Spanish politics was marked by two major milestones between May and June 2021, the dates on which the phones of Pedro Sánchez and Margarita Robles were tapped with Pegasus software: the granting of pardons to the independence leaders and the crisis with Morocco after the reception of the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Galli. The front pages of the main Spanish newspapers were covered on those dates fundamentally by these two events. A couple of months later it was revealed that the spying tool, developed by an Israeli company, had infiltrated the phones of 50,000 people around the world (politicians, activists, journalists…). This leak pointed out that the French president, Emmanuel Macron, was in the crosshairs of the Moroccan intelligence services, although the King of Morocco himself, Mohamed VI, and other international leaders also appeared.
Pegasus, the program that has hacked Catalan politicians and spied on journalists and activists around the world
The Minister of the Presidency, Félix Bolaños, did not want to enter into “conjectures” about who was behind the attack on the devices of the President and the Minister of Defense when they asked him at the press conference if he considered that he had something to do with the conflict in Catalonia, given that at that time Sánchez had begun to pave the way for the pardons of the leaders of the process. The commitment to “concord” versus “revenge” to overcome the Catalan crisis at a press conference in Brussels on May 25 was the first sign in that direction. From there, there were several pronouncements by the president to create a favorable climate for government pardons that were finally granted on June 22.
The other great challenge that the Government encountered at that time was the diplomatic crisis with Morocco after the humanitarian reception of the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Galli, which the Executive had handled with the utmost discretion. His revelation by the weekly Jeune Afrique on April 23 provoked an angry response from Morocco, which used its population to destabilize the border with Spain. More than 10,000 people entered Ceuta in a couple of days and the Alaouite kingdom broke off diplomatic relations with Spain, which have recently been restored thanks to the historic turn that Sánchez has given to the position regarding the Sahara. But the Government then denounced the “blackmail” of Morocco.
In those days neither the national nor the international press talked about Pegasus, but they did just a few weeks later. A leak uncovered the use of Pegasus spy software against activists and journalists around the world. The leak, accessed by Amnesty International and the non-profit organization Forbidden Stories before being handed over to a media consortium, included a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers corresponding to people who since 2016 had been considered of interest by the clients of NSO, the company that owns this espionage tool. Just because a phone number appeared on the list did not necessarily mean that the device had been infected with Pegasus or that it had been hacked; but the bottom line is that they were potential targets chosen by NSO client governments, prior to possible surveillance attempts.
Among the owners of the phones that appeared on that list was that of the French president, Emmanuele Macron, as one of the targets of the Moroccan secret services, according to Le Monde and Radio France. But in total there were 13 heads of state and government, including the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI.
However, it was not the first time that the use of Pegasus for massive spying was known, but the first information dates back to 2016. In 2020 the matter gained special importance in Spain after The Citizen Lab revealed that it had been used to intervene the phones of pro-independence leaders, such as the then President of Parliament, Roger Torrent, Carles Puigdemont’s most trusted adviser, Sergi Miquel, or leaders of the ERC, JxCat and the CUP. The first interventions in the independence movement occurred in 2015 and lasted at least until 2020.
Two weeks ago, that same body of the University of Toronto pointed out that the telephones of some 66 people linked to the independence movement, including the president of the Generalitat, Pere Aragonés, had been tapped with that system, which in principle is only available to state. That revelation placed the Government in the most delicate moment with the coalition partners, who pointed directly to the CNI. The Minister of Defense, Margarita Robles, justified the espionage during the government control session by asking herself. What does a State have to do, what does a Government have to do when someone violates the Constitution, when someone declares independence, when someone blocks public roads, commits public disorder, when someone is having relations with political leaders of a country that is invading Ukraine, or when organizations such as the SEPE or ministers’ phones are ‘hacked’?“, asked the Minister of Defense.