Europe

Spain fires head of security agency amid Pegasus spying scandals

We need our intelligence agency to be respected around the world, says defense minister

Alyssa McMurtry   | 10.05.2022
Spain fires head of security agency amid Pegasus spying scandals

OVIEDO, Spain

The Spanish government announced on Tuesday its decision to replace the head of its national intelligence agency, the CNI, after it emerged that dozens of Spain’s politicians, including the prime minister and Catalan leaders, have had their phones hacked with Pegasus spyware.

On Tuesday, a new report from Spain's cryptologic agency confirmed that the interior minister’s phone was also hacked with Pegasus last June, around the same time when the agriculture minister’s phone was attacked with the spyware in a failed attempt.

The cryptologic agency already confirmed that both Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles had their phones hacked last spring.

That’s on top of the revelations by an independent research institute Citizen Lab, which found the largest ever documented cluster of hacked phones in Spain. In total, the phones of 63 Catalan politicians and activists were attacked with the software.

Pegasus is powerful spyware developed by the Israeli company NSO Group. It is only supposed to be used to prevent terrorism, though cases of misuse abound. Pegasus allows near-complete access to a target's phone, even encrypted information.

In response, the government will substitute Paz Esteban, the former CNI director, with another woman – Esperanza Casteleiro, who has been working in the agency for four decades.
Esteban was the first woman to hold the post when she was hired in 2020.

While Spain’s defense minister applauded Esteban’s work, she said Spain had to ensure that the CNI is “respected around the world.”

The CNI has been at the center of a political storm for failing to realize that the phones of some of Spain’s most powerful politicians had been hacked.

Secondly, Esteban admitted that the CNI spied on the phones of 18 Catalan separatists, only after the Citizen Lab report emerged.

Spain's government said it was unaware of the politically sensitive operation, which has further damaged the already tense relationship between Madrid and Barcelona.

“Of course, there will always be security failures. One of the prices we pay for technology is that it makes us more vulnerable to attacks,” said the defense minister at a news conference on Tuesday.

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