Spain's spy chief sacked over Pegasus case

Illustration shows the word Pegasus and binary code
The word Pegasus and binary code are displayed on a smartphone which is placed on a keyboard in this illustration taken May 4, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

MADRID, May 10 (Reuters) - The Spanish government has dismissed its spy chief Paz Esteban amid a dual phone-hacking scandal involving Pegasus spyware, the defence minister said on Tuesday.

The National Intelligence Center (CNI) that Esteban headed has been under fire for reportedly using Pegasus, made by Israel's NSO Group, to snoop on leaders of the Catalan independence movement.

It has also faced questions about its failure to prevent the phones of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and other officials being hacked by an unnamed foreign entity using the same spyware.

Announcing Esteban's dismissal, Defence Minister Margarita Robles acknowledged that mistakes had been made.

"Of course there are security flaws and there will continue to be, because it's one of the prices we pay for the technology," she told reporters.

The leftist coalition government had been under pressure to detail when and why Pegasus was used since Canada's digital rights group Citizen Lab said last month that more than 60 people linked to the Catalan separatist movement had been targets of the spyware.

The scandal prompted Catalonia's leftist pro-independence party ERC, an ally of Spain's minority government, to say it would not back it in parliamentary votes it until it took measures to restore confidence. read more

The Spanish government reported days later that it had detected Pegasus spyware in the mobile phones of Sanchez and Robles in an illegal hack by a foreign entity, without specifying who might have been behind the snooping. read more

On Tuesday, it also reported that Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska's mobile phone was infected in 2021 and that there was an attempt to hack the phone of the Agriculture minister Luis Planas.

Esteban, who took the helm of the CNI in 2020 after years of service as an agent, appeared last week before lawmakers in Congress to explain the eavesdropping on Catalan leaders.

The committee at which she appeared is subject to official secrecy but some lawmakers who attended insinuated that Esteban acknowledged that the spy agency wire-tapped 18 pro-independence leaders but always under a court order, as the law requires.

There was no official explanation for the rest of the eaves-dropping and the government said it was investigating the allegations.

Patricia Plaja, spokesperson for Catalonia's regional government, which is led by the ERC, said on Tuesday that the CNI revamp was "insufficient" to restore relations with the government.

Esteban will be replaced by Esperanza Casteleiro, the deputy defence minister, who has spent 40 years working at the CNI, Robles said. She did not plan to step down herself, she said.

Reporting by Belén Carreño and Inti Landauro; additional reporting by Christina Thykjaer, editing by Emma Pinedo, Ed Osmond and Angus MacSwan

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