Hacked phones put Spanish intelligence agency under scrutiny

Hacked phones put Spanish intelligence agency under scrutiny

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – Revelations of hacking involving politicians’ cell phones have put Spain’s typically cautious intelligence agency in an uncomfortable spotlight.

In one case, Spain’s National Intelligence Center is accused of gross negligence for allowing unknown sources to tap the phone in Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s pocket with the Pegasus spyware.. While Spain has refused to point the finger at Morocco, the dates when the phones of Sánchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles were hacked last year coincide 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. Amid the consecutive scandals involving alleged espionage, plans for a public ceremony to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the CNI were postponed.

The agency’s director, Paz Esteban López, appeared on Thursday at a selected parliamentary committee behind closed doors, where she could break the code of secrecy that prohibits government officials from revealing the functioning of her agency.

Esteban, the first woman to hold the position of director of the CNI, will speak with just 11 parliamentarians, all of whom will have to swear not to reveal what they are told. Spain’s parliament voted to allow members of the Catalan and Basque separatist parties to sit on the special committee.

The long-awaited meeting at the Spanish Parliament building in Madrid is set to take place inside an austere meeting room at one end of a corridor flanked by portraits of Spanish parliament presidents.

Catalan separatists, who want to create a new state for northeast Spain around Barcelona, ​​are expected to interrogate Esteban about CNI’s alleged use of spyware. They directly accused CNI of being behind the hacks that came to light two weeks ago when Canada-based digital rights group Citizen Lab published a report citing the use of Pegasus to break into phones. of dozens of pro-independence supporters in Spain’s northeast Catalonia region, including politicians, lawyers and activists.

The Spanish government has repeatedly said that the CNI cannot tap phones without prior judicial authorization. At the same time, the government said the secrecy law protecting all CNI activities prevents the agency from confirming that it has Pegasus, the spyware sold by the Israeli company NSO Group.

“If Paz Esteban presents evidence that three or four years ago there was judicial authorization to tap the phones of about 60 people because they supported independence (of Catalonia), then we will have a problem,” said Gabriel Rufián, a lawmaker for a Catalan separatist party. , told Cadena SER radio before joining the committee.

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

But Robles, the defense minister, appeared to justify the crackdown on separatists for their role in organizing and participating in mostly peaceful pro-secession street protests. Events sometimes spiraled out of control and led to clashes with the police, the blockade of roads and train lines and the closure of Barcelona airport in 2019.

Robles herself faced a barrage of questions Wednesday during a public meeting of a parliamentary committee. The audience was supposed to be about European defense, but ended up focusing on Pegasus.

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

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

The CNI, which oversees cybersecurity in Spain, only discovered that Sánchez and Robles’ phones had been hacked after the devices underwent deep scans following revelations of the breaches on the Catalans’ phones.

Previous checks found no evidence of the hacks in May and June 2021, the government was forced to admit.

“The prime minister’s phone is checked regularly, but protocols improve every day,” government spokeswoman Isabel Rodríguez told Radio Onda Cero. “It is clear that mistakes were made and we are working to improve things so they don’t happen again.”

The government’s refusal to commit to Esteban’s long-term tenure has spawned Spanish media reports suggesting that his days as head of the CNI may be numbered.

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

Digital phone break-ins with Pegasus have been reported and reported in several countries. French President Emmanuel Macron has been included in a list of heads of state that Amnesty International suspected of being targeted last year.

The European Parliament has opened an investigation into the use of Pegasus in the European Union U, initially intended to focus on Hungary and Poland. The list of allegedly hacked Catalans also includes members of the European Parliament.

Amnesty International, which has denounced the use of Pegasus spyware in several countries, demanded more transparency from Spain on Thursday.

“This committee, characterized by its secrecy and obscurantism, cannot be considered the appropriate place to investigate alleged human rights violence,” said Esteban Beltrán, director of the human rights group in Spain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.