There was significant expectation surrounding the speech of the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, in the Congress of Deputies this Thursday morning. The purpose of the request for his appearance was to explain what the Spanish government knew and what measures it planned to take in response to the espionage against more than sixty people linked to the Catalan independence movement, as revealed by the Canadian research centre Citizen Lab more than a month ago. But hopes that this time the executive would shed some light on the affair were quickly dashed. Pedro Sánchez's explanations proved to be of little use. In fact, despite speaking for more than an hour, the president spent only a few minutes on the specific case of espionage against the Catalan independence movement. And when he did, it was to justify it and to shrug off any responsibility.
In fact, Sánchez spent more time attacking Spain's People's Party than clarifying the Catalangate affair. His address started precisely by focusing on the opposition party. The prime minister accused the PP of using state institutions to carry out not just financial corruption, but also democratic corruption. Thus, he said that the party now led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo continues to "look the other way" and has used Spanish security forces to monitor its opponents. In contrast to this model, he positioned the coalition government of the PSOE and Unidas Podemos as one of democratic regeneration, in addition taking action to improve transparency and collaboration with justice and the other powers of the state.
It was not until 20 minutes of this rhetoric had gone by that Sanchez began to turn to the matter in question, and he did so in a way that immediately brushed off any responsibility for the political espionage. "Information that affects national security is always subject to the oversight of the courts, Parliament, commissions of inquiry and other figures such as the Ombudsman. But it is not subject to the discretionary decision of the prime minister," he explained. Thus, he sought to avoid any accountability on his own part by noting that it is not the Spanish executive who plans the actions of the National Intelligence Centre (CNI). "The PM and members of the government receive reports on national security. That is logical and obvious. The government sets priorities in terms of risks to its national security, but neither knows nor decides on the operational decisions of the intelligence services, which are always subject to a final decision, which is that of judicial authority". In this regard, he placed the responsibility for any espionage that might have affected pro-independence leaders on the shoulders of bodies far from his office.
Following in Robles's footsteps
Nor did Pedro Sánchez stop there, but rather, he sought to follow in the footsteps of his defence minister, Margarita Robles, and throw down an unapologetic justification for Catalangate. Robles had already gone down the same road a few weeks ago, when she asked rhetorically: "What must the state do when someone declares independence?" - a phrase that raised the ire of the pro-independence parties in daring to normalise espionage against a democratic and legitimate movement. But despite this, the Spanish PM did not lose his nerve and used the same line. "It is clear that between 2015 and 2020, with the unilateral declaration of independence in Parliament in 2017 and the sabotage caused in several parts of Catalonia and the fires in Barcelona in 2019 after the sentencing of the leaders of the independence process, this crisis was of enormous concern for national security," he summed up.
"That is why, within the framework of the intelligence directive, the services dealing with this proposed, and the judge agreed, the appropriate measures. But the government neither knows nor decides on the operational actions of the intelligence services," he said. And he did not stop there, but rather returned to the comparisons with the PP - throwing a barb at his predecessors in government, and puffing up the role of his own executive as an improved alternative. "This may have happened at another time with another government, but it has never happened since I became PM and I guarantee it will never happen."
"Not 65 spies, but 18"
And not only that, but he also sought to discredit the report that revealed the whole Catalangate case, investigated by the Citizen Lab facility, as well as playing down the importance of the espionage carried out by the CNI. On the one hand, he asserted that there were "reasonable doubts" about the document work of the Canadian cybersecurity centre raises due to the methodology used, despite the authoritative experience of the research center, the many cases it has already uncovered, and the confirmation of its forensic conclusions by Amnesty International. And on the other hand, he also endeavoured to reiterate that, as has already been claimed, the state is only responsible for a part of the cases uncovered. "The CNI asked the competent Supreme Court judge for permission to intervene in the communications of 18 of the people mentioned. Not 65, but 18," said Sánchez.
However, despite not giving more explanations than this on an issue as important to the pro-independence parties as the Catalangate espionage, he wanted to show himself as an ally to the movement by vindicating the path of negotiation. "I offer my strong commitment to dialogue as the only solution, and I regret that the events that have taken place have undermined the political confidence and the momentum of the dialogue that is giving such good results," he said, despite that fact that the table between the Catalan and Spanish governments has not met since September 2021 and that, before the espionage crisis broke, the PSOE were giving messages that a dialogue table meeting was the lowest of priorities. Today, however, the prime minister remembered it differently: "The dialogue table has always been the answer, to give to politics. It is my personal and emphatic commitment to build concord and coexistence," he explained.
Just two measures
Beyond the espionage against the independence movement, Sánchez stressed that his executive, and he himself, have also been victims of illegal eavesdropping by foreign authorities, in reference to the revelations which the Spanish government brought to light just after the Catalangate report was published, thus playing down the importance of CatalanGate and moving the emphasis to the importance of enhancing cybersecurity. Hence, the two relatively-minor initiatives that he announced today to update the intelligence services in the face of these threats: a reform of the CNI's internal control processes and a new official secrets act to update the current one, which dates from 1968. With this, Sanchez stressed the need to "bring forward the regulation" accompanied by "larger budget commitments".