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Reports: Spain fires intelligence chief amid hacking scandal

By The Associated Press
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MADRID (AP) — Spain’s government has fired the director of its top intelligence agency amid two separate cases of hacking of politicians’ cellphones, Spanish media reports said Tuesday.

Spain’s EFE news agency and other media report that Spain’s Cabinet agreed Paz Esteban would be relieved as head of Spain’s National Intelligence Center, or CNI.

The Cabinet is expected to make an official announcement later Tuesday.

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 cellphones of both Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and the defense minister were also infected with the Pegasus spyware by an “external” power.

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.

Esteban’s predecessor had received criticism for failing in 2017 to stop preparations by Catalan separatists to hold an independence referendum that had been deemed illegal by Spain’s top courts.

The alleged phone hacks of more than 60 Catalan politicians, lawyers and activists was denounced last month in a report by the Canada-based digital rights group Citizen Lab.

The list of phones that were allegedly infected by Pegasus spyware, which the Israeli company NSO says it only sells to government agencies, includes the current regional head of northeast Catalonia. The Citizen Lab report says the hacks started in late 2019, with Esteban in charge of the CNI.

Sánchez’s minority left-wing coalition has often had to rely on votes Parliament from Catalan separatist parties, which have threatened to withdraw their support if the government doesn't accept responsibility for the hacking.

Defense Minister Margarita Robles, whose phone was victim of a separate hack by unknown actors, has defended the targeting of Catalan politicians for their involvement in a separatist plot that tried and failed to separate Catalonia from the rest of Spain five years ago.

The CNI has also been accused of neglecting the security of the phones of Sánchez and Robles.

In the aftermath of the Catalan hacks, the government announced last week that scans of the phones of its government head and top defense official had revealed that they had been infected by Pegasus spyware in May and June of 2021. They said that the perpetrator was unknown.

The leader of Spain’s conservatives, the leading opposition party, slammed the decision. He said 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 of 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 defense minister have been illegally spied upon for the head of the CNI to assume the responsibility,” Rufián said.

Esteban had always maintained a low profile as appropriate for her profession. After obtaining university degrees in philosophy and literature, she joined Spain’s intelligence services as an analyst in 1983 before working her way up to its top job.

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