Spanish politics

Spanish govt denounces Pegasus used to spy on Pedro Sánchez and Margarita Robles

Government spokesperson claims it is an "external intervention" and has taken the case to court

3 min
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MADRIDThe Spanish government has denounced that President Pedro Sánchez's and Defence Minister Margarita Robles's phones were hacked into last year using Israeli spyware Pegasus. Minister for the Presidency Félix Bolaños made the announcement at a press conference on Monday, where he explained that it is "an external and illicit intrusion"; that is to say, it has not been authorised by the courts. It took place in the months of May and June 2021, according to Bolaños, who added that all other cabinet members' phones are being checked to see whether the use of the Pegasus programme went beyond Sánchez and Robles.

Regarding the origin of the espionage, the government claims that it is not possible to know where it comes from, although they point out that it is "external". Spanish government sources add that "no Spanish public institution" is behind it. In addition, Bolaños has claimed that June 2021 is the last month in which they know the programme had been been used. "In Spain, either to prevent or to prosecute crimes, judicial authorisation can be requested and the judge can grant permission [to tap a telephone], but in this case [the authorisation] did not occur and that is why we consider the interventions to be illicit and external," Bolaños reiterated.

As a result of the Catalangate scandal, when it was discovered that around 60 pro-independence leaders were spied on using Pegasus, the CNI started investigations to see the extent of the programme's use of Pegasus in Spain. Alarm bells rang within the Spanish government when they were informed that during the inspection of Sánchez's and Robles's phones an infection by Pegasus was detected. This inspection of the phone lasts between 24 and 36 hours, executive sources explain, and during this time neither Sánchez nor Robles have been able to use their phones.

Specifically, 2.6 gigabytes and 130 megabytes of information were extracted from the Spanish Prime Minister's cell phone, while 9 megabytes were extracted from the Defence Minister's, according to executive sources. Once the executive was alerted, the State Attorney's Office filed a complaint.

The question is, what went wrong? Spanish government sources explain that all ministers and presidents on the National Security Directorate (DSN) are given "a secure mobile" protected by a security system (encryption, firewalls or even intrusion detection). This system is managed by the National Cryptologic Centre (CCN), which is responsible for cybersecurity of Spanish government members' phones and, therefore, it is up to them to carry out routine checks to see their security status on their phone.

The Spanish government did not want to "speculate" on the motives behind the spying, said Bolaños. The announcement, however, comes after some rough weeks marked by the Catalangate scandal. The spying on some of the pro-independence leaders, as well as people around them, has opened a huge crisis within the Spanish government and also in its relation with one of its usual parliamentary supporters, ERC, which asked for the resignation of the Minister of Defence, Margarita Robles.

The CNI admitted that it had used the Israeli spyware only states can acquire and which goes by the name of Pegasus. As published in El País, Spanish intelligence services confirmed that they had used this programme on an individual basis and with court authorisation, but the CNI has not explained who was spied on nor when. Even so, the intelligence services, as well as the Minister of Defence herself, Margarita Robles, expressed distrust in Citizen Lab investigation that uncovered the alleged spying on at least 65 pro-independence leaders using Pegasus, arguing that Catalan researcher Elies Campo, linked to the pro-independence environment, was involved.