Archive image of prime minister Pedro Sánchez and Defence minister Margarita Robles. / AFP

I-Spy

The Spanish government still has questions to answer about the so-called Catalangate

MARK NAYLER

An EU investigation has concluded that Catalan separatists were most likely targeted by the Spanish authorities with heavy-duty spyware between 2017 and 2020. While acknowledging that the government led by Pedro Sánchez has provided "little information" to aid the enquiry, Brussels now supports suspicions first aired by the Toronto-based research centre Citizen Lab in April: "on the basis of a series of indicators," the EU report states in a carefully-worded conclusion, "it is generally assumed that the surveillance of the Catalan targets was conducted by Spanish authorities".

Sánchez and defence minister Margarita Robles are also thought to have been hacked with the Israeli-produced Pegasus spyware, so the true import of Catalangate, as the case has been dubbed, is not resonating in the way it should. The Spanish government's alleged use of underground tactics to spy on Catalan activists and politicians seriously undermines its credibility - because it's hard to believe that, if Spain's Central Intelligence Centre (CNI) used Pegasus, it did so without the Socialist-led coalition's knowledge.

Robles practically admitted that the coalition had engaged in espionage in a speech in parliament at the end of April: "What does a state have to do...," she lamented, sounding very much like the victim, "when somebody violates the constitution, when somebody declares independence...?"

On May 5th, a month after Catalangate broke and a couple of days after it was revealed that the phones of Sánchez and Robles were also targeted with Pegasus, there was a closed-door meeting of the official secrets committee. In attendance were then-CNI chief Paz Esteban as well as members of the PSOE, the Popular Party (PP) and pro-independence Catalan groups such as the ERC.

According to the ERC's Gabriel Rufián, Esteban admitted that the CNI, acting with judicial authorisation, tapped the phones of prominent Catalan separatists - but only eighteen of them. She couldn't explain how almost fifty other secessionists cited by Citizen Lab were targeted. Sánchez fired Esteban a few days later but it was never explained why Robles, who oversees the CNI in her capacity as defence minister, wasn't also sacked. Amnesty International's Spain director criticised the meeting's "obscurantism", adding that it was "not the appropriate venue to investigate the alleged violation of human rights".

The Spanish government has yet to answer two fundamental questions: if the CNI is indeed in possession of Pegasus software, who authorised its purchase? The spyware's manufacturer, the Israel-based NSO Group, maintains that the software is only sold to national governments for the purposes of tracking terrorists and criminals. And why did the Spanish courts authorise the targeting of Catalan separatists?

In June 2018, when the PP was drowning in corruption cases, Sánchez called for and won a no-confidence vote against then-president Mariano Rajoy. There's at least as much reason now for the PP to return the favour.