Spanish government claims prime minister Sánchez the victim of spying

Latest revelations come days after claims of surveillance on Catalan independence leaders

A scandal surrounding allegations of widespread surveillance on Catalan independence leaders has taken a new twist after the Spanish government said that prime minister Pedro Sánchez and a member of his cabinet had also been the victim of spying.

The mobile phone of Mr Sánchez was hacked twice in May of 2021, and that of his defence minister, Margarita Robles, was hacked once in June, the government said, adding that Israeli-made Pegasus spyware was used for the attacks.

“These are confirmed and reliable facts, not suppositions,” said Félix Bolaños, minister for the prime minister’s officer, who made the revelations in a press conference. He said the allegations were based on the findings of the national cryptological centre, an agency linked to the intelligence service.

“These are acts of enormous seriousness which confirm that there have been unlawful intrusions from outside in state institutions,” he said, adding that the government is taking the case to the national court, which handles organised crime and terrorism.

Mr Bolaños also said that there was evidence that Pegasus spyware had been used illegally in “at least 20 countries”.

The government’s claims come just days after similar allegations were made of spying on Catalan legislators, MEPs, civic leaders and others, threatening to derail Mr Sánchez’s parliamentary majority.

The Catalan president, Pere Aragonès, was among more than 60 individuals associated with the independence movement who were identified as having been the targets of surveillance via Pegasus in a report by The Citizen Lab, a research centre linked to the University of Toronto.

The Sánchez government said it had not been involved in the spying, which took place, according to the allegations, between 2017 and 2020, except for one case in 2015.

However, last week, Ms Robles, the defence minister, appeared to justify the use of espionage, asking "What does a state have to do?" in the face of a secession attempt such as that made by Catalonia in 2017.

Crucial vote

The Catalan government responded by demanding the resignation of Ms Robles. Also, Mr Aragonès’s Catalan Republican Left (ERC) voted against the Spanish government in a crucial vote on an economic package. Although the economic measures squeezed through, if ERC continues to oppose the coalition government in parliament, it will be a severe blow to Mr Sánchez’s leftist administration.

The latest revelations, meanwhile, have drawn a sceptical response from Catalan nationalists.

“How can we know that what the [Spanish] government has said today is true?” asked Oriol Junqueras, the leader of ERC, who described the reports of the hacking of the phones of Mr Sánchez and Ms Robles as “a smokescreen”.

Mr Aragonès wrote on Twitter that “when the mass spying is against Catalan institutions and the independence movement, silence and excuses. Today, it’s suddenly an emergency”.

Later this week, the head of the CNI intelligence service, Paz Esteban, is due to appear for questioning about the allegations of spying on the Catalan leaders before a handful of members of parliament when the commission for official secrets is convened.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain