MADRID (AP) — The Spanish government has fired the director of its top intelligence agency in two separate cases of hacking politicians’ cellphones, Spanish media reported Tuesday.
Spanish news agency EFE and other outlets report that the Spanish cabinet has agreed that Paz Esteban will be relieved of his duties as head of Spain’s National Intelligence Center, or CNI.
The Cabinet is expected to make a formal announcement later on Tuesday.
The decision comes after Esteban admitted last week before a closed-door committee of the Spanish parliament that his agency had legally hacked into the phones of several Catalan separatists after receiving judicial authorisation.
His agency is also under scrutiny for recent government revelations that the mobile phones of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and the Minister of Defense were also infected with Pegasus spyware by an “external” power.
Esteban, 64, became the first woman to lead the CNI in July 2019, initially on an interim basis before her appointment was made permanent in February 2020.
Esteban’s predecessor had been criticized for failing in 2017 to halt preparations by Catalan separatists to hold an independence referendum that 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 chief of northeastern Catalonia. The Citizen Lab report says the hacks began in late 2019, with Esteban in charge of the CNI.
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.
Defense Minister Margarita Robles, whose phone was the victim of a separate hack by unknown actors, defended the targeting of Catalan politicians for their involvement in a separatist plot which unsuccessfully tried to separate Catalonia from the rest of Spain five years ago.
The CNI was also accused of neglecting the security of Sánchez and Robles’ phones.
In the aftermath of the Catalan hacks, the government announced last week that scans of the phones of its head of government and top defense official revealed they had been infected with the Pegasus spyware in May and June 2021. They said the author was unknown. .
The Associated Press