MADRID (AP) — The head of Spain’s intelligence agency was ousted by the government Tuesday after it was revealed her agency had used powerful spyware to infiltrate the cellphones of Catalan separatist politicians.
The dismissal by the government of Paz Esteban —who was the first woman to head the intelligence agency, known in Spain as CNI, for the National Intelligence Center— is the most serious consequence to date of a wiretapping scandal involving the Pegasus spyware developed by an Israeli company, an issue that has been going around in Spanish politics.
Ms Esteban was sacked just days after she appeared before a parliamentary committee to discuss how her agency had used Pegasus. As the committee met behind closed doors, Spanish media later reported that Ms. Esteban had confirmed to lawmakers during the meeting that the CNI had hacked the cell phones of Catalan separatist politicians. She claimed that this had been done with the permission of the Spanish judiciary.
The committee’s hearing came shortly after the Spanish government said last week that it had itself been a victim of Pegasus spyware, which had infected the mobile phones of some of the country’s most important officials, including the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, and the Minister of Defense, Margarita Robles, one years ago. The government said he had suffered an “illegal and external” intrusion, without specifying who it suspected of masterminding the Pegasus hack and downloading phone data from top officials about him.
Pegasus software was developed by the NSO Group, an Israeli company, in part to help governments track criminal and terrorist activities. The software allows users to monitor all aspects of a target’s phone, including calls, messages, photos, and videos. But its use has caused scandals in several countries, and last November the Biden administration blacklisted the NSO Group.
Spain’s Pegasus scandal has rattled the minority government of Sánchez, whose Socialist Party has relied on support from smaller left-wing and separatist parties to stay in office for the past five years. They include Catalan politicians who have continued to push for independence for their region after making a failed attempt to secede from Spain in 2017.
Politicians who have helped keep Sánchez in power welcomed Esteban’s ouster on Tuesday. Ionne Belarra, Spain’s Minister of Social Affairs and leader of the far-left United We Can party, wrote on Twitter that “assuming responsibilities is a basic question of democratic health.”
Gabriel Rufián, the parliamentary spokesman for Esquerra Republicana, a Catalan separatist party, told a news conference: “It seems logical to me that the person who has the highest responsibility for intelligence should take responsibility.” But he also called on the government to declassify documents that could help explain how Pegasus infiltrated Spanish politics.
Opposition politicians said that Ms. Esteban had been made a scapegoat to hide the shortcomings of Mr. Sánchez’s government and serious gaps in Spain’s security apparatus. Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the recently elected leader of the main right-wing Popular Party, called Ms. Esteban’s dismissal “unjustifiable” and “a real affront to our country”. Feijóo also accused Sánchez of sacrificing Spain’s intelligence chief to maintain the support of separatist lawmakers. Santiago Abascal, the leader of the far-right Vox party, said Sánchez had “decided to criminalize those who protect us,” a reference to Spain’s intelligence agency.
Ms Esteban had served as Spain’s intelligence chief since the beginning of 2020. The Socialist-led government appointed Esperanza Casteleiro, 65, a long-time official in the Ministry of Defense and the secret service, as the new head of the CNI, replacing Mrs. Esteban. At a press conference on Tuesday, Ms. Robles, the defense minister, declined to elaborate on the reasons for Ms. Esteban’s dismissal, insisting instead that the move would open “a new chapter” for the CNI.