MADRID ( Associated Press) — Spain’s government has sacked the director of its intelligence agency, the defense minister said Tuesday, amid two separate cases of cell phone hacking of politicians.
In a press conference, Margarita Robles announced the replacement of Paz Esteban as head of the National Intelligence Center, or CNI. Her position will now be occupied by Esperanza Casteleiro, who served as Secretary of State for Defense.
The decision came after Esteban admitted last week during a commission of the Congress of Deputies, held behind closed doors, that his agency had legally hacked the phones of several Catalan pro-independence politicians after receiving judicial authorization.
The CNI is also under fire following recent government revelations that the cell phones of the chief executive, Pedro Sánchez, and Robles were infected with the Pegasus spyware by an external actor.
Esteban, 64, became the first woman to lead the CNI in July 2019, first on an interim basis until his appointment became official in February 2020.
Esteban’s predecessor had been criticized for failing to stop preparations for the 2017 Catalan independence referendum, which was outlawed by the highest state court.
The alleged hacking of the cell phones of more than 60 Catalan politicians, lawyers and activists was denounced last month in a report by the Canadian-based digital rights activist group Citizen Lab.
The list of terminals allegedly infected by Pegasus, which the Israeli company NSO says it only sells to government agencies, includes that of the current president of the northeastern region. According to the Citizen Lab report, the hacks began at the end of 2019, when Esteban already had the reins of the CNI.
The center-left coalition headed by Sánchez, who governs in a minority, has often had to resort to the votes of the Catalan independence parties to pass regulations. These formations have threatened to withdraw their support for the executive if he does not accept responsibility for the hack.
Robles has defended the surveillance of Catalan politicians for their involvement in the failed plan to declare the region’s independence from the rest of Spain five years ago.
The CNI has also been accused of neglecting the security of Sánchez and Robles’ smartphones.
Following the Catalan hacking scandal, the government announced last week that a review of the devices of the head of government and the top defense official had revealed that they were infected with spyware in May and June 2021. For now it is unknown who is behind the attack.
The leader of the conservative Popular Party, the opposition leader, criticized the dismissal, saying the government sacrificed Esteban to please Catalan secessionists.
“Sánchez consummates the grotesque and offers the head of the director of the CNI to the independentists, once again weakening the State to seek its survival. She is a true affront to our country. Unjustifiable”, wrote Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, the president of the PP, on Twitter.
But Gabriel Rufián, the spokesman for the Catalan party ERC in Congress, said the dismissal was not a concession to calm the separatists.
It seems “logical, with all due respect to Esteban, that in a country that recognizes that the cell phone of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense and perhaps more members has been illegally spied on, that the highest authority of the CNI assume responsibilities” , he stated.