I’m a Member of the Spanish Congress, and the State Spied on My Messages
Albert Botran is a Catalan MP whose communications were spied on by the Spanish state using spyware from Israeli firm NSO Group. He writes for Jacobin on how the scandal shows the enduring grip of antidemocratic forces over the country’s institutions.
In June 1995, investigators uncovered massive wiretapping of Spain’s politicians by the CESID intelligence agency — leading to the resignation of then deputy prime minister Narcís Serra, then defense minister García Vargas, and Emilio Alonso Manglano, who had headed the secret service for fourteen years. The affair was a factor in the downfall of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), which ended up losing the elections the following year. That scandal had consequences because the people spied on were members of the Spanish political and business elite, including the king.
Yet other political espionage plots have had far fewer consequences — especially if the victims belonged to the Basque or Catalan pro-independence movements. Spain presents itself as an exemplary democracy, yet continuities with Francoism persist, especially in the police forces, the army, and the judiciary. The ’78 regime — so named after the institutional settlement following Franco’s death — was founded in a way that avoided any rupture, and this has transmitted an authoritarian political culture and strong nationalism in many areas of state power.
One of the pillars of this continuity was the monarchy, reestablished by Franco: Juan Carlos I once recounted that the dictator had ordered him, soon before death, that his priority must be the unity of Spain. So, anything goes to preserve that unity. The president of the General Council of the Judiciary himself made this clear back in 2017, on the eve of the Catalan independence referendum: the unity of the Spanish nation “is a direct mandate for judges.”
Now, it has been revealed that the Spanish state has systematically been spying on the communications of Catalan politicians, including current MPs. Public resources have been misappropriated (the hiring of Pegasus has cost millions) for illegal espionage, since it has no judicial authorization. Around sixty-five people, probably more, have been spied on by means of a program from Israeli company NSO Group, which is only sold to states. So, there is no doubt who is behind it.
The truth has come from the outside: it was a Canadian institute, Citizen Lab, and an American media outlet, the New Yorker, that uncovered the scandal. In contrast, to date, we have not yet received any kind of support or solidarity from Spain’s institutions, not even those of which some of us who have been spied on are elected members. My work as a member of the Spanish Congress has been exposed: conversations, files, and everything that is involved in my day-to-day life and, consequently, also that of other members. That does not seem to worry the Spanish government or the presidency of the Congress, since for them the unity of Spain more important than democracy.
Nor can we expect anything from the Spanish judiciary: its lack of independence was already proven in the Supreme Court trial against the Catalan leaders in 2017–19. Last year, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe gave this judicial process a harsh corrective, approving a report in which, among other issues, it pointed out that “some passages of the Supreme Court’s sentence seem illustrative of the difficulty of justifying the presence of violence as required by the crime of sedition.” It further criticized such criminal charges as “obsolete and excessively broad to address what is in truth a political problem that must be resolved by political means.” The Spanish government of the PSOE and Unidas Podemos took the lead in pushing back against this through pardons. However, the crime of sedition will remain as it was, without being repealed — a tool in the hands of conservative judges who will be able to use it again for political ends.
Among those spied on are also lawyers, journalists, activists, and scientists. The Barcelona Bar Association has already spoken out: what has been revealed by Citizen Lab and the New Yorker “may represent a serious invasion of fundamental rights and an intolerable infringement of the right to defense and the duty of professional secrecy,” and for this reason it has demanded “immediate public explanations” from the Spanish government. The case has had a great impact on the Catalan media as well as a considerable impact on the international media. The Spanish media have been the last to arrive, but are now also reporting on the scandal.
Political espionage is not exclusive to Spain. Watergate in the United States is emblematic of a phenomenon that has affected established parliamentary democracies such as Germany, France, and the UK. But in our case, “Catalangate” adds to the Spanish state’s repressive tradition of thwarting our democratic demand: to be able to vote on our political future and build an independent Republic.
There have been previous cases of espionage such as the one known as “Operation Catalonia,” which sought to obtain data to defame pro-independence leaders. There has been, as mentioned above, an unfair trial. More than three thousand people are currently facing legal proceedings stemming from the independence struggle. And on the day of the referendum, police violence was used against defenseless voters. It is to be expected that a government of the conservative Partido Popular and far-right VOX will tighten repression even more, since the far right frequently mentions its intention to outlaw pro-independence political parties — and there is already a Basque precedent.
Spanish elites resist the majority demands of the Catalan people. The ’78 regime continues to function as an oligarchic system for which our republican project is a clear threat. And that is why they use all kinds of repressive resources, demonstrating the continuity of a deep state that has not changed since Franco.
On the eve of the October 2017 referendum, Julian Assange declared that the Catalan process would set a precedent “for the kind of democracy we will see in Europe and in the Western world.” The Catalan struggle for independence remains open and continues to be part of this larger battle for the future of democracy.