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Spanish intelligence agency accused of gross negligence after spyware hacked phones of top officials

The revelations of hacker attacks on politicians’ cell phones have placed the typically prudent Spanish intelligence service in an awkward position.

In one case, Spain’s National Intelligence Center has been accused of gross negligence for allowing unknown sources to tap the phone in Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s pocket using Pegasus spyware. Although Spain refuses to point the finger at Morocco, the dates of the phone hacking of Sanchez and Defense Minister Margherita Robles last year coincide with a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

The intelligence agency, known by the Spanish acronym CNI, is also accused of using the Pegasus program to hack the phones of more than 60 Catalan separatists. Amid successive scandals involving alleged espionage, plans for a public ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the CNI have been shelved.

Agency director Paz Esteban Lopez will appear on Thursday before an elected parliamentary committee behind closed doors, where she can break a secret code preventing members of the government from revealing her agency’s work.

Esteban, the first woman director of the CNI, will only speak to 11 members of parliament, and all of them will have to swear not to reveal what they are told. The Spanish parliament voted to have members of the Catalan and Basque separatist parties join a special committee.

The long-awaited meeting at the Spanish Parliament in Madrid is to take place in an austere conference room at one end of the corridor, surrounded by portraits of the Spanish Parliament’s speakers.

The Catalan separatists, who want to create a new state in northeastern Spain around Barcelona, ​​are expected to interrogate Esteban about the CNI’s alleged use of spyware. They directly accused CNI of being involved in the hack, which came to light two weeks ago when Canadian-based digital rights group Citizen Lab released a report alleging Pegasus was used to hack the phones of dozens of independence supporters in northeast Spain. Catalonia, including politicians, lawyers and activists.

The Spanish government has repeatedly stated that the CNI cannot eavesdrop on phones without prior permission from the court. At the same time, the government said a secrecy law that protects all CNI activities prevents the agency from confirming whether it possesses Pegasus, spyware sold by the Israeli company NSO Group.

“If Paz Esteban presents evidence that three or four years ago the judiciary authorized the tapping of the phones of about 60 people because they supported (Catalonia’s) independence, we will have problems,” said Gabriel Rufian, MP for the Catalan Separatist Party. informed radio Cadena SER before visiting the committee.

However, the Spanish government promised that both the CNI and the national ombudsman would investigate the report published by Citizen Lab. He also urged victims to go to court.

But Defense Minister Robles appears to have justified the crackdown on the separatists by their role in organizing and participating in mostly peaceful street protests by separatist supporters. At times, events spiraled out of control and led to clashes with police, road and train blockades, and the closure of Barcelona Airport in 2019.

Robles herself faced a flurry of questions on Wednesday during an open meeting of the parliamentary commission. The hearing was supposed to be about European defense, but in the end the focus was on Pegasus.

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

Esteban can also expect questions from members of the mainstream parties who accuse the agency of allowing foreign figures to break into the most secret phones in the country.

The CNI, which oversees Spain’s cybersecurity, only discovered that Sanchez and Robles’ phones were hacked after the devices were deep-scanned after the Catalans’ phone hacks were discovered.

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

“The prime minister’s phone is checked regularly, but protocols are improving every day,” government spokesman Isabel Rodriguez told Radio Onda Cero. “Obviously, mistakes were made and we are working to correct the situation so that they do not happen again.”

The government’s refusal to oblige Esteban to remain in office for a long time has inflated reports in the Spanish media suggesting that her days as head of the CNI may be numbered.

“Before we can determine responsibility, we need to find out what happened,” Rodriguez said.

Reports of digital phone hacking using Pegasus have been condemned in several countries. French President Emmanuel Macron has been included in a list of heads of state that Amnesty International suspects were targeted last year.

The European Parliament launched an investigation into the use of Pegasus in the European Union U, originally intended for Hungary and Poland. The list of Catalans allegedly hacked also includes members of the European Parliament.

Amnesty International, which has condemned 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 right place to investigate an alleged violation of human rights,” said Esteban Beltrán, director of a human rights group in Spain.

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