The Spanish government has sacked the country’s spy chief, Paz Esteban, as it tries to contain the fallout from a cyber-espionage scandal that has engulfed the ruling coalition and raised further questions about the use of controversial Pegasus spyware in Spain and beyond.
Esteban’s dismissal on Tuesday came amid growing political tensions and almost two years after a joint investigation by the Guardian and El País first revealed that senior pro-independence Catalan politicians were warned their mobile phones had been targeted using the spyware.
The scandal has intensified over recent weeks after cybersecurity experts at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto said at least 63 people connected with the Catalan independence movement had been targeted or infected with Pegasus spyware between 2017 and 2020.
It has also emerged that the mobile phones of the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, the defence minister, Margarita Robles, and the interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, were subjected to “illicit” and “external” targeting using Pegasus last year. The Spanish government has not commented on which foreign country may have been responsible.
Last week, Esteban reportedly confirmed to a congressional committee that 18 members of the Catalan independence movement – including the current Catalan regional president, Pere Aragonès – were spied on with judicial approval by Spain’s national intelligence centre (CNI).
At a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, the government said Esteban – the first woman to head the CNI – had been relieved of her post and would be replaced by another female intelligence veteran, Esperanza Casteleiro.
Robles, whose ministry oversees the CNI, admitted there had been “shortcomings” but said the change represented a “new step” for the centre and a chance for it to address “things that could obviously be improved”. Among them, she added, was the fact that it appeared to have taken the centre a year to discover that the ministerial phones had been hacked.
She attempted to brush off reporters’ questions about whether Esteban had been fired over that particular intelligence failure.
“You talk about firing but I’d call it a replacement – with one civil servant from the centre replacing another civil servant from the centre,” said Robles. “[Casteleiro] knows the centre very well, has worked there for almost 40 years, and is working for Spain.”
She added: “Although I think there may be reasons for feeling proud and satisfied, we’re going to keep on working to make sure that there are no cracks in the total, general sphere of security so that Spanish citizens feel safe.”
Robles said the government and all its agencies acted in full accordance with the law – “it’s legality, legality, and more legality”. She also said she hoped the documents Esteban had shown the congressional committee would eventually be declassified so that people could see the CNI had followed the law and acted with judicial authorisation.
Aragonès’s pro-independence Catalan Republican Left party – a key parliamentary ally for Sánchez’s minority government – had demanded Madrid take measures to restore confidence in light of the allegations in the Citizen Lab report.
Aragonès said the spying scandal was “dynamiting” attempts to find a negotiated solution to the Catalan independence crisis.
However, the government’s decision to sack Esteban was immediately denounced by its opponents. Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the new leader of Spain’s conservative People’s party, accused the prime minister of selling out his intelligence chief to appease the Catalan president and his supporters.
“It’s grotesque to see Sánchez offering the independence movement the head of the director of the CNI – he’s once again weakening the state to try to ensure his survival,” Núñez Feijóo tweeted. “It’s a real slap in the face for our country. Unjustifiable.”
But Gabriel Rufián, the spokesperson for the Catalan Republican Left party, said the Spanish government had merely done what needed to be done.
“The mobile phones of three of the most protected and important people in this country – the prime minister, the defence minister and the interior minister – were spied on,” he said. “Accepting political responsibilities isn’t a concession to the independence movement, it’s a concession to common sense.”
The issue has caused further divisions between the Socialist party and its junior partners in the Unidas Podemos alliance, who had called for the resignation of Robles.
The Podemos leader, Ione Belarra, said taking responsibility was “a basic question of democratic health.” She added: “To regain people’s trust there also need to be guarantees that this won’t happen again.”
The alleged spying and the government’s handling of it have also 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 violations,” Esteban Beltrán, the head of Amnesty Spain, said last week. He said the official secrets committee “is characterised by secrecy and obscurantism [and] cannot be the right place to investigate possible human rights violations”.
Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) last week 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.
It remains unclear whether or not the software alleged to have been used by the CNI against the Catalan targets was Pegasus, which, according to its manufacturers, is sold only to governments to track criminals and terrorists.