Catalan pro-independence leader’s phone hacked using Israeli spy software

Roger TorrentThe personal smartphones of leading Catalan pro-independence politicians were hacked using a highly invasive software built by a controversial Israeli firm, according to an investigative report by two newspapers. The revelation is likely to reignite a tense row between Madrid and pro-independence activists in one of the country’s wealthiest regions, which led to a major political crisis in 2017.

An estimated 50 percent of the population of the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia wishes to secede from Spain. However, Madrid refused to recognize the legitimacy of an independence referendum organized by secessionist activists in 2017. The stalemate led to massive protests throughout the country, which were marred by violence and thousands of arrests, as Spain faced its deepest political crisis since the 1970s. In response to the protests, the central government suspended Catalonia’s autonomous status and arrested many of the independent movement’s leaders. Many of them have been given lengthy jail terms, while others remain abroad and are wanted by the Spanish government for promoting insurrection.

On Monday, British newspaper The Guardian and Spanish newspaper El País revealed the results of a joint investigation, according to which the smartphones of senior Catalan pro-independence politicians were targeted by hackers in 2019, and possibly even earlier. Among them was Roger Torrent, who serves as the speaker of the Parliament of Catalonia. The newspapers said he had been alerted to the hacking by cybersecurity employees of WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned company whose application was allegedly used by the hackers to take control of Torrent’s phone.

The software that was allegedly used to hack the Catalan politicians’ phones was Pegasus. It was built by NSO Group, an Israeli software development company that specializes in surveillance technologies. According to WhatsApp, which sued NSO Group in 2019, NSO Group specifically developed the Pegasus hacking platform to enable its users to exploit flaws in WhatsApp’s servers and to gain access to the telephone devices of targeted individuals. Pegasus allegedly allows its users to covertly operate a compromised phone’s camera and microphone. Read more of this post

Poisoned Russian spy advised Spanish intelligence, say officials

Sergei SkripalSergei Skripal, the Russian double agent who was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in England earlier this year, worked with Spanish intelligence after his defection to the United Kingdom, according to sources. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, had kept a low profile while living in the English town of Salisbury. He was resettled there in 2010 by the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), after he was released from a Russian prison. But he and his daughter Yulia made international headlines in March, after they were poisoned by a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, but the Kremlin denies that it had a role in it.

The attempt to kill Skripal surprised some intelligence observers due to the fact that the Russian government had officially pardoned the double agent prior to exchanging him with Russian spies who had been caught in the West. As intelNews wrote in May, “typically a spy who has been pardoned as part of an authorized spy-swap will not need to worry about being targeted by the agency that he betrayed. If it indeed tried to kill Skripal, the Russian government may therefore have broken the unwritten rules of the espionage game”. Eventually, however, it was revealed that, instead of retiring after his defection to the UK, Skripal traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, where he advised local intelligence agencies on how to defend against Russian espionage. The double agent participated in MI6-sponsored events in which he briefed intelligence practitioners in at least two countries, Estonia and the Czech Republic. These activities may have convinced the Kremlin that Skripal had broken the unwritten conditions of his release, namely that he would not participate in any intelligence-related activities against Russia.

Now The New York Times has claimed that, in addition to consulting for Czech and Estonian spies, Skripal also visited Spain, where he met with officers from the country’s National Intelligence Center (CNI). Citing an unnamed Spanish former police chief and Fernando Rueda, a Spanish intelligence expert, The Times said that Skripal advised the CNI about the activities of Russian organized crime in Spain and the alleged connections between Russian mobsters and the Kremlin. When he traveled to Spain under MI6 protection, said the paper, Skripal was effectively returning to the place where he had been initially recruited to spy for the British. Skripal spent several years in Spain, said The Times, serving as a military attaché at the Russian embassy in Madrid. It was there that he began to work secretly for MI6. However, the precise timing of Skripal’s return trips to Spain after 2010, as well as the content of his discussions with Spanish intelligence officials, remain unknown, according to The Times.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 September 2018 | Permalink

News you may have missed #0287

  • India still trying to get access to Headley. Congratulations to The New York Times, for managing to publish a feature-length article about the constant requests by Indian intelligence officials to interrogate David C. Headley, currently held in a US prison, without probing why the US is refusing to facilitate these requests. The American-born Headley was arrested in October for having links to Islamic extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. There are rumors in India and Pakistan that Headley is in fact a renegade CIA informant.
  • Spanish double agent sentenced to 12 years. Roberto Flórez García, a former employee of Spain’s National Intelligence Center (CNI), was arrested in September for giving classified documents to Russian intelligence, via Petr Melnikov, political attaché at the Russian Embassy in Madrid. This was Spain’s first treason conviction since returning to democracy in 1978 after decades of military dictatorship.

