The Spanish government has reportedly sacked the country’s spy chief Paz Esteban following revelations that the intelligence service hacked the phones of leading members of the Catalan independence movement, and that Pegasus spyware was used in external attacks on the mobiles of the prime minister and the defence minister.
Spanish media, citing unidentified government sources, said on Tuesday that Esteban, the head of the National Intelligence Centre (CNI) had been fired after coming under increasing pressure in recent weeks.
Esteban reportedly confirmed last week to a congressional committee that 18 members of the Catalan independence movement were spied on with judicial approval by Spain’s National Intelligence Centre (CNI), leaving the Catalan regional government demanding answers.
The apparent admission – to a congressional committee – came two weeks after cybersecurity experts said at least 63 people connected with the Catalan independence movement had been targeted or infected with Pegasus spyware, and three days after the Spanish government said the phones of the prime minister and the defence minister had been targeted with Pegasus.
According to reports, one of those targeted was the current Catalan regional president, Pere Aragonès – although it is not clear whether he was spied on before or after coming to his current position. It is also unclear whether or not the software alleged to have been used was Pegasus, which according to its manufacturers is sold only to governments to track criminals and terrorists.
Catalonia’s leftist pro-independence party ERC, a key ally of the Spanish minority government, had demanded Madrid took measures to restore confidence.
Aragonès said the spying scandal was “dynamiting” attempts to find a negotiated solution to the Catalan independence crisis.
The issue has also caused divisions between the Socialist party and its junior partners in the Unidas Podemos alliance, who had called for the resignation of Robles, whose department oversees the CNI.
The alleged spying has been criticised by Amnesty International.
“The Spanish government can’t use the security of the Spanish state as an excuse to cover up possible human rights violations,” Esteban Beltrán, the head of Amnesty Spain, said last week. He said the official secrets committee “is characterised by secrecy and obscurantism [and] cannot be the right place to investigate possible human rights violations”.
Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) last week joined the three parties on the Spanish right in vetoing a parliamentary inquiry into the Pegasus scandal.
A PSOE spokesperson said the mooted congressional committee was not needed because an internal investigation by the CNI was already under way, as was an inquiry by the public ombudsman.