06.05.2022 - 11:34
The head of Spain’s intelligence agency (CNI), Paz Esteban, has admitted having spied on 18 out of the over 60 Catalan pro-independence figures that have been accredited as victims of the so-called Catalangate in the Citizen Lab organization research published by ‘The New Yorker’ magazine on April 18.
After weeks of mounting pressure from the Catalan pro-independence parties and human rights groups on her and on Spain’s defense minister, Margarita Robles, who is the political responsible of the CNI, on Thursday Esteban explained in the congress official secrets committee that the Catalan president, Pere Aragonès, and several close associates of exiled president Carles Puigdemont in Belgium were among those targetted by the agency after granted approval to do so by Spain’s Supreme Court.
Judge Pablo Lucas had agreed to hack the phones of some of the politicians and activists featured in the Citizen Lab paper, but not all of them. Esteban said that for the rest of the people spied on, “either a foreign nation or Spanish state bodies that spy on beyond their legal possibilities” are accountable for the hacking, according to Gabriel Rufián, one of the pro-independence MPs attending the session. She did not clarify whether Aragonès was already president when under investigation or if he was still vice president to Quim Torra or interim president when Torra was disqualified.
Esteban did not explain either whether Pegasus was the software used for the 18 individuals, also including other officials but also less well-known people, but she did say that the judge accepted hacking phones due to their owners’ possible participation in the activities of Tsunami Democràtic, an anonymous platform organizing major demonstrations and Barcelona’s airport block in autumn 2019, in the wake of the conviction of 9 pro-independence leaders in charge of the 1 October 2017 independence referendum.
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. And as was to be expected, Catalan pro-independence called for further consequences in the wake of these revelations, while unionist parties find these explanations to be sufficient.
The Catalangate espionage “was carried out in accordance with the intelligence agency directive and in a legal manner because it was always authorized by a judge,” the People’s Party’s Cuca Gamarra argued shortly after the official secrets meeting. Meanwhile, Junts’ Míriam Nogueras, herself a target, said that carrying out an investigation into the matter was “essential.”
Spanish PM also spied?
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. Yet, Esteban only talked about the Catalan individuals, and not the Spanish cabinet members, as both cases are understood to be unrelated.
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 who were spied on with 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 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 18 April.
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.
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.