MADRID (AP) — The mobile phones of Spain’s prime minister and defense minister were infected last year with Pegasus spyware, which is only available to the countries’ government agencies, authorities said Monday.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s mobile phone was hacked twice in May 2021, and Defense Minister Margarita Robles’ device was targeted once the following month, Minister Félix Bolaños said.
The breaches, which resulted in obtaining a significant amount of data, were not authorized by a Spanish judge, which is a legal requirement for national covert operations, Bolaños told a conference of press hastily summoned to Madrid.
“We have no doubt that this is unlawful and unauthorized interference,” Bolaños said. “It comes from agencies outside the state and has no judicial authorization.”
During these months, the Socialist-led government has come under intense scrutiny over its handling of a major foreign policy row with Morocco and embroiled in a tense domestic dispute over the release of Morocco. imprisoned separatists from Spain’s restive Catalonia region.
Bolaños declined to speculate on who might have been behind Pegasus’ breach, or what might have prompted it. The National Court opened an investigation into the offense and a parliamentary committee on intelligence matters was set up to look into it.
In May 2021, more than 8,000 migrants forced their way into Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta from Morocco by either climbing a border fence or swimming around it. Spain has deployed troops and armored vehicles there to prevent more migrants from entering its territory.
This crisis came as Rabat and Madrid disagreed over Spain’s agreement to provide COVID-19 care to a prominent Sahrawi leader fighting for the independence of Western Sahara, a territory formerly under Spanish control that Morocco annexed in the 1970s.
Moroccan authorities have denied encouraging mass migration to Ceuta, as Spain struggles to cope with tens of thousands of migrants arriving from Africa.
Before Monday’s announcement, the government was already under pressure to explain why the mobile phones of dozens of people linked to the separatist movement in the northeastern region of Catalonia were infected with Pegasus between 2017 and 2020.
The Catalan conflict, with separatists wanting to break with Spain and activists sometimes staging violent street protests, has dogged Spanish governments for decades.
The spyware disclosures – by Citizen Lab, a group of cybersecurity experts affiliated with the University of Toronto – implicate at least 65 people, including elected officials, lawyers and activists linked to Catalonia.
They were targeted with software from two Israeli companies, Candiru and NSO Group, the developer of Pegasus. Spyware silently infiltrates phones or other devices to harvest data and potentially spy on their owners.
The Catalan regional government has accused Spain’s National Intelligence Center, or CNI, of spying on separatists and said relations with national authorities were “on hold” until a full explanation is provided and officials be punished.
The conservative People’s Party, or PP, was in power in 2017 when Catalan separatists declared independence following an unauthorized referendum, although no further steps were taken to enforce the declaration. The PP remained in power until mid-2018, when it was ousted by Sánchez in a parliamentary vote.
The spy case disrupts Spanish politics. ERC, Catalonia’s main political party and a crucial ally of the current government, has called for the resignation of Robles, the defense minister. But the spy scandal has exposed them to pressure from more radical separatists, who are calling for an end to support for Sánchez’s left-center coalition in the national parliament.
The central government has tried to address their concerns with promises of full transparency, announcements of plans for an internal investigation by the country’s intelligence agency and a separate probe by Spain’s ombudsman.
A special parliamentary committee on state secrets has also been set up and the CNI chief is expected to be questioned by lawmakers later this week, although discussions on state security issues are not supposed to be made public. .
Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal contributed to this story.
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