A Greek scandal reverberates as eavesdropping expands in Europe

Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis proposed reforms after charges of spying raised fears of widespread surveillance. PHOTO: REUTERS

ATHENS (NYTIMES) - In a tense and highly confidential meeting in the Senate chamber of the Greek parliament, the prime minister's smooth, hand-picked spy chief politely evaded the questions of opposition lawmakers.

They were demanding to know if he had surveilled a rival politician and a financial journalist investigating powerful business interests close to the prime minister.

But the inquiries mostly went nowhere. The committee's chair, a political ally of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis', discouraged follow-up questions, kept time to a minimum and ensured that the July 29 meeting, the content of which is still protected, was a dud.

But less than a week later, the charges of government spying detonated into a sprawling scandal that is now shaking the very top of the Greek government.

It has raised fears of widespread surveillