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Greek intel chief, PM’s aide quit over alleged use of Israeli-developed spyware

Head of EYP acknowledges management ‘errors,’ but government denies claims it used Predator malware to spy on journalists, opposition

Greece's then-intelligence chief Panagiotis Kontoleon at Greece's parliament in Athens, July 29, 2022. (Yiannis Panaagopoulos/Eurokinissi/AFP)
Greece's then-intelligence chief Panagiotis Kontoleon at Greece's parliament in Athens, July 29, 2022. (Yiannis Panaagopoulos/Eurokinissi/AFP)

ATHENS, Greece (AFP) — Greece’s conservative government was rocked Friday by a long-simmering surveillance scandal after its intelligence chief and a close aide to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis resigned in the space of an hour.

Panagiotis Kontoleon offered his resignation due to management “errors” during his time in the role, Mitsotakis’ office said in a statement.

The announcement that Kontoleon had resigned from his position at the head of the national intelligence service EYP came less than an hour after the secretary general of the prime minister’s office, Grigoris Dimitriadis, also quit.

The resignations came a week after the leader of the country’s Socialist opposition party, Nikos Androulakis, filed a complaint with the supreme court over “attempted” spying on his mobile phone using Predator malware.

Two Greek journalists have also taken legal action this year after they claimed to have been victims of surveillance.

Androulakis on Friday called for a special investigation by parliament into the incident.

Grigoris Dimitriadis, then-general secretary of Greece’s prime minister’s office attends a cabinet meeting in Athens, August 28, 2019. (George Kontarinis/Eurokinissi via AP, File)

“I never expected the Greek government to spy on me using the darkest practices,” he said.

The government has consistently denied any state involvement, saying it had not bought software of that type, but the rows have sparked an outcry in the country.

Government spokesman Yiannis Economou has said it was “plausible” that individuals used Predator to spy and that all of Europe faced surveillance threats.

In November, Greek minister of state George Gerapetritis had insisted to AFP that there is “no surveillance of journalists in Greece” by the state.

“Greece fully adheres to the values of democratic society and rule of law, especially pluralism and the freedom of the press,” Gerapetritis said.

As such, he argued there was “no need for further action” to verify the alleged monitoring of investigative journalist Stavros Malichudis.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis participates in a session at the annual Future Investment Initiative conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh, on October 26, 2021. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP)

Kontoleon, who was appointed EYP head in 2019 after Mitsotakis’s conservative party won power that year, had implied while in that role that the journalists had been targeted on the order of foreign intelligence services.

Investigative websites Reporters United and Inside Story have accused Dimitriadis — a nephew of Mitsotakis — of being linked to the alleged spying scandals involving Androulakis and Greek financial journalist Thanasis Koukakis.

Dimitriadis on Friday threatened to sue Reporters United and leftist daily Efsyn unless they withdraw a story on the case. Koukakis was also warned to refrain from retweeting the story.

In one of his first acts upon assuming power in 2019, Mitsotakis raised eyebrows by attaching the national intelligence service to his office.

The main opposition party, the left-wing Syriza, called the affair “a huge scandal.”

Its leader, former premier Alexis Tsipras, said the resignation of Dimitriadis was “an admission of guilt” and that Mitsotakis himself bore some of the responsibility.

Then-Greek Prime Minister and Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras casts his ballot at a polling station in Athens, on Sunday, July 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

“Mr. Mitsotakis must give explanations to the Greek people over his own Watergate,” Tsipras said.

‘A dystopian, Orwellian reality’

Experts note that Predator, originally developed in North Macedonia and subsequently in Israel, can access both messages and conversations.

“A few days ago I was informed by the European Parliament that there was an attempt to bug my mobile phone with Predator surveillance software,” Androulakis told the media as he left a court in Athens on July 26.

“Finding out who is behind these harmful practices is not a personal matter but a democratic duty,” he added.

The European Parliament set up a special service for MEPs to check their phones for illegal surveillance software following hacks using spyware similar to Predator called Pegasus.

Androulakis used the service for “a precautionary check of his phone on June 28, 2022.”

Nikos Androulakis, a member of European Parliament and president of the Movement for Change (Pasok-Kinal) party, talks to media after filing a complaint at the Supreme Court in Athens over attempted spying on his mobile phone with Predator malware, July 26, 2022. (Eurokinissi/AFP)

“From the first check, a suspicious link related to the Predator surveillance tool was detected,” his PASOK party said in a statement.

The software can infiltrate mobile phones to extract data or activate a camera or microphone to spy on their owners.

“Predator is among the most expensive spyware and is out of reach for individuals,” cybersecurity specialist Anastasios Arampatzis told AFP, saying only a state would need its sophisticated security features.

“Security and the protection of one’s private life must be guaranteed by any democratic regime. If a state spies on its citizens, we’re heading towards a dystopian, Orwellian reality.”

Spain’s intelligence chief was sacked earlier this year after it emerged that top politicians — including Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Catalan separatists — had been targeted by phone hacking.

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