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News you may have missed #0124

  • Top Russian spy indicted in sex trafficking case. One of thirteen people indicted on Tuesday in an international sex trafficking case is Dmitry Strykanov, a senior intelligence officer with the Russian Military Intelligence Directorate. Immense corruption still plagues Russian intelligence.
  • Colombian intelligence officer detained in Venezuela. An agent of Colombia’s scandal-prone DAS security agency was detained at a hotel in Maracaibo, Venezuela. The agent, Julio Enrique Tocora Parra, says he was invited to Venezuela by the country’s SAIME immigration agency. A classic case of luring?
  • Spain uncovers double agent’s Russian handler. Spain’s National IntelligenceCenter (CNI) says Petr Melnikov, political attaché at the Russian Embassy in Madrid, facilitated the transfer of Spanish classified documents to Russian intelligence. The documents were allegedly supplied between 2001 and 2004 by Roberto Flórez García former CNI agent, who was arrested by Spanish counterintelligence agents in Tenerife in July of 2007.

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News you may have missed #0017

  • Spain’s chief spy resigns in financial scandal. Alberto Saiz, who headed Spain’s National Intelligence Center, was accused by the daily newspaper El Mundo of using public money for diving and hunting trips in Mexico, Senegal, Mali and Morocco. He denied the accusations, but on July 2, he resigned “to prevent further damage to the reputation of the intelligence agency and the government”. 
  • FBI declassifies reports on agents’ interviews with Saddam. Just-declassified FBI reports reveal that FBI special agents carried out 20 formal interviews and at least 5 “casual conversations” with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein after his capture by US troops in December 2003. Interestingly, the declassified reports include nothing about “Iraq’s complicated relationship with the US”, especially the alleged role of the CIA in facilitating the Ba’ath party’s rise to power in the 1960s. 
  • Release of CIA report on detention, interrogation, delayed (again). Like many others, we at intelNews were eagerly expecting this previously classified CIA report on detention and interrogation under the Bush administration to be released last Wednesday. It was initially going to be released in mid-June, but was then delayed until July 1. Now the CIA says it won’t be able to release the report until the end of August. The ACLU says it will wait for as long as it has to.

News you may have missed #0009

  • Head of Spain’s secret service accused of misuse of public funds. The Spanish Ministry of Defense says it has requested “complete” information on allegations concerning secret service chief Alberto Saiz, who has been accused by the daily newspaper El Mundo of using public money for diving and hunting trips in Mexico, Senegal, Mali and Morocco. Saiz, who heads Spain’s National Intelligence Center, denies the accusations. 
  • No Obama apology for CIA in Latin America. US President Barack Obama declined to apologize on Tuesday for past CIA interventions and coup attempts in Latin America, after talks with Chilean leader Michele Bachelet. Obama was asked by a Chilean journalist whether he would apologize for past CIA operations in the region, like the US-backed coup attempt in Chile in 1973. “I’m interested in going forward, not looking backward”, replied the US President. 
  • Consumers boycott Nokia, Siemens for selling to Iran. As intelNews has been reporting since April, The Wall Street Journal has disclosed that the Iranian government has acquired some of the world’s most sophisticated communications surveillance mechanisms with the help of some of Europe’s leading telecommunications hardware and software manufacturers. The latter appear to have been all too happy to supply Tehran with advanced means to spy on its own people. Now Western consumers are calling for a boycott of Nokia and Siemens, whose Nokia Siemens Networks collaboration is a key supplier of Iran’s extensive surveillance system. 
  • Ex-CIA columnist claims CIA “harrassment”. Former CIA operations manager, Stephen Lee, who now blogs for The Washington Examiner, says he is “being subjected to a campaign of low-level harrassment” by the Agency.

News you may have missed #0007

  • German counterintelligence chief accuses Russia of commercial spying. Burkhard Even, Germany’s director of counterintelligence at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, has told German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag that Russian spies have intensified espionage operations on the German energy sector to help Russian firms gain commercial advantages. On May 26, intelNews reported on similar accusations by the German Association for Security in Industry and Commerce (ASW). Its director told Mitteldeutsche Zeitung that the targeting of German research and commercial enterprises by mainly Chinese and Russian agents is so extensive that it usually costs the German economy over €20 billion per year, and it may be costing as high as €50 billion per year since 2007.
  • Spanish intelligence agents kicked out of Cuba. Spanish newspaper ABC reports that the recently expelled officers of Spain’s National Intelligence Centre (CNI) were secretly recorded at Havana cocktail parties “making derogatory comments about the Castro brothers and other [Cuban] government officials”. 
  • Proposed US bill would boost congressional oversight of covert spy programs. Key lawmakers in Washington have endorsed a proposed bill that would force the president to make fuller disclosure of covert spy programs. The legislation, which has already been approved by the House Intelligence Committee, would force the president to disclose classified operations to all members of Congress’ intelligence oversight panels. 
  • Report claims CIA, Mossad scoring points against Hezbollah. A new report claims American and Israeli intelligence organizations have scored notable recent successes against Hezbollah, in places such as Azerbaijan, Egypt and Colombia.
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