Like most other people, he has a cell phone, says Catalonia’s regional president Pere Aragonès: “I used to use several devices at the same time, one for business and one for private use, but at some point it just wasn’t practical anymore.” He now only uses one device that runs everything: his banking app, family photos and professional communication. And apparently someone was targeting this mobile phone. The research institute Citizen Lab was able to identify three attacks with the spy software Pegasus on the phone of the Catalan head of government. At least one of them is said to have been successful.
“Apparently I clicked on a link in an email that looked like a newspaper newsletter. I was interested in the headline – and it was already on my cell phone,” reports Aragonès in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Who they are? You don’t know that exactly. Theoretically, every state could be considered. The Pegasus manufacturer NSO Group states that it only sold the software to governments and state bodies such as the military and secret services.
From the point of view of the left-wing Republican and representative of the Catalan independence movement Aragonès, the report published this week by Toronto’s Citizen Lab, according to which he is the highest-ranking of at least 65 victims of espionage, suggests only one conclusion: “No state other than Spain would be interested in to spy on the Catalan independence movement.”
The allegations are explosive. If what the head of Catalonia’s regional government claims is true, Spain would have used the controversial Pegasus software against domestic elected officials on a scale unprecedented in European democracies. The period of time of the attacks would also be at least curious: These occurred between 2017 and 2020, i.e. sometimes months and years after the hot phase of the Catalan independence conflict in autumn 2017.
Is the Spanish secret service CNI behind the espionage?
Aragonès holds members of the Spanish secret service CNI responsible. For him, the only question is whether the CNI acted with the knowledge and consent of the government and on the basis of a legal basis, or ignored the government and the judiciary. Either way, the case must have political consequences.
Aragonès, 39 years old and head of government in the autonomous region of Catalonia in northeastern Spain since September 2020, is considered a moderate separatist. He stands for a dialogue with Madrid and a new tone. He has emerged from the shadow of his much more aggressive predecessors Quim Torra and Carles Puigdemont. Now he is on the list of “targets” along with them in the Citizen Lab report.
Aragonès also feels violated in his privacy. “My private life was at the mercy of strangers’ eyes,” he says. Pegasus not only grants access to stored data, it also enables attackers to activate the microphone and camera and thus turn the mobile phone into a bug. Ever since Aragonès became aware of the spying raids, he, as the elected representative of the Spanish state, has felt abandoned by the government. Madrid remains inactive in the face of a scandal that also occupied the European Parliament’s Pegasus inquiry committee this week.
“We demand clarification,” said Aragonès in Madrid, where he also met members of parliament. A conversation with Defense Minister Margarita Robles, who heads the CNI secret service, has not yet taken place. Aragonès now expects an exchange with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez – otherwise he cannot guarantee the stability of the government in Madrid. Spain’s left-wing minority government is dependent on the support of the Catalan left-wing republicans. So far, however, Sánchez has remained silent, thereby not only jeopardizing the credibility of his assurance that he is interested in reconciliation with Catalan separatism. He is also endangering his government.
Aragonès wants both: sanctions and dialogue
But Aragonès also has a lot to lose if the Spanish government ignores his call for clarification: unlike his predecessors, the Catalan president is committed to dialogue. “We know that we can only achieve an independent Catalonia on the basis of an internationally recognized referendum and we also know that we have to reach an agreement with Madrid for this,” said Aragonès. He has no illusions about the chances of success: “I realize how far we are from that.” Still, according to polls, a majority of people in Catalonia seem to support his strategy. If Aragonès were to completely break off the dialogue with Sánchez because of the espionage cases, this would also weaken his own position.
His demands towards Madrid are clear: “This time it’s not enough to meet and take a photo together.” Aragonès demands explanations, but above all those responsible, “heads” have to roll. He himself had already drawn consequences when he received the first, then unconfirmed, indications of a possible eavesdropping attack in the summer of 2020: Since then, the mobile phones of high-ranking Catalan politicians have been encrypted with crypto software. He had always observed another safety precaution before his term in office: “During important meetings, there is a table in front of the door – all mobile phones stay on it.”