Spain’s government has fired the director of its top intelligence agency amid two separate cases of the hacking of politicians’ mobile phones using Pegasus spyware, according to the country’s defence minister.
Paz Esteban, the first woman to head Spain’s National Intelligence Centre (CNI), will be replaced, Defence Minister Margarita Robles whose ministry oversees the agency, told a news conference on Tuesday.
“Full security does not exist, we have a series of threats regarding security which get bigger each day,” the minister said.
The decision comes after Esteban admitted last week in a closed-door committee of Spain’s parliament that her agency had legally hacked the phones of several Catalan separatists after receiving judicial permission.
Her agency is also under scrutiny for recent revelations by the government that the mobile phones of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Defence Minister Margarita Robles were also infected with the Pegasus spyware by an “external” power.
On Tuesday, the government spokesperson Isabel Rodriguez said Pegasus was also detected in the mobile phone of Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska last year.
The leader of Spain’s conservatives, the leading opposition party, slammed the cabinet’s decision, saying the government had sacrificed Esteban to the Catalan separatists.
“It is a monstrosity that Sánchez offers the head of the CNI director to the separatists, once again weakening the State to assure his survival,” Popular Party president Alberto Nuñez Feijóo wrote on Twitter.
But Gabriel Rufián, the parliamentary spokesman for the Catalan party ERC, said that dismissal of Esteban was not about appeasing the separatists.
“It seems logical, with all my respects to Esteban, that in a country that admits that the phones of the prime minister and defence minister have been illegally spied upon for the head of the CNI to assume the responsibility,” Rufián said.
The 64-year-old Esteban became the first woman to head the CNI in July 2019, first on an interim basis before her appointment was made permanent in February 2020.
Pegasus spyware silently infiltrates mobile phones to extract data or activate a camera or microphone to spy on their owners.
The Israel-based NSO Group, which owns Pegasus, claims the software is only sold to government agencies to target criminals and “terrorists”, with the green light of Israeli authorities.
The company has been criticised by global rights groups for violating users’ privacy around the world and it faces lawsuits from major tech firms such as Apple and Microsoft.
The European Union’s data protection watchdog has called for a ban on Pegasus.