Spain terminates intelligence chief for espionage with Pegasus

Madrid Spain.- Spain’s government has sacked the director of its intelligence agency, the defense minister said on Tuesday, amid two separate cases of politicians’ cellphones being hacked with the Pegasus espionage program.

In a press conference, Margarita Robles announced the replacement of Paz Esteban as head of the National Intelligence Center (CNI). Her position will now be occupied by Esperanza Casteleiro, who served as Secretary of State for Defense.

The decision came after Esteban admitted last week during a commission of the Congress of Deputies, held behind closed doors, that his agency had legally hacked the phones of several Catalan pro-independence politicians after receiving judicial authorization.

The CNI is also under the spotlight after the recent revelations by the Government that the cell phones of the President of the Government, Pedro Sánchez, and Robles were infected with the Pegasus spyware by an external actor.

Esteban, 64, became the first woman to lead the CNI in July 2019, first on an interim basis until his appointment became official in February 2020.

Esteban’s predecessor had been criticized for failing to stop preparations for the 2017 Catalan independence referendum, which was outlawed by the highest state court.

The alleged hacking of the cell phones of more than 60 Catalan politicians, lawyers and activists was denounced last month in a report by the Canadian-based digital rights activist group Citizen Lab.

The list of terminals supposedly infected by Pegasus, which the Israeli company NSO says it only sells to government agencies, includes that of the current President of Catalonia, Pere Aragonés. According to the Citizen Lab report, the hacks began at the end of 2019, when Esteban already had the reins of the CNI.

The center-left coalition led by Sánchez, who governs in a minority, has often had to resort to the votes of the Catalan independence parties to pass regulations. These formations have threatened to withdraw their support from the Executive if it does not accept responsibility for the hacking.

Robles has defended the surveillance of Catalan politicians for their involvement in the failed plan to declare the region’s independence from the rest of Spain five years ago.

The CNI has also been accused of neglecting the security of Sánchez and Robles’ smartphones.

After the scandal of the hacking of the Catalans, the Government announced last week that a review of the devices of the head of the Government and the head of defense had revealed that they were infected with spyware in May and June 2021. For the time being it is unknown who is behind the attack.

The leader of the conservative Popular Party, the leader of the opposition, criticized the dismissal, pointing out that the government sacrificed Esteban to please the Catalan secessionists.

“Sánchez consumes the grotesque and offers the head of the director of the CNI to the independentists, once again weakening the State to seek its survival. It is a real affront to our country. Unjustifiable,” wrote Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, the president of the PP, On twitter.

But Gabriel Rufián, the spokesman for the Catalan party ERC in Congress, said the dismissal was not a concession to calm the separatists.

“(It seems) logical, with all due respect to Esteban, that in a country that recognizes that the cell phones of the President of the Government and the Minister of Defense and perhaps more members have been illegally spied on, that the highest authority of the CNI assume responsibilities,” he said.

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