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Spain sacks intel chief over phone hacking with Israeli spyware

Paz Esteban, the first woman to head the country’s CNI intelligence agency, is at center of phone hacking scandal of prime minister and Catalan leaders

Director of the National Intelligence Centre (CNI) Paz Esteban speaks during a conference in 2019. (YouTube Screenshot)
Director of the National Intelligence Centre (CNI) Paz Esteban speaks during a conference in 2019. (YouTube Screenshot)

Spain’s government on Tuesday sacked Paz Esteban, the country’s top spymaster, in the wake of the hacking of the mobile phones of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Catalan separatist leaders, Spanish media reported.

Contacted by AFP, the prime minister’s office refused to confirm the reports in the online edition of daily newspaper El Pais and other media.

Defense Minister Margarita Robles, whose ministry overseas Spain’s CNI intelligence agency, is due to take part later on Tuesday in a press conference following a weekly cabinet meeting, the government said.

Esteban, the first woman to head Spain’s CNI intelligence agency, appeared before a parliamentary committee for questioning last week over the phone hacking scandal.

She confirmed that Catalan separatists had been spied on by the CNI but always with court approval, several participants at the meeting told Spanish media at the time.

Government sources, cited by the media, said the government had not been informed of the spying.

Spain’s Defense Minister Margarita Robles talks to journalists after an EU Foreign and Defense Ministers meeting at the European Council headquarters in Brussels in 2019. (Francisco Seco/AP)

The scandal broke in April when Canadian cybersecurity watchdog Citizen Lab said the phones of over 60 people linked to the Catalan separatist movement had been tapped using Pegasus spyware after a failed independence bid in 2017.

It deepened after the government announced on May 2 that the phones of Sanchez and Robles were hacked by the same spyware, made by Israel’s NSO Group, in May and June 2021.

The affair has sparked a crisis between Sanchez’s minority government and Catalan separatist party ERC. Sanchez’s fragile coalition relies on the ERC to pass legislation in parliament.

NSO Group’s Pegasus software is known for silently infiltrating mobile phones to extract data or activate a camera or microphone to spy on their owners.

NSO Group has claimed the software is only sold to government agencies to target criminals and terrorists, with the green light of Israeli authorities.

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