Madrid to tighten control of intelligence services after spy scandal

Madrid to tighten control of intelligence services after spy scandal

Weakened by a resounding spy scandal, the Spanish government announced Thursday a reform of the intelligence services in order to “strengthen judicial control” of eavesdropping like those that targeted Catalan separatists, key supporters of the executive.

“It is a question of strengthening the guarantees of this control, but also of ensuring the maximum respect for the individual and political rights of people”, declared the head of the left government, Pedro Sánchez, before the Chamber of Deputies. This announcement comes as a scandal has shaken Spain since the publication in mid-April of a report by the Canadian organization Citizen Lab claiming to have identified 60 people from the Catalan separatist movement whose cellphones were allegedly hacked between 2017 and 2020 in using the Pegasus software.

These revelations had led the Catalan separatists to threaten to withdraw their support for the minority government of Mr. Sánchez with the risk of causing his fall before the end of the legislature, scheduled for the end of 2023. The affair then took on another dimension when the government revealed in early May that Mr. Sánchez and his Minister of Defense, Margarita Robles, had themselves been spied on by the Pegasus software, designed by the Israeli company NSO. According to the executive, the hacking of the cell phones of members of the government, of which the Minister of the Interior, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, was also the victim, is the result of an “external attack” by an unidentified actor.

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Several Spanish media have, however, mentioned a possible involvement of Morocco, with which Madrid has just ended a diplomatic crisis of almost a year. Weakened by this scandal, the executive announced on May 10 the ousting of Paz Esteban, the first woman to have been appointed head of the National Intelligence Center (CNI). But the Catalan separatists had judged that this dismissal was “not enough” and demanded “convincing explanations” to find out “who was aware” of these wiretaps. “Why do you come here to promise reinforced judicial control of the CNI when the person controlling the CNI is the head of government, so you? You cannot clear your government of everything that has happened,” Gabriel Rufian, head of the Catalan separatist party ERC, told Parliament on Thursday.

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The head of government confirmed that 18 Catalan separatists had indeed been wiretapped

Summoned Thursday before the parliamentarians, Pedro Sánchez promised, without giving details, a first reform intended to “strengthen the judicial control of the CNI” whose listening must already be authorized by a judge of the Supreme Court. The Spanish Prime Minister also announced the forthcoming adoption of a new law relating to “classified information”, so as to adapt the current legislation – which dates from 1968, i.e. during the Franco dictatorship – “to democratic principles and constitutional”. And Mr. Sánchez also insisted on the necessary “increase in the capacities of the Spanish intelligence services”, in particular “in the face of attacks by hostile intelligence services”.

All these initiatives will “prevent such security breaches from happening again in the future”, he said. Facing the deputies, the head of government once again defended the CNI by affirming that it had “always acted legally”. He confirmed that 18 Catalan separatists had indeed been wiretapped by the CNI but in “hard” and “difficult” moments linked to the crisis in Catalonia (north-east) which in October 2017 was the scene of an attempt of secession. The separatists then organized a self-determination referendum despite its ban by the courts and unilaterally declared the region’s independence. The other separatists spied on according to the report by Citizen Lab, “were spied on by unknown actors, foreign to the Spanish administration”, affirmed Mr. Sánchez, reiterating his desire to maintain the dialogue with the Catalan separatists.