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Catalan government to request Spanish intelligence agency's contracts with NSO Group

Court greenlighted use of Pegasus spyware targeting pro-independence movement, El País reports

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26 April 2022 12:50 PM

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ACN | Barcelona

The Catalan government will request the Spanish intelligence agency’s contracts with NSO Group, the owner and manufacturer of Pegasus spyware, the spokesperson said on Tuesday. Catalangate, an alleged espionage case, has been part of the political agenda since it was first reported by The New Yorker magazine and Citizen Lab research group on April 18. 

This is one of the agreements the Catalan government reached during its weekly cabinet meeting, with a view to obtaining all contracts signed between any Spanish authorities and any spyware manufacturers, such as NSO Group and Candiru. The executive will also ask judicial services to begin preparing a legal strategy to defend the government and all its public workers. 

So far, the Spanish government's reaction is "insufficient" considering the size of this "political scandal," Patrícia Plaja, spokesperson, told media outlets, after the meeting. The lack of response is "gravely endangering" the relationships between the two cabinets that are currently limited to essential meetings, such as the one held on Sunday between Spanish and Catalan presidency ministers in Barcelona.  

At the time, Félix Bolaños, the right-hand of Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez, said that they would investigate the intelligence agency (CNI) and even declassify documentation if required. 

Intelligence agency confirms use of Pegasus

Two days later, the CNI acknowledged that they did indeed use Pegasus spyware, made by Israeli company NSO Group, to spy on pro-independence activists, as published by the Spanish newspaper, El País. However, the agency has specified that a court had greenlighted its use. 

However, the same sources did not reveal who was spied on and when, and they do not believe the Citizen Lab report listing at least 65 pro-independence activists and politicians as victims. They even said that a lot of those named had never been spied on by the agency.

The same sources also confirmed that some leaders of Catalan civil society groups were indeed people of interest to the CNI, particularly regarding the legal mandate that the agency has on preventing and avoiding any threat to Spain’s territorial integrity. 

The agency acquired Pegasus during the last decade after paying around €6m. 

Some of the phones that were allegedly hacked are personal devices of leaders in touch with "violent groups, such as Committees for the Defense of the Republic (CDR)," the newspaper article says. 

CDR organized several protests across Catalonia to mark the anniversary of the October 1, 2017 referendum. 

Pegasus was also used in another case when they had the phone of one of former president Carles Puigdemont's associates hacked. At the time, this allowed police to detain the former Catalan leader in Germany in March 2018. 

Anti-corruption prosecution office aware since 2018

The Spanish anti-corruption prosecution office received some proof in 2018 of a secret operation to acquire Pegasus spyware, according to the ‘Público’ newspaper. 

The evidence was obtained a few months after former police official José Manuel Villarejo was detained on November 3, 2017. The purchase operation was carried out by the police assistant director, Eugenio Pino, and a member of his office, José Ángel Fuentes Gago.

Political relations frozen between governments

The relations between the Catalan government and the Spanish one are currently frozen and the negotiation table between both parties will not meet again. Or at least, until Catalangate is solved and the cabinet receives answers and people resign.

"Right now there is another matter, a conflict without precedents, a massive espionage case," Patrícia Plaja said during the press conference. 

"There are no conditions at all for us to celebrate the negotiation table, as the massive espionage case must be resolved urgently," therefore, she added, "the negotiation table remains aside, after a non-precedents scandal."   

On a similar note, Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) spokesperson, Josep Rius, has urged other political parties not to give any political support to the Spanish government. 

Junts is the junior coalition partner in the Catalan government. They hope that other Catalan forces do not vote in favor of a decree to tackle the crisis provoked by the war in Ukraine. 

"Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez's arguments are unjustifiable and resignations are compulsory and immediate," the spokesperson said. There are a lot of different pieces of information, but "it is clear that people were illegally spied on," he said. 

On the other hand, the Catalan pro-independence party PDeCAT, will vote in favor of the decree on Thursday at the Spanish chamber. "The government is reacting very slowly and insufficient," Ferran Bel, spokesperson for the party, said. 

Meanwhile, back in Catalonia, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya president Oriol Junqueras urged the government to take responsibility between Tuesday and Wednesday, as it is "an excellent occasion." 

The leader of the senior coalition partner of the Catalan government was interviewed early on Tuesday morning on public TV3 broadcaster morning show, ‘Els Matins’. During the interview, Junqueras did not clarify whether or not his party would vote in favor of the Spanish decree against the Ukrainian war crisis. 

"Between now and Thursday, a lot of things could happen," he added.  

On a similar note, ERC’s spokesperson in Congress, Gabriel Rufián, warned that the cabinet had 48 hours to explain Catalangate allegations. 

The Catalan pro-independence party could boycott "the Spanish government legislative agenda, which seems like this is the only language the Socialists understand," he threatened.   

Congress bureau greenlights Catalangate investigative committee

The Spanish congress bureau has greenlighted an investigative committee on Catalangate requested by the Catalan parties ERC, Junts, PDeCAT, and CUP, and the Spanish ones Bildu and Podemos. 

ERC, Junts, PDeCAT, and Bildu have also presented a request for the Spanish PM to explain "the measures that they will adopt regarding the espionage case," the petition reads.

Despite both requests having been greenlighted by the bureau, the requests will probably be dropped next week once they reach the Board of Party Spokespersons as unionist parties PP, Ciudadanos, and VOX will vote against them.

What is 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 Monday

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.

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  • Catalan government during a cabinet meeting on April 26, 2022 (by Ruben Moreno)

  • Catalan government during a cabinet meeting on April 26, 2022 (by Ruben Moreno)

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