Sánchez dismisses CNI director to placate ERC

Esperanza Casteleiro, current secretary of state for security, replaces Paz Esteban, under fire after cabinet members' phones were hacked into

3 min
The director of the National Intelligence Center (CNI), Paz Esteban, arrives accompanied by the Secretary of State for Relations with Parliament, Rafael Simancas, to appear before the control commission

MadridPaz Esteban has been relieved of her duties as head of the Spanish National Intelligence Centre (CNI) in an attempt to placate ERC and put an end to the Catalangate scandal, Minister of Defence Margarita Robles told the press today. However, the minister argued that this was not a dismissal but a "substitution" and that the underlying reason is in no case spying on Catalan pro-independence leaders but cabinet members¡s phones becoming infected with Israeli spyware Pegasus. In addition, the executive has also confirmed that Minister of the Interior Fernando Grande-Marlaska's phone was infected, and that an attempt was made to infect a phone belonging to Minister of Agriculture Luis Planas, who had been ambassador in Morocco.

Esteban will be replaced by Esperanza Casteleiro, current secretary of state for Defence and Margarita Robles's former chief of staff. Casteleiro has 40 years' experience at the CNI, of which she was secretary general between 2004 and 2008. "She, like all its workers, is the CNI. She has worked for Spain to be an international leader," she said. Robles said the substitution was not a punishment but part of "step forward" and "reinforcement of the CNI in the field of cybersecurity".

Reactions from ERC and PP

ERC's spokesperson in Parliament, Gabriel Rufián, believes the dismissal is "logical", but insisted that ERC has more demands, such as the declassification of court authorisations to spy on 18 pro-independence leaders. The CNI admitted to this espionage, which also affected Catalan president Pere Aragonès. In a recent interview with El País, ERC president Oriol Junqueras also demanded assurances the espionage would not happen again, although he avoided pointing the finger at Robles, whose head ERC had demanded.

Rufián admitted that "it is quite hard for Sánchez to dismiss Robles, because she represents a part of PSOE, the moderate right". Catalan president Pere Aragonès called for Robles's head Margarita Robles hours after the minister justified spying on Catalan pro-independence leaders. It remains to be seen, however, if ERC have placated by Sánchez's move. Aragonès is awaiting a face-to-face meeting with the Spanish president to end the crisis.

On the other hand, the PP's new leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo reacted angrily, considering it a concession to the independence movement. In a tweet, Núñez Feijóo stated that "Sánchez consummates the grotesque and offers the CNI director's head to the independence movement, weakening the State once again to seek his own survival. It is a real affront to our country. Unjustifiable".

Unidas Podemos spokesperson Pablo Echenique asked to avoid bogus closure for the Pegasus case through the CNI director's dismissal; instead, he defends secret documents be made public. "It is necessary to guarantee that it will not happen again by purifying the bodies which hold residues of illegal practices", he said. On the other hand, CUP deputy Mireia Vehí claimed Paz Esteban "is a scapegoat, a smokescreen". "Why has no minister taken responsibility?" she denounced.

Paz Esteban (Madrid, 1958) is a civil servant with an long career in the secret services, who had been head of the CNI since July 2019, when her predecessor, Félix Sanz Roldán, retired. She then held a post of interim director, and was made permanent head of the CNI in February 2020. It is possible that it will never be known who is behind the spying on members of the Spanish government, despite the fact that all the clues point to Morocco, especially because of the time in which the attacks took place, in the midst of a crisis between Rabat and Madrid over Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali's admission to a hospital in La Rioja.