Spain: The head of the secret services is footing the bill for a spy scandal

MADRID | The head of the Spanish secret services was fired by the government on Tuesday after the scandal surrounding the exposure of the phones of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Catalan separatists.

• Also read: Pedro Sánchez and the Spanish Defense Minister victims of illegal wiretapping

“The government decided today to change the leadership of the CNI,” said the National Intelligence Center at the end of the Council of Ministers, Defense Secretary Margarita Robles.

Paz Esteban, who became the first woman appointed to head the CNI in 2020, appeared for several days as the designated victim of this espionage scandal.

The 64-year-old graduate philosopher and philologist worked at the CNI for almost 40 years. She will be replaced by Esperanza Casteleiro Llamazares, Ms Robles’ current number two at the Defense Ministry.

Questioned by a parliamentary commission on Thursday, according to Spanish media reports, Paz Esteban admitted that 18 Catalan separatists had been heard by the CNI, but always with the green light of the judiciary, i.e. legal.

Among them was the current regional president, Pere Aragonés, when he was vice-president.

External Attack

Government sources quoted in the media paved the way for his ouster and have since asserted that despite the extremely sensitive nature of the Catalan issue, the executive had not been informed of these wiretaps.

This scandal has rocked Spain since the publication of a report by Canadian organization Citizen Lab on April 18, which claims to have identified more than 60 people from the separatist movement whose phones were allegedly hacked by Pegasus spyware between 2017 and 2020.

But it took on a whole new dimension with the government’s May 2 announcement that Mr Sánchez and Ms Robles themselves had been spied on in part in May and June 2021 via the same software developed by Israeli company NSO “Attack from outside”.

But the executive, which revealed on Tuesday that Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska’s cellphone had also been tapped in May 2021, says in the face of press inquiries it does not know who might be behind possible Moroccan involvement.

Catalan threat

This affair sparked a serious crisis between Mr Sánchez’s minority government and the Catalan separatists, who threatened to strip him of their support in Parliament at the risk of causing his ouster and snap elections. The legislature normally ends at the end of 2023.

Backed by Podemos, a far-left government member, they had also claimed the boss of Ms Robles, who had initially strongly supported the outgoing CNI leader, but the prime minister retained his confidence in her.

In an attempt to calm tensions, Mr. Sánchez promised last week that he would conduct multiple investigations into the case.

As early as 1995, the Spanish secret services were at the center of an illegal wiretapping scandal that cost their boss Emilio Alonso Manglano, the then vice-president of the socialist government Narcis Serra and Defense Minister Julian García Vargas their jobs.

More recently, the CNI’s ex-chief Félix Sanz Roldán was accused by an ex-lover of former sovereign Juan Carlos of threatening her not to reveal certain secrets, which he denied in court.

Pegasus – which allows access to messages, data or remote activation of a smartphone’s cameras and microphones – and the Israeli company NSO that developed it, have been the subject of serious accusations since a media consortium revealed last summer that this software was used to spy Ring the phones of hundreds of politicians, journalists, human rights activists or business leaders.

Mr. Sánchez is the first head of state or government to announce that he was spied on with Pegasus.

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