MADRID — The chief of Spain’s intelligence agency was ousted by the government on Tuesday following the disclosure that her agency had used powerful spyware to infiltrate the cellphones of Catalan separatist politicians.
The government’s dismissal of Paz Esteban — who was the first woman to run the intelligence agency, known in Spain as C.N.I., for the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia — is the most serious consequence so far of a phone-hacking scandal involving the Pegasus spyware developed by an Israeli company, an issue that has been roiling Spanish politics.
Ms. Esteban was removed only days after she appeared before a parliamentary committee to discuss how her agency had used Pegasus. While the committee met behind closed doors, Spanish media later reported that Ms. Esteban had confirmed to lawmakers during the meeting that the C.N.I. had hacked the cellphones of Catalan separatist politicians. She claimed that this had been done with permission from the Spanish judiciary.
The committee hearing occurred shortly after the Spanish government said last week that it had itself been a victim of the Pegasus spyware, which had infected the cellphones of some of the country’s most senior officials, including Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Defense Minister Margarita Robles, a year ago. The government said it had suffered an “illegal and external” intrusion, without specifying whom it suspected of masterminding the Pegasus hacking and the downloading of phone data from its top officials.
The Pegasus software was developed by the NSO Group, an Israeli company, in part to help governments track criminal and terrorist activity. The software allows users to monitor every aspect of a target’s phone, including calls, messages, photos and video. But its usage has led to scandals in several countries, and last November the Biden administration blacklisted the NSO Group.
Spain’s Pegasus scandal has shaken the minority government of Mr. Sánchez, whose Socialist Party has been reliant on the support of smaller left-wing and separatist parties to stay in office for the past five years. Those include Catalan politicians who have continued to push for their region’s independence after making an unsuccessful bid to secede from Spain in 2017.
Politicians who have helped keep Mr. Sánchez in power welcomed the removal of Ms. Esteban on Tuesday. Ionne Belarra, Spain’s minister for social affairs and the leader of the far-left Unidas Podemos party, wrote on Twitter that “assuming responsibilities is a basic question of democratic health.”
Gabriel Rufián, the parliamentary spokesman of Esquerra Republicana, a Catalan separatist party, said at a news conference, “It seems logical to me that the person who has the highest responsibility for intelligence assumes responsibilities.” But he also called on the government to declassify documents that could help explain just how Pegasus infiltrated Spanish politics.
Opposition politicians said that Ms. Esteban had been turned into a scapegoat to hide the shortcomings of Mr. Sánchez’s government and serious breaches in Spain’s security apparatus. Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the recently elected leader of the main right-wing Popular Party, called Ms. Esteban’s removal “unjustifiable” and “an authentic affront to our country.” Mr. Feijóo also accused Mr. Sánchez of sacrificing Spain’s intelligence chief to maintain the support of separatist lawmakers. Santiago Abascal, the leader of the far-right Vox party, said Mr. Sánchez had “decided to criminalize those who protect us,” a reference to Spain’s intelligence agency.
Ms. Esteban had served as Spain’s intelligence chief since early 2020. The Socialist-led government appointed Esperanza Casteleiro, 65, a long-serving official within the defense ministry and secret service, as the new chief of the C.N.I., replacing Ms. Esteban. In a news conference on Tuesday, Ms. Robles, the defense minister, refused to elaborate on the reasons for Ms. Esteban’s ouster, insisting instead that the move would open “a new chapter” for the C.N.I.