Paz Esteban, the spy who believes women make better bosses

Pegasus case puts veteran secret service official in the spotlight

2 min
The director of the CNI, Paz Esteban, at the Moncloa, in an archive image

MadridOnly ten MPs will be able to listen to explanations offered by Spanish National Intelligence Centre (CNI) director Paz Esteban (Madrid, 1958) on the Catalangate. The law forbids them to make what they hear public. Not much is known about the head of the Spanish secret services – probably a good thing in a spy – whose continuity is in question as a result of the Pegasus case. Even the Minister of Defence, Margarita Robles, chose not to answer journalists questions this morning on whether Esteban should resign.

Esteban officially took over at the CNI in February 2020, although she served as acting director since July 2019 due to the retirement of her predecessor, Félix Sanz Roldán. She thus became the first woman to lead an institution which in the last century was virtually reserved for men and the military. "We women are closer, more empathetic, more understanding, more open-minded. We don't lack firmness, decisiveness or courage," she told journalist Pilar Cernuda, as recounted in the book No sabías nada de mí: cómo son las espías españolas [You knew nothing about me: what Spanish spies are like] Emilio Alonso Manglano began to renovate the institution in the 80s after the 23-F attempted coup d'état and Esteban joined in 1983, when he was preparing for civil service exams to work in archives and libraries, after graduating in philosophy and literature. Various reports claim a relative offered to set her up at a ministry, which turned out to be the Cesid, the CNI's predecessor.

The veteran civil servant did not act as a field agent, instead specialising in foreign intelligence. She began by preparing reports on Spain's continued membership of NATO before the 1986 referendum. She is also said to have compiled files on terrorism in the wake of 9/11 and the 2004 Madrid train bombings, that neither the State security forces nor the CNI prevented. According to what subsequently became known, the intelligence services gave a warning a few days before the events and its former director Alberto Saiz has affirmed that if José María Aznar accused ETA it was probably because the CNI said so.

Trusted by the PP and PSOE

Under Félix Sanz Roldán, who was fully trusted by then PP vice-president Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, Esteban was appointed CNI secretary general in June 2017. At that stage, the CNI became organically dependent on the Ministry of the Presidency, during Mariano Rajoy's last government. When PSOE arrived in government, she was given the support of Margarita Robles, a fact that highlights her technical profile, rather than bring a political appointment. "I must admit, Minister, that your support throughout these seven months in which I have held the position of interim director, your consideration for the CNI and your permanent defence of it, have given the organisation peace of mind to go through this exceptional stage," she said when she was made permanent director in 2020.

The CNI had gone through difficult times as a result of the State sewers scandal that had at its centre former National Police superintendent José Manuel Villarejo, Sanz Roldán's archenemy. In that speech, Esteban also mentioned the agency's digital transformation challenges. Precisely, in one of the few public interventions he has made, in 2019 he delivered a lecture on cybersecurity, the main contemporary challenge for the intelligence services. She promised a long road of changes and adaptations in the CNI under a leadership now hanging by a thread.