Spain spy chief fired over Pegasus phone hacking scandal
The Spanish government, following a deep crisis within the country over the hacking of the phones of officials, sacks the chief of the national intelligence agency.
Madrid dismissed Tuesday the Spanish national intelligence chief as the scandal surrounding the hacking of the prime minister and Catalan leaders' phones unfolds.
The whole debacle kicked off in April when Canadian cybersecurity firm Citizen Lab revealed that the phones of more than 60 people with ties to the Catalan separatist movement had been infiltrated and tapped using Pegasus spyware following a thwarted independence bid in 2017.
The government confirmed last week the targeting of the phone of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles, which sparked many concerns over cybersecurity in the country among its officials.
The hacking took place in May 2021 through the Israeli spyware, Felix Bolanos, the secretary of state of the Prime Minister's office, announced at a news conference.
Madrid announced that it would be replacing Paz Esteban, the first woman to head the CNI, Spain's intelligence agency, Robles added, whose ministry oversees the agency, in confirmation of media reports suggesting so.
"There are flaws, mistakes" in the way the affair was handled by the CNI, she told reporters.
Esteban was asked to appear before a parliamentary committee for questioning on Thursday over the scandal that brought much attention to the state of cybersecurity in the country.
The official confirmed that 18 Catalan separatists, including Pere Aragone, the head of the regional government in Catalonia, had been spied on by the CNI, though that spying was approved by Madrid.
The affair had led to a crisis between Sanchez's minority government and the ERC separatist Catalan party. The premier's fragile coalition is heavily reliant on the separatist party within parliament, as it cannot pass legislation alone.
On May 2, the scandal deepened following the revelation that Sanchez and Robles' phones were hacked by the same spyware, the Israeli NSO group's Pegasus.
Israeli NSO Group's spyware, notorious for its usage in many cyberattacks around the world, helped authoritarian governments silence their opposition, journalists, human rights activists, and the heads of other states.
The scandal involved the phones of about 50,000 targets, which included many prominent politicians, businessmen, activists, journalists, and opposition figures around the world.
In December, it was found that Pegasus was also used to hack the iOS devices of 11 US State Department employees. The targets were either based in Uganda or focused on matters concerning Kampala.
Ahead of the discovery, the United States placed "Israel's" spyware maker NSO Group, the corporation behind the notorious Pegasus, on its list of restricted companies.
The FBI had previously confirmed to The Guardian that it had obtained access to the controversial spyware that put the Israeli occupation under fire, Pegasus, in 2019, claiming that the purpose of such purchase was only to test the product and evaluate it.