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Intelligence head argues court approval to spy on only some Catalan leaders

Paz Esteban talks in congressional official secrets committee behind closed doors

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05 May 2022 09:25 AM

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ACN | Barcelona

The head of Spain's intelligence service (CNI), Paz Esteban, was expected to argue in a congressional statement that the Supreme Court had greenlighted spying on Catalan pro-independence figures, but only approximately a dozen, thus not all of the over 60 people affected by Catalangate alleged espionage scandal using Pegasus software.

CNI's chief appeared before Spain's congress official secrets committee behind closed doors on Thursday from 9am, and pro-independence MP Gabriel Rufián explained the content of the meeting, saying it was exactly the same that had already been leaked in the press some hours before.

Before the meeting, Spanish government sources told the media that she would appear before lawmakers with documents showing that judge Pablo Lucas, in the Supreme Court, had agreed to hack some of the politicians and activists featuring in the Citizen Lab organization published by 'The New Yorker' magazine as victims of espionage, but not all of them.

According to Rufián, Esteban said that for the rest of the people spied on, she said that "either a foreign nation or Spanish state bodies that spy on beyond their legal possibilities."

CNI's boss is in the eye of the political storm stemming from Catalangate, and some pundits and opposition MPs believe she may resign or be sacked in the near future. The agency is managed by Spain's defense ministry, whose leader, Margarita Robles, is also facing calls to step down due to the scandal.

Spanish interior minister, third cabinet member victim

Besides pro-independence figures, the Pegasus spyware has also been used to hack the phones of several members of the Spanish government, including Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez, and defense minister Margarita Robles. On Thursday, sources from the executive confirmed to the Catalan News Agency (ACN) that Spain's interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska's device had also been infected with spyware.

These sources confirmed the infection happened in 2021, a few days after Sánchez and Robles' phone hacking, the phone analysis done by the National Cryptologic Center (CCN) proved. The CCN is the Spanish agency in charge of cybercrime investigation.  

According to the same sources, the amount of data stolen from the minister's phone is really low, considering hackers only copied text messages and WhatsApp chats. ACN has also confirmed that former exterior minister, Arancha González Laya, was also spied on while she was in charge.

The Spanish government will report the full extent of the espionage case, and the number of devices infected, once the examination has been completed, which they expect will happen soon. 

Official secrets committee

It is the first time in over two years that the official secrets committee convenes, and pro-independence groups Junts and CUP were part of it for the first time. Senior partner in the Catalan government Esquerra also had a representative, like in the period between 2017 and 2019.

Two MPs spied on by Pegasus were part of the committee, Junts' Míriam Nogueras and CUP's Albert Botran.

The session is secret, none of the discussions taking place or the documents shown in it can be published, and MPs have to leave their phones out of the room.

Catalangate

Catalangate is the name that Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto-based research group that reports on high-tech human rights abuses gave its investigation into the espionage of several Catalan pro-independence politicians, activists, and their close associates. 

It is "the largest forensically documented cluster of such attacks and infections on record," the New Yorker published on April 18

Phones were infected using spyware programs Pegasus and Candiru. Pegasus, from Israeli company NSO Group, is known internationally for its previous infections of renowned people, such as murdered Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or members of Rwanda’s opposition party.

Candiru, founded by former NSO Group employees, is not as well known but is similar to Pegasus.

Political consequences in Catalonia

The Catalan government has frozen its negotiation process over the independence issue with Spain after Catalangate revelations. Both the independence camp, as well as Citizen Lab researchers, believe the perpetrators of this espionage are within the Spanish government. 

In fact, Catalan president Pere Aragonès condemned the Spanish prime minister’s management of Catalangate as being the main cause of frozen relations. Pedro Sánchez is "unfortunately, blowing up any chances for dialogue and negotiation," he said on Wednesday.

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  • Spain's defense minister, Margarita Robles, in the congress defense committee, on May 4, 2022 (by Roger Pi de Cabanyes)

  • Spain's defense minister, Margarita Robles, in the congress defense committee, on May 4, 2022 (by Roger Pi de Cabanyes)

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