Could Spain’s Latest Spying Scandal, “Catalangate”, Topple the Pedro Sánchez Government?

The plot keeps thickening. First, Spain’s Government was accused of spying on figures in Catalonia’s independence movement. Now, Madrid claims it too has been a victim of spying by “external” forces.

Spain’s fragile coalition government is beginning to show signs of strain following a succession of disagreements on major issues, from labor reform to providing arms to Ukraine, to Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’ recent shock decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. From one day to the next he put an end to 47 years of political and social consensus on the former colony’s status without even consulting certain members of his cabinet.

But one issue could end up being the final straw: the extensive spying by Spain’s intelligence services of members of Catalonia and the Basque Country’s pro-independence movements, much of which appears to have taken place during Sánchez’s tenure. Among the victims are members of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (the Republican Left of Catalonia), which is helping to prop up Sánchez’s coalition government.

They include the current president of Catalonia’s regional government, Pere Aragonès, whose phone was infected with the Pegasus virus in late 2019, when his party was negotiating Pedro Sánchez’s investiture. From that moment on all the messages, work and personal documents on his mobile as well as photos of his family have been spied on, according to a joint investigation by The New Yorker and Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, Canada.

In an interview this past weekend with the Spanish newspaper El Diario, Aragonès said it will be very difficult for the ERC to continue supporting the government in Congress if Pedro Sánchez’s executive does not respond robustly to the espionage of independence leaders, ideally with an internal government investigation with independent oversight. “Parliamentary stability will be very difficult to maintain if responsibilities are not assumed,” he said. In addition, he plans to file a lawsuit against the government in the coming weeks.

Pegasus Strikes Again

The Pegasus spyware was created and marketed by the Israeli cyber-arms company NSO Group, a company so secretive it didn’t even have a website for its first few years of existence. Now that it does, it is worth a visit. On its “About Us” page, the company waxes lyrical on how its Pegasus software is used by its government clients to help carry out all sorts of heroic deeds such as prevent terrorism; break up pedophilia, sex- and drug-trafficking rings, and money-laundering operations; rescue kidnapped children; and locate survivors trapped under collapsed buildings in the wake of natural disasters or construction failures.

Governments from all over the world, including Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and a host of African countries, have so far used the software, and often not for good ends. In its Pegasus Project, “a ground-breaking collaboration by more than 80 journalists from 17 media organizations in 10 countries,” Amnesty International found that NSO’s spyware was being used as “a weapon of choice” by repressive governments “seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent, placing countless lives in peril.”

Similar findings were reported by Citizen Lab’s joint investigation with New Yorker, according to which some of the worst abuses have occurred at the hands of authoritarian regimes:

Most prominently, Pegasus was employed against family members of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi before and after he was murdered in Turkey. It has been used against journalists around the world, as well as human rights defenders, dissidents, and truth tellers.

Still other abuses have happened at the hands of purported democracies like India, Poland, Hungary, and El Salvador…

Unsurprisingly, Israel, too, has also used the made-in-Israel spyware against domestic citizens, including opponents of former right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. So too have countries in Europe including Germany, Hungary, Poland and, as it now seems, Spain. In the latter case, none of the the targets had a criminal record, as Citizen Lab documents:

People’s views on Catalan independence differ, but many of the hacking victims have never been charged or convicted of criminal activity for their political activism. They are advocates, politicians, nonprofit leaders, lawyers, journalists, and even open-source software developers working on democratic participation. They include Catalan Presidents, legislators, and Members of the European Parliament. In some cases, family members were also infected.

The targeting occurred during political negotiations and debate over Catalan independence. Most would agree that spying on counterparts during a political negotiation process is an act of bad faith.

Long List of Targets

So far, a total of 65 members of Catalonia’s independence movement were been identified as targets of both Pegasus as well as Candiru, another spyware program that is designed to self-destruct and hide its traces. They include every Catalan Member of the European Parliament (MEP) that supported independence as well as some of their parliamentary staff, family members or close associates. Members of Catalan civil society associations such as Omnium Cultural and Assemblea Nacional Catalana, two organizations that support Catalan independence, were also targeted…

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