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Sánchez Asked About His Phone Hacking Scandal

Echoroukonline/English version: Dalila Henache 
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Sánchez Asked About His Phone Hacking Scandal
The leader of Spain’s opposition conservatives, Popular Party president Alberto Nuñez Feijóo asked Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez about the reason behind changing his position on Western Sahara and its relationship to the hacking of his cellphone.
“Does the prime minister have two cellphones and has he complied with the protocols for reviewing his devices and what was spied on?”, Feijóo said in a press conference held at his party headquarters.
“Is the Pegasus case related to Spain’s shift in its position on Western Sahara which will lead to weakening Spain at the international level?”, he added.
Feijóo asserted in the press conference, “It is necessary to know whether the data hacked from Sanchez’s devices can lead to a weakening of the position of the Prime Minister in his international relations and whether it is also linked to a change in the historical position on Western Sahara.”
Previously, Spain’s government fired the director of the country’s top intelligence agency, this happened on Tuesday, following the hacking of politicians’ cellphones, including the devices of the prime minister Sánchez and several supporters of the Catalonia region’s separatist leaders.
The affair 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.
The National Intelligence Center, or CNI, has been under fire for its role in spying on Catalan separatists and for taking a full year to discover that the handsets of the prime minister and leading defence and security officials were infiltrated, possibly by a foreign power.
Defense Minister Margarita Robles, who was among the hacking targets, announced after the Cabinet meeting that Paz Esteban would be relieved as CNI director.
Last week the Spanish government confirmed the phones of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Defence Minister Margarita Robles were also targeted, raising concerns about cybersecurity among Spain’s leadership.
“The hacks of government phones took a year to discover, well, it is clear there are things that we need to improve,” Robles said. “We are going to try to ensure that these attacks don’t happen again, even though there is no way to be completely safe.”
‘”There are flaws, mistakes in the way the affair was handled by the CNI, she told reporters.
Paz Esteban, the first woman to head Spain’s CNI intelligence agency, will be replaced, said Robles, whose ministry oversees the agency, confirming media reports.
Esteban appeared before a parliamentary committee for questioning on Thursday over the phone-hacking scandal which has dominated headlines for days.
She confirmed that 18 Catalan separatists, including Pere Aragones, the head of Catalonia’s regional government, had been spied on by the CNI but always with court approval, according to participants at the closed-door meeting.
The scandal 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 phone of Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, the head of Spain’s police and border control agencies, also was infected with spyware at the same time as the defence minister’s phone.
Spain’s government has refused to speculate publicly on who could have pried into the phones. The attacks on the phones of Sánchez and two of his ministers took place in May and June 2021, coinciding with a diplomatic rift between Morocco and Spain.
Sánchez’s minority left-wing coalition has often had to rely on votes in Parliament from Catalan separatist parties, which have threatened to withdraw their support if the government does not accept responsibility for the hacking.
The leader of Spain’s opposition conservatives, the Popular Party’s leader, Alberto Nuñez Feijóo slammed the decision to remove Esteban. He said the government had sacrificed her to the Catalan separatists.
“It is a monstrosity that Sánchez offers the head of the CNI director to the separatists, once again weakening the state to assure his survival,” Popular Party President Alberto Nuñez Feijóo wrote on Twitter.
The leader of Spain’s main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP), Alberto Nunez Feijoo, accused Sanchez of “offering the head of the CNI chief” to Catalan separatists “to ensure his survival”.
Esteban, 64, became the first woman to head the CNI in July 2019, initially on an interim basis. Her appointment was made permanent in February 2020. Esteban’s replacement will be Esperanza Casteleiro, “a woman who has worked for almost 40 years” at the intelligence agency, Robles said. Casteleiro most recently served as secretary of defence, Robles No. 2, since 2020.
The list of phones that were allegedly infected by Pegasus spyware, which the Israeli company NSO says it only sells to government agencies, includes the current regional head of Catalonia. The Citizen Lab report said the hacks started in late 2019, with Esteban in charge of the CNI.
Robles has defended the targeting of Catalan politicians for their involvement in a separatist plot that tried and failed to separate Catalonia from the rest of Spain five years ago.
Gabriel Rufián, the parliamentary spokesman for the Catalan party ERC, said that the dismissal of Esteban was not about appeasing the separatists. He noted that the CNI has also been accused of neglecting the tech security of top government officials.
“It seems logical, with all my respects to Esteban, that in a country that admits that the phones of the prime minister and defence minister have been illegally spied upon, for the head of the CNI to assume the responsibility,” Rufián said.
Catalonia’s regional government said Esteban’s dismissal was “not enough”.
Some Spanish media have pointed the finger at Morocco, which was in a diplomatic spat with Spain at the time, but the government has said it was no evidence of who may be responsible.
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