President of the Catalan autonomous region, Pere Aragonès. / EUROPA PRESS

The spy who bugged me

Pedro Sánchez and his government have a lot of explaining to do, and a simple denial won't be enough

MARK NAYLER

This is one scandal that Pedro Sánchez can't dismiss with flat denial. New findings by Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary research team attached to the University of Toronto, have revealed that the mobile phones of over sixty leading Catalan separatists were tapped between 2017 and 2020 with Pegasus software from the Israeli NSO Group.

Pere Aragonès, Catalonia's pro-independence president, is convinced that the Spanish government is behind the alleged espionage; and although there is no conclusive evidence to prove that suspicion, Citizen Lab this week said that "strong circumstantial evidence suggests a nexus with Spanish authorities".

Aragonès' freeze on Catalan separatists' support for Sánchez's minority government - support which proved crucial to the approval of this year's budget - is likely to cause problems for Sánchez. In the meantime, there are two issues hanging over the Socialist-led administration that demand clarification.

First, it remains unclear which individual(s) or organisation(s) acquired Pegasus, top-grade spyware which the NSO Group has said is only ever sold to governments - not private companies - for the purpose of tracking terrorists and organised crime (although NSO also maintains it has no knowledge of how clients use the software once they've purchased it).

If the spyware wasn't purchased by the Spanish government, Sánchez still needs to explain how it came to be operative in Spain and why it was reportedly used to bug the phones of high-profile Catalan secessionists, including Aragonès' three predecessors, Joaquim Torra, Carles Puigdemont and Artur Mas. If Pegasus was being operated by, say, a rogue organisation, how was that organisation able to purchase and use government-grade spyware under the radar of the Spanish authorities?

Secondly, the hacking allegations aren't new. In 2020, a joint investigation by El País and the UK's Guardian newspaper confirmed that the mobile phone of Roger Torrent, then speaker of the Catalan parliament, had been targeted by Pegasus software in 2019. Citizen Lab, who also notified two other Catalan separatists that they had been targeted, called it a case of "possible domestic political espionage". Torrent said he suspected the "Spanish state" was behind the alleged bugging and had acted without judicial approval.

Ironically, in denying the government's involvement with digital espionage this week, spokesperson Rodríguez highlighted one unforgettable occasion on which it waded into very murky waters, Constitutionally-speaking.

Rodríguez insisted that in Spain "any limitation of...fundamental rights...requires a judicial decision to be taken". What about lockdown then - a blanket suspension (rather than limitation) of citizens' fundamental rights imposed without any judicial procedures in March 2020? When the Constitutional Court did eventually deliver a verdict, almost eighteen months later, it was that Sánchez's government acted illegally in imposing the quarantine. Rogríduez isn't doing her side any favours when she reminds everyone of that.