March 4. 2024. 11:50

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EU Parliament spyware probe struggles to find answers in Spain

The European Parliament’s spyware scandal probe in Spain concluded on Tuesday but unfortunately left more questions than answers and was blighted by a lack of transparency from Spanish authorities.

CitizenLab, a tech company that helps detect illegal spyware, published a report in April 2022 revealing that 65 people connected to the Catalan independence movement, including politicians, journalists and civil society leaders, had been spied on between 2017 and 2020 with Pegasus spyware.

Shortly after, the Spanish government announced Prime Minister Sanchez’s and Minister of Defence Margarita Robles’phones had been targeted with Pegasus too.

The Spanish government, led by PSOE (S&D), dismissed Estevan as CNI chief and denied authorising the wiretapping of Catalan leaders or knowing about it, arguing CNI is an autonomous body.

Then on 20 March, the Parliament’s committee investigating Pegasus and other spyware started its fact-finding mission to Spain, where the MEPs met with spyware victims, Catalan politicians, and civil society actors to include their feedback in the committee’s report.

The only government official, the committee, met with is Pascual Navarro, state secretary for the European Union, who briefed the MEPs on Spain’s proposals to reform the 50-year-old law on official secrets and the legal framework governing the CNI.

From little to no official information

The committee, however, has not been able to shed light on key questions related to the case due to the lack of information and transparency from the Spanish government and judicial authorities.

“It turns out it’s incredibly difficult to establish the facts because we get little to no official information”, said Renew Europe MEP and rapporteur Sophia In’t Veld during a press conference on Tuesday.

EPP’s MEP and committee chair Jeroen Lenaers stressed that “it remains a question why the changes to the law and the replacement of the CNI president took place if the actions of state security bodies were legitimate”.

“It would have been useful to hear more about this and to clarify these questions with the responsible minister”, Leaners acknowledged.

Another key question left unaddressed is why only 18 of the 65 reported cases by the CitizenLab report have been confirmed by the CNI to have judicial authorisation.

“It remains an open question how 47 people have received credible alerts of infection without any further evidence of judicial proceedings against them”, Lenaers said.

Greens/EFA’s MEP Diana Riba, one of the 47 victims unaccounted by the CNI, told EURACTIV she hoped to find clarity on the legality of the cases.

“Why is this [espionage] happening? What are we being accused of? For how long have we been investigated?” she asks.

Riba further argued that the 18 cases accounted for by the CNI are still to be deemed legal, as there has been no hard evidence to justify the judicial authorisations.

‘Let Europol step in’

During the press conference, In’t Veld also raised concerns about the judicial authorisations because the espionage cases acknowledged by the CNI seem not to fit what is legal under Spanish law, “the rules are no longer valid”.

In’t Veld further stressed the obstacles that Spain’s opaqueness brings to victims seeking judicial remedies, who cannot start proceedings because they lack official evidence, which can only be provided by the state itself – as judicial authorities do not accept the CitizenLab report.

“So, in order to get justice, you have to rely on the very authorities that are probably behind the spying. That is a big problem”, In’t Veld emphasised.

To solve this transparency issue, Lenaers and In’t Veld recommend that Spain let EUROPOL ensure “proper forensics” are followed on the victims’ devices to clarify the wiretapping cases.

A Europe spokespersons told EURACTIV in December 2022 that the agency can step into an investigation upon request by member states.

“Any operational action by Europol must be carried out in liaison and in agreement with the authorities of the Member State or States whose territory is concerned. The application of coercive measures shall be the exclusive responsibility of the competent national authorities,” article 88 of the EU Treaty reads.

EU Council: None of your business

The lack of transparency and information is an EU-wide issue, the Dutch MEP said.

“All the member states’ governments are silent, collectively silent”, In’t Veld said during the press conference.

After sending all member states a questionnaire on spyware usage, the committee received a joint letter sent by the EU Council president “essentially saying – Dear Parliament, this is none of your business -” Sophie In’t veld stressed.

Both Lenaers and In’t Veld, however, acknowledged the willingness of Spain to cooperate and attributed the lack of government representatives during the visit to bad timing – the visit took place during a regional holiday on Monday, and a motion of confidence on Tuesday.

A couple of weeks ago, the EU parliament mission faced similar difficulties in Greece, as none of the Greek conservative government officials accepted to meet EU lawmakers.

In the Greek case, the excuse was the deadly train crash while the EPP officially sabotaged it, a move described as an attempt to offer a protection shield to their member, the ruling New Democracy party.

EU Parliament mission: Rule of law in Greece faces ‘very serious threats’

The rule of law situation in Greece is on the edge, given the poor media reporting, threats against journalists, and severe shortcomings in the justice sector, a mission of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties (LIBE) has concluded during a visit to Athens.

Spanish MEPs cross-fire accusations

The controversial visit had a heated start in Brussels with a spat among Spanish MEPs, with Catalan independence MEPs accusing PSOE (S&D), Partido Popular (EPP), Ciudadanos (Renew), and Vox (ECR) of undermining the committee’s visit.

“Part of the large groups in this house have done everything possible so that the Spanish case is not looked at and so that the mission is not made”, Greens/EFA’s MEP Diana Riba told EURACTIV.

“Once they saw they could not stop it, they tried to water down the agenda”, Riba added.

A parliamentary aide on condition of anonymity told EURACTIV that the committee’s Spain investigation is “unique” because it faces cross-party resistance compared to other member states.

Asked by EURACTIV, Renew’s (Ciudadanos) MEP Jordi Cañas denied ever blocking the visit, and accuses Catalan MEPs of using the mission as “propaganda”.

Similarly, S&D’s (PSOE) MEP Ibán García Blanco told EURACTIV he and his fellow S&D MEPs have never voted objected the mission, and qualified the Catalan MEPs’ accusations of “more propaganda and publicity than reality”.

It is not possible to know the exact votes the mission received, as the voting took place behind closed doors, as it is an “administrative matter”, a parliament official told EURACTIV.

EPP did not answer EURACTIV’s request for comments.