Spain’s intelligence chief sacked over Pegasus spyware crisis

Spain has sacked the head of its national intelligence agency, as the government seeks to draw a line under a political crisis sparked by the use of Pegasus spyware against the prime minister and allegations that dozens of separatist politicians Catalans were also targeted.

Paz Esteban was removed from his position as director of the National Intelligence Center (CNI) on Tuesday, a week after the government in Madrid revealed that Israeli-made spyware had been used to hack into the phones of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and of Defense Minister Margarita Robles.

The use of Pegasus against Sánchez, the first confirmed case of a targeted sitting government leader, has fueled controversy around the surveillance software, which has been blacklisted by the US Commerce Department and is the subject of investigation by a committee of the European Parliament.

The Pegasus spyware, made by the Israeli group NSO, can be used to infiltrate smartphones and transmit their data to the attacker. It is authorized for sale provided it is used against terrorism and crime, but the US Department of Commerce said last year that it had been used to “maliciously target” government officials, activists and others.

Espionage revelations in Spain have undermined support for Sánchez’s fragile minority government and threatened to stall progress towards a lasting political settlement over the status of Catalonia, the country’s most contentious issue.

Esteban, the first woman to head the CNI, had been under pressure since April, when Citizen Lab, a digital rights group based at the University of Toronto, alleged that Pegasus software had been used to spy on the president. Catalan regional Pere Aragonès and more. than 60 other Catalan separatists.

Questioned by a parliamentary committee last week, Esteban said the CNI had tapped the phones of 18 Catalan pro-independence leaders with judicial authority, according to lawmakers present at the closed-door hearing. The government in Madrid said it had no knowledge of this surveillance.

Madrid said Pegasus had been used against government ministers by forces “outside the state”, but did not name any suspected attackers. The alleged use of the spyware against Catalan leaders has not been confirmed by any government agency.

The government’s revelation that cabinet ministers’ phones had been hacked led to questions why the spying was not prevented and took almost a year to be detected. The government revealed on Tuesday that the Pegasus spyware was also found on Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska’s phone.

“It’s clear that there are things we need to improve,” Robles told a press conference, denying that Esteban was sacked due to scrutiny by the Catalan leaders. She will be replaced at the head of the CNI by Esperanza Casteleiro, currently Secretary of State for Defence.

The Pegasus scandal has weakened Spain’s left-wing government coalition at a time when the conservative People’s Party (PP), the main opposition group, is gaining popularity with polls close to those of Sánchez’s Socialists.

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of the PP, on Tuesday accused Sánchez of having “offered the head” of the CNI director to appease Catalan pro-independence parties, saying the prime minister was “weakening the state to ensure its own survival”.

The Catalan regional government, however, said sacking the spy chief would not solve the problem. “Explanations need to be given – who ordered the spying, who authorized it and who knew about it,” a spokesperson said.

“[The government] try to offer [the dismissal of] someone acceptable to the ERC, knowing that it would be impossible for Sánchez to overthrow the defense minister,” said Juan Rodríguez Teruel, professor of political science at the University of Valencia. “In the next few days we will see if that is enough.”

Catalan parties had previously called for the resignation of Robles, one of the few ministers in Sánchez’s cabinet popular with moderate voters. But the president of the ERC, Oriol Junqueras, gave up asking for his withdrawal in an interview with the El País Tuesday newspaper.

The spy case has heightened tensions within the ruling coalition. These came to light in April when the government’s proposal for a €16 billion economic package to mitigate the impact of war in Ukraine narrowly escaped defeat, thanks to backing from a small Basque separatist party.

The radical left Podemos party, which is in coalition with the Socialists, and the ERC, the Catalan independence party which gives him crucial support in parliament, have both called for an investigation into the surveillance of Pegasus.

A withdrawal of ERC support could delay planned legislation, including housing reforms to protect young and vulnerable tenants. Other important measures, including labor reforms, have already been approved.

Esteban’s withdrawal “shows [the Socialists’] desire to repeat the majority that brought them to power,” said Manuel Arias-Maldonado, professor of political science at the University of Malaga.

“I think the issue is unlikely to trigger a serious political crisis that could lead to the collapse of the government,” said Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research at Teneo. “There is no incentive for Sánchez to go to an early election given the PP’s current momentum in the opinion polls.”

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