Separatist politician claims Spain’s spy chief admitted to legally hacking into some phones

A prominent Catalan separatist politician said on Thursday that Spain’s top intelligence official admitted that her agency had hacked into the mobile phones of “some” of the dozens of politicians who were allegedly targeted by spyware, but she said that she had the proper judicial authorization.

Gabriel Rufián, a member of a Catalan pro-independence party, spoke after taking part in a closed-door meeting with the director of Spain’s National Intelligence Center, CNI, as well as a select group of Spanish lawmakers.

A recent report by Canadian digital rights group Citizen Lab on the use of controversial spyware Pegasus in Spain said dozens of independence supporters in Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region had been spied on in Spain. using the software.

Asked by the Associated Press, the Spanish Ministry of Defense, which is in charge of the CNI, refused to comment on the meeting with the director of the CNI, Paz Esteban, because its content is considered confidential. However, major Spanish media also reported that the director showed members of the committee judicial authorizations for the hacking of cellphones of some Catalan separatists.

“They (the CNI) admit the espionage, but say it was carried out against far fewer people than those cited by Citizen Lab,” Rufián said.

As for the rest of the more than 60 politicians, lawyers and activists cited as hacking targets by Citizen Lab, Rufián said the CNI director “highlighted two possibilities: first, that it was a foreign country; or two, state agencies that spy beyond their legal limits.”

The highly anticipated meeting took place at the Spanish Parliament in Madrid.

Catalan separatists, who want to carve out a new state in northeastern Spain around Barcelona, ​​had directly accused the CNI of being behind the hacks revealed two weeks ago when the report was published from the Citizen Lab.

The Spanish government has repeatedly stated that the CNI cannot tap phones without prior judicial authorization. At the same time, the government said the secrecy law protecting all CNI activities prevents the agency from confirming whether it owns Pegasus, the spyware sold by Israeli firm NSO Group.

While representatives of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party and the opposition People’s Party came out of Thursday’s meeting saying they were satisfied with Esteban’s explanations, Rufián was not alone in demanding further action.

“We insist that the information we received today be declassified for the public to know because it affects fundamental rights,” said Albert Botran, who is among the politicians who Citizen Lab says have been declassified. spied.

The Spanish government promised that the CNI and the national ombudsman would investigate the Citizen Lab report.

Amnesty International, which has denounced 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 appropriate place to investigate allegations of human rights violations,” said Esteban Beltrán, director of Amnesty in Spain.

In addition to the Catalan hacking case, the Spanish intelligence agency faces an uncomfortable spotlight due to another Pegasus hacking case. Earlier this week, Spain announced that the mobile phones of Prime Minister Sánchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles were infected with Pegasus spyware last year.

Although Spain has refused to point the finger at Morocco, the dates on which Sánchez and Robles’ phones were hacked last year correspond to a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

Amid back-to-back scandals, plans for a public ceremony to celebrate CNI’s 20th anniversary were postponed.

Robles encouraged the Catalans to take their hacking case to court, just like the Spanish government did, to determine who is responsible.

“Only the judiciary can determine who is responsible,” Robles said Thursday. “We can only take our cases to court and, in the meantime, refrain from accusations.”

Robles appeared to justify the crackdown on Catalan separatists for their role in the illegal secession attempt from Catalonia in 2017 and the mostly peaceful pro-secession street protests organized through a secret social media platform. Events have at times spiraled out of control and have led to clashes with police, the blocking of roads and train lines and the closure of Barcelona airport in 2019.

The CNI, which oversees Spain’s cybersecurity, only discovered Sánchez and Robles’ phones had been hacked after the devices underwent extensive scans following revelations of the breaches in the Catalans’ phones. Previous checks found no evidence of the hacks in May and June 2021, the government was forced to admit.

The hacking scandals, which come in quick succession, have many Spaniards wondering how widespread espionage is and which actor or actors are behind it. Some Catalan separatists accuse Spain of using the revelation of the hacking of senior officials to distract from their cases.

“Being a victim doesn’t preclude you from being an aggressor when it comes to Pegasus,” Citizen Lab senior researcher John-Scott Railton told The AP on Thursday. “NSO’s goal is to proliferate this spyware, not to protect the security of countries.”

“It won’t be solved quietly. It won’t be solved with partial truths,” Railton said. “There’s been partial confirmation here, and the only way forward here is more transparency.”

The European Parliament has opened an investigation into the use of Pegasus in the European Union, initially intended to focus on Hungary and Poland. The list of allegedly hacked Catalans also includes members of the European Parliament.

Digital phone burglaries with Pegasus have been reported and reported in several countries. French President Emmanuel Macron was on a list of heads of state suspected by Amnesty International of being targeted last year.

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