By JOSEPH WILSON – Associated Press
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The Spanish government on Tuesday fired the director of the country’s main intelligence agency following the hacking of politicians’ cellphones, including the devices of the Prime Minister and several secession supporters of the region of Catalonia.
The National Intelligence Center, or CNI, has been criticized for its role in spying on Catalan separatists and for taking an entire year to discover that the handsets of the prime minister and top defense and security officials were infiltrated , possibly by a foreign power.
Defense Minister Margarita Robles, who was among the targets of the hack, announced after the cabinet meeting that Paz Esteban would be relieved of his duties as director of the CNI.
“It (the government phone hacks) took a year to find out, well, clearly there are things we need to improve,” Robles said. “We will try to ensure that these attacks do not happen again, even if there is no way to be completely safe.”
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Esteban’s replacement will be Esperanza Casteleiro, “a woman who has worked for almost 40 years” at the intelligence agency, Robles said. Casteleiro recently served as Secretary of Defense, Robles No. 2, since 2020.
Esteban admitted during a closed parliamentary committee hearing last week that with judicial authorization, his agency had hacked into the phones of several Catalan separatists.
In a separate case, the government recently revealed that an “external” power infected the cellphones of Robles and Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez with Pegasus spyware last year.
The phone of Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, head of Spain’s police and border control agencies, was also infected with the spyware along with the Defense Minister’s phone.
The Spanish government has declined to speculate publicly about who might have searched 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 parliamentary votes from Catalan separatist parties, which have threatened to withdraw their support if the government does not accept responsibility for the hack.
The leader of Spain’s opposition conservatives, People’s Party President Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, criticized the decision to impeach Esteban. He said the government sacrificed her to the Catalan separatists.
“It is a monstrosity that Sánchez offers the head of the director of the CNI to the separatists, once again weakening the state to ensure its survival,” Popular Party President Alberto Nuñez Feijóo wrote on Twitter.
Esteban, 64, became the first woman to head the CNI in July 2019, initially on an interim basis. His appointment was made permanent in February 2020.
The former CNI director had been criticized for failing in 2017 to stop preparations by Catalan separatists to hold an independence referendum which had been ruled illegal by Spain’s highest courts.
The alleged phone hacking of more than 60 Catalan politicians, lawyers and activists was exposed last month in a report by Canadian digital rights group Citizen Lab.
The list of phones believed to have been infected with the Pegasus spyware, which Israeli company NSO says it sells only to government agencies, includes the current regional head of Catalonia. The Citizen Lab report says the hacks began 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 unsuccessfully tried to separate Catalonia from the rest of Spain five years ago.
Gabriel Rufián, the parliamentary spokesman for the Catalan ERC party, said the dismissal of Esteban was not intended to appease the separatists. He noted that the CNI has also been accused of neglecting the technological security of senior government officials.
“It seems logical, with all due respect to Esteban, that in a country that admits that the phones of the prime minister and defense minister were spied on illegally, that the head of the CNI takes responsibility,” Rufián said.
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