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Spain fires intelligence chief amid phone hacking scandals

FILE - Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez speaks on his cell phone during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, Monday, July 20, 2020. ...
FILE - Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez speaks on his cell phone during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, on July 20, 2020. Spain...

FILE - Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez speaks on his cell phone during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, Monday, July 20, 2020. ...

FILE - Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez speaks on his cell phone during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, on July 20, 2020. Spain...

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spain's government fired the director of the country's top intelligence agency Tuesday following the hacking of politicians’ cellphones, including the devices of the prime minister and several supporters of the Catalonia region’s secession.

The National Intelligence Center, or CNI, has been under fire for its role in spying on Catalan separatists and for taking a full year to discover that the handsets of the prime minister and leading defense and security officials were infiltrated, possibly by a foreign power.

Defense Minister Margarita Robles, who was among the hacking targets, announced after Cabinet meeting that Paz Esteban would be relieved as CNI director.

“That (the hacks of government phones) took a year to discover, well, it is clear there are things that we need to improve,” Robles said. “We are going to try to ensure that these attacks don’t happen again, even though there is no way to be completely safe.”

Esteban's replacement will be Esperanza Casteleiro, “a woman who has worked for almost 40 years” at the intelligence agency, Robles said. Casteleiro most recently served as secretary of defense, Robles No. 2, since 2020.

Esteban acknowledged during a closed-door parliamentary committee hearing last week that with judicial permission, her agency had hacked the phones of several Catalan separatists.

In a separate case, the government recently revealed that an “external" power infected the cellphones of Robles and of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez with the Pegasus spyware last year.

The phone of Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, the head of Spain’s police and border control agencies, also was infected with the spyware at the same time as the defense minister's phone.

Spain’s government has refused to speculate publicly on who could have pried into the phones. The attacks on the phones of Sánchez and two of his ministers took place in May and June 2021, coinciding with a diplomatic rift between Morocco and Spain.

Sánchez’s minority left-wing coalition has often had to rely on votes Parliament from Catalan separatist parties, which have threatened to withdraw their support if the government does not accept responsibility for the hacking.

The leader of Spain’s opposition conservatives, Popular Party president Alberto Nuñez Feijóo slammed the decision to remove Esteban. He said the government had sacrificed her to the Catalan separatists.

“It is a monstrosity that Sánchez offers the head of the CNI director to the separatists, once again weakening the state to assure his survival,” Popular Party President Alberto Nuñez Feijóo wrote on Twitter.

Esteban, 64, became the first woman to head the CNI in July 2019, initially on an interim basis. Her appointment was made permanent in February 2020.

The previous CNI director had received criticism for failing in 2017 to stop preparations by Catalan separatists to hold an independence referendum that had been deemed illegal by Spain’s top courts.

The alleged phone hacks of more than 60 Catalan politicians, lawyers and activists was denounced last month in a report by the Canada-based digital rights group Citizen Lab.

The list of phones that were allegedly infected by Pegasus spyware, which the Israeli company NSO says it only sells to government agencies, includes the current regional head of Catalonia. The Citizen Lab report said the hacks started in late 2019, with Esteban in charge of the CNI.

Robles has defended the targeting of Catalan politicians for their involvement in a separatist plot that tried and failed to separate Catalonia from the rest of Spain five years ago.

Gabriel Rufián, the parliamentary spokesman for the Catalan party ERC, said that dismissal of Esteban was not about appeasing the separatists. He noted that the CNI has also been accused of neglecting the tech security of top government officials.

“It seems logical, with all my respects to Esteban, that in a country that admits that the phones of the prime minister and defense minister have been illegally spied upon, for the head of the CNI to assume the responsibility,” Rufián said.