The 1972 Watergate scandal — beginning when a clutch of burglars was caught trying to bug the election campaign office of the Democratic Party in the United States — ended with the resignation of Republican President Richard Nixon.
Will the April 18 revelation by the New Yorker — that, from 2018‒20, at least 65 leading figures in the Catalan government and independence movement had their mobile phones bugged — produce a similarly dramatic outcome?
The cyber espionage in question, exposed by The Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto, represents the biggest known violation of the right to privacy in the history of the European Union.
It is not excluded that this scandal — dubbed “Catalangate” by The Citizen Lab — will see Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) forced to an early election.
Whether that happens will depend on whether he can satisfy the bottom-line position of the lead party in the Catalan government, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).
Sánchez’s Spanish government coalition with the more radical Unidas Podemos (UP) largely depends on ERC support for its majority in the Spanish Congress.
The ERC is demanding an independent investigation of the electronic eavesdropping, the sacking of those responsible and a full account as to how it happened.
To date ERC, together with most pro-independence and regionalist parties in the Spanish State, has rejected all PSOE alternative offers as to how to handle the issue.
Targeting the ‘enemy within’
The main features of the cyber espionage, of which The Citizen Lab gives a detailed account, are as follows:
- The targets included present Catalan premier Pere Aragonès and his predecessors Quim Torra and Artur Mas;
- The spooks also accessed the communications of Carles Puigdemont, premier at the time of the October 1, 2017 independence referendum and president of the Council for the Catalan Republic, through the mobile phones of his partner, Marcela Topor, his lawyer, Gonzalo Boyé and other collaborators;
- Other victims of the eavesdropping included leaders, ministers and MPs from ERC, its Catalan ruling coalition partner Together for Catalonia (Junts) and the People’s Unity List (CUP), as well as Junts and ERC Members of the European Parliament;
- The remaining targets were the leaders of the Catalan mass organisations Òmnium Cultural and Catalan National Assembly (ANC), lawyers for the Catalan leaders found guilty of “sedition” in the 2019 show trial against the organisers of the independence referendum, and EH Bildu leader Arnaldo Otegi and MP Jon Iñarritu;
- The bugging was mainly done with the Pegasus spyware of Israeli firm NSO Group, but in four cases also with the spyware of the Israeli Candiru company; and
- The eavesdropping expertise of both firms derives from their links with Israeli military intelligence, specialists in cyber espionage against Palestinian movements.
Who was responsible? The NSO Group swears that it only sells Pegasus to governments, for legitimate use in anti-terrorism and anti-crime operations and requiring judicial authorisation.
When news of Catalangate broke, the Spanish National Police Corps and the Civil Guard, both responsible to interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, immediately denied they had had any dealings with NSO or Candiru.
That left the National Intelligence Centre (CNI),the secret service responsible to defence minister Margarita Robles, as the prime suspect — and not only by a process of elimination.
The CNI had its own revenge motive for pursuing the leaders of the Catalan movement: its agents had been exposed as laughing-stocks after assuring the previous Spanish government of People’s Party (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy that the 2017 Catalan referendum would never take place.
Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria even boasted in internal PP meetings at the time that “the boys [the CNI] have got it all under control”.
‘Neither confirm nor deny’
The response of Robles and former CNI director Felix Roldan to the exposé was to say that they were bound by law not to reveal any information about CNI operations.
The only body to which they were accountable was the Congress’s Official Secrets Commission, which deals with the spending of government reserve funds and whose findings are secret.
Moreover, this body has not met for three years, because its composition, while traditionally made up of the spokespersons of the parties, is decided by a three-fifths majority secret vote of Congress deputies, and the parties of the right have had enough votes to prevent the Basque, Catalan and Galician “enemies of Spanish unity” from sitting on it.
However, Roldan and Robles were mute about the CNI in vain. A report in the April 26 edition of El País, based on “sources close to the Spanish secret service”, conceded that the CNI had spied on Catalan independence leaders.
It claimed, however, that its telephone interceptions all enjoyed legal authorisation and were directed to “foreseeing and preventing any threat to the territorial integrity of Spain”.
Since 2015, the CNI had run a “Constitutional Principles Defence Unit” dedicated to gathering information on secessionist movements, an objective included in the CNI’s intelligence-gathering goals approved by the Spanish government.
One of the “success stories” claimed by the CNI was the 2018 arrest in Germany of Carles Puigdemont, based on a Pegasus infiltration of the mobile phone of one of his collaborators.
The article also criticised the work of The Citizen Lab, asserting that the number of phones intercepted fell well short of 65 and insinuating, because of the involvement of Catalan researcher Elias Campo in its work, that it was biased.
Confronted with this information in the Senate on April 26, Robles still refused to confirm or deny its accuracy, repeating her accusation that it was unjust of the Catalan parties to attack the CNI when it was prevented by its charter from responding.
Too little, too late
Since the Catalangate revelations, the PSOE’s trouble-shooting moves have all failed.
Government spokesperson Isabel Rodriguez rejected the call for an independent inquiry on April 19, saying it was for the courts to determine if any offences had been committed, and stated that the government had “nothing to do with this and nothing to hide”.
On the same day, a European Commission spokesperson said it hoped “the state authorities will investigate in order to restore confidence”.
PSOE special minister of state Félix Bolaños visited Barcelona, on April 24, with an offer of an internal CNI inquiry, which was immediately rejected by the Catalan government.
On the same day, the Spanish Ombudsman Angel Gabilondo, unsuccessful PSOE candidate in last year’s Madrid regional elections, announced he would investigate the use of Pegasus and report his findings to the Official Secrets Commission. Robles promised him the full cooperation of her ministry.
Oscar López, Sánchez’s head of cabinet, appeared before a Congress committee, on April 25, and offered nothing new except the words “the government has the best will in the world and is taking the initiative”.
This “initiative” became clear the following day, when Congress speaker Meritxell Batet proposed that the majority required for an MP to be seated on the Official Secrets Commission be reduced from 210 to 176, making a right-wing veto of pro-independence MPs impossible.
This proposal was enough to infuriate the PP, Citizens and the ultra-right Vox, but still fell short of the demand for a public inquiry that would get to the bottom of the whole affair.
The findings of the commission would still be secret, and the same criticism applied to the Ombudsman’s inquiry.
Except for the PNV, the Catalan and Basque parties denounced the proposal en bloc, and were joined by the PSOE’s junior partner UP, the Galician Nationalist Bloc, the regionalist Valencian force Commitment, and Podemos split-off More Country. All insisted on an open inquiry.
EH Bildu MP Jon Iñarritu had made the situation clear to Oscar López the day before: “A meteorite is about to land on you people and you’re unaware of what might happen.”
What else, however, can the PSOE offer? The parties of the right are already up in arms, championing the CNI as defender of constitutionality against secessionism. An open inquiry into the CNI’s role in Catalangate, shining a light into the sewers of the Spanish “deep state”, would turn it against the PSOE once and for all.
A sign of the anguish the deadlock is causing Spain’s ruling party is that, as at the time of writing — April 27, nine days after the scandal broke — Prime Minister Sánchez is still to utter a word about it in public.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]