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Spain’s spy chief in the hot seat over phone hacking scandal

Spain's top spymaster was grilled behind closed doors by lawmakers on Thursday over mobile phone hacking revelations that have roiled the country's fragile coalition government.

Spain's spy chief in the hot seat over phone hacking scandal
Paz Esteban (L), who was sworn in as CNI head in February 2020, next to Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles (R). Photo: Defence Ministry

Paz Esteban, the first woman to head Spain’s CNI intelligence agency, appeared before a parliamentary committee for questioning over the affair which has dominated headlines for days.

The scandal broke last month when Canadian cybersecurity watchdog Citizen Lab said the phones of over 60 people linked to the Catalan separatist movement had been tapped using Pegasus spyware after a failed independence bid in 2017.

Catalan separatists immediately pointed the finger at the CNI and threatened to withdraw their support for Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s minority government unless heads roll.

Sánchez’s government depends on Catalan separatist party ERC to pass legislation and remain in power until the next general election due in late 2023.

On Monday, the government announced that the phones of Sánchez and Defence Minister Margarita Robles, whose ministry oversees the CNI, were hacked last year by the same spyware made by Israel’s NSO group.

The revelation raised questions over who is to blame and whether Spain has adequate security protocols.

Asked if Esteban, who has headed the CNI since 2020, will remain in her post, government spokeswoman Isabel Rodríguez said Tuesday she did not want to “talk of future scenarios”.

Catalan separatists and hard-left party Unidas Podemos, Sánchez’s junior coalition partners, demand that the defence minister resign over the affair.

Some Spanish media have pointed the finger at Morocco, which was in a diplomatic spat with Spain at the time, but the government has said it was no evidence of who may be responsible.

Pegasus spyware 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.

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NATO

Spain and Mali foreign ministers speak after row over NATO remarks

Mali's Foreign Minister said Saturday he had spoken with his Spanish counterpart after a row over comments the Spaniard made about the possibility of a NATO operation in the African country.

Spain and Mali foreign ministers speak after row over NATO remarks

Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop wrote in a tweet that he had spoken by phone with his Spanish counterpart Jose Manuel Albares about the comments, which were made in a radio interview.

“He denied the remarks and expressed his attachment to friendly relations and cooperation with Mali,” wrote Diop.

Spain moved to calm the row Saturday, a day after a day the military regime in Bamako had summoned their ambassador for an explanation.

“Spain did not ask during the NATO summit or at any other time for an intervention, mission or any action by the Alliance in Mali,” said a statement from Spain’s embassy.

The row blew up over remarks by Albares in an interview Thursday with Spain’s RNE radio. Asked if a NATO mission in Mali could be ruled out, Albares said: “No, we can’t rule it out.”

“It hasn’t been on the table at the talks in Madrid because this is a summit that is laying out, so to speak, the framework for NATO action.”

“If it were necessary and if there was to be a threat to our security, of course it would be done,” he added.

Albares was speaking on the sidelines of the NATO summit as it drew to a close in Madrid. Diop had told state broadcaster ORTM on Friday that Bamako had summoned the Spanish ambassador to lodge a strong protest over the remarks.

READ ALSO: Nato apologises after hanging Spanish flag upside down at Madrid summit

“These remarks are unacceptable, unfriendly, serious,” said Diop, because “they tend to encourage an aggression against an independent and sovereign country”.

“We have asked for explanations, a clarification of this position from the Spanish government,” he added.

At the Madrid summit, Spain pushed hard to prioritise the topic of the threat to NATO’s southern flank caused by the unrest in the Sahel — the vast territory stretching across the south of Africa’s Sahara Desert, incorporating countries such as Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

Jihadist attacks there are pushing increasing numbers of people to flee north towards Europe, with Spain one of the main points of entry there.

READ ALSO: Spain’s capital ramps up security to host Nato summit

At the summit, NATO acknowledged the alliance’s strategic interest in the Middle East, north Africa and the Sahel.

Mali has since 2012 been rocked by jihadist insurgencies. Violence began in the north and then spread to the centre and to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

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