Spanish government fires intelligence director amid spying scandal

Paz Esteban replaced after her agency hacked phones of several Catalan leaders

Spain's government has fired the director of the country's top intelligence agency after the hacking of politicians' phones, including the devices of the prime minister and several supporters of the Catalonia region's secession.

The National Intelligence Centre (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 defence and security officials had been infiltrated, possibly by a foreign power.

Defence minister Margarita Robles, who was among the hacking targets, announced after a 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,” Ms 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.”

Ms Esteban's replacement will be Esperanza Casteleiro, who has worked for almost 40 years at the intelligence agency, Ms Robles said.

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

In a separate case, the government recently revealed that an "external" power infected the phones of Ms Robles and of prime minister Pedro Sanchez 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 defence minister’s phone.

Mr Sanchez’s minority left-wing coalition has often had to rely on votes in 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 Nunez Feijoo condemned the decision to remove Ms Esteban. He said the government had sacrificed her to the Catalan separatists.

“It is a monstrosity that Sanchez offers the head of the CNI director to the separatists, once again weakening the state to assure his survival,” he wrote on Twitter.

Ms 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. – AP