MADRID ( Associated Press) – Spain’s government has fired the director of its top intelligence agency amid two separate cases of hacking politicians’ cellphones, Spanish media reports said on Tuesday.
Spain’s EFE news agency and other media reports that Spain’s cabinet has agreed to relieve Paz Esteban as head of Spain’s National Intelligence Center, or CNI.
An official announcement is expected from the cabinet on Tuesday.
Esteban admitted last week to a closed-door committee of Spain’s parliament that his agency had legally hacked the phones of several Catalan separatists after obtaining judicial permission.
Its agency is also under investigation for recent revelations by the government that the cellphones of both Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and the Defense Minister were also infected with Pegasus spyware by an “external” power.
Esteban, 64, became the first woman to head the CNI in July 2019, the first time her appointment was made permanent in February 2020 on an interim basis.
Esteban’s predecessor was criticized in 2017 for failing to stop preparations by Catalan separatists to hold an independence referendum, which was deemed illegal by Spain’s top courts.
A report by Canada-based digital rights group Citizen Lab last month condemned the alleged phone hacks of more than 60 Catalan politicians, lawyers and activists.,
The list of phones allegedly infected by Pegasus spyware, which Israeli company NSO says it sells only to government agencies, includes the current regional head of Northeast Catalonia. The Citizen Lab report said the hack began in late 2019, with Esteban in charge of CNI.
Sánchez’s minority leftist coalition often has to rely on votes from Catalan separatist parties, who have threatened to withdraw their support if the government does not accept responsibility for the hacking.
Defense Minister Margarita Robles, whose phone was the victim of a separate hack by unknown actors, has defended targeting Catalan politicians for their involvement in a separatist plot that five years ago sought to separate Catalonia from the rest of Spain. Tried and failed.
CNI has also been accused of neglecting the security of Sanchez and Robles’ phones.
Following the Catalan hack, the government announced last week that scans of the phones of its government chief and top defense official revealed they had been infected with Pegasus spyware in May and June of 2021. He said that the culprit was unknown.