The Catalan government is calling for answers “from the highest level” after the head of Spain’s National Intelligence Centre (CNI) reportedly confirmed that 18 members of the regional independence movement were spied on with judicial approval.
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.
Although Paz Esteban’s testimony to the official secrets committee was given behind closed doors, political party sources told Spanish media that the director of the CNI had confirmed that 18 of the 63 Catalan activists named in a Citizen Lab report at the end of April had been spied on legally and with the relevant judicial approval.
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.
Gabriel Rufián, a spokesperson for Aragonès’s pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC) party, who was at the committee hearing, offered guarded details after leaving the session on Thursday.
He said what the committee had heard was in line with what had already been leaked, and that the evidence pointed in two directions. “Basically, that it came from a foreign country, or that it was state agencies acting beyond their legal limits.”
In a subsequent tweet, Rufián added: “1) There are no secrets – whether official or unofficial. 2) Nothing was said that the CNI hasn’t already leaked. 3) There are only two ways: it was either another country or it was a state agency. And number three is an interpretation. I repeat, an INTERPRETATION.”
According to the Citizen Lab report, Aragonès and his three pro-independence predecessors were among more than 60 individuals whose phones were targeted or infected with mercenary spyware using fake texts or WhatsApp messages. Almost all the incidents took place between 2017 – the year of the failed attempt at Catalan independence – and 2020.
Aragonès said the revelations confirmed and aggravated “the seriousness of the case of massive espionage against Catalan institutions and the independence movement” that Citizen Lab had uncovered.
“We demand the immediate declassification of the judicial authorisation so that we can see what its motivation was, and so that we can defend ourselves,” he said. “It is urgent that we receive a public explanation of this issue – we need to know who authorised it politically and who knew about it. And that’s why we demand an answer from the highest level.”
On Wednesday, Aragonès – on whose party Spain’s Socialist-led coalition government depends for parliamentary support – 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 have called for the resignation of the defence minister, Margarita Robles, whose department oversees the CNI.
There have been questions, too, about why the government chose to reveal that Robles’ phone, and that of the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, had been hacked, a year after the apparent targeting took place.
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 violation,” said Esteban Beltrán, the head of Amnesty Spain. He said the official secrets committee “is characterised by secrecy and obscurantism [and] cannot be the right place to investigate possible human rights violations”.
On Tuesday, Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) 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.