“If Paz Esteban presents evidence that three or four years ago there was judicial authority to tap the phones of some 60 people because they supported (Catalonia’s) independence, then we are going to have a problem,” said Gabriel Rufian, Member of Parliament, a Catalan separatist party, told Cadena SER Radio before participating in the committee.

The Spanish government has nevertheless promised that both the CNI and the country’s ombudsman will examine the report published by Citizen Lab. It has also encouraged those affected to take their cases to court.

But Robles, the defense minister, appeared to justify action against the separatists, mostly for their role in organizing and participating in peaceful pro-separatist street protests. Incidents sometimes spiraled out of control and led to clashes with police, blocking of roads and train lines, and the closure of Barcelona’s airport in 2019.

Robles himself faced questions during a parliamentary commission public meeting on Wednesday. The hearing was to be about European defense but ended up focusing on Pegasus.

“I am especially proud of the 3,000 men and women of CNI who risk their lives to protect our peace and security and always stay within the law,” Robles said. “The (CNI) director is being targeted with allegations that have no basis in reality.”

Esteban can also expect questions from members of mainstream parties who accuse the agency of letting foreign actors infiltrate the country’s most sensitive phones.

The CNI, which oversees Spain’s cyber security, only found that Sánchez and Robles’ phones were hacked after a thorough scan of the devices revealed breaches in Catalan phones.

The previous investigation found no evidence of hacks in May and June 2021, which the government has been forced to admit.

“The prime minister’s phone is checked regularly, but the protocol is improved every day,” government spokeswoman Isabel Rodriguez told Onda Cerro radio. “It’s clear that mistakes were made, and we’re working to rectify things so they don’t happen again.”

The government’s refusal for Esteban to remain in office for long has fueled Spanish media reports that his days as head of the CNI may be numbered.

“Before determining the responsibilities, we have to find out what happened,” Rodriguez said.

The digital break-in of Pegasus phones has been reported and condemned in several countries. French President Emmanuel Macron was included in a list of heads of state Amnesty International suspected were targeted last year.

The European Parliament launched an investigation into the use of Pegasus in the EU, initially aimed at Hungary and Poland. Members of the European Parliament are also on the list of alleged hacked Catalans.

Amnesty International, which has condemned the use of Pegasus spyware in several countries, called on Spain for more transparency on Thursday.

“This committee, which has been characterized for secrecy and obscenity, cannot be considered an appropriate place to investigate alleged human rights violence,” said Esteban Beltrán, director of the rights group in Spain.

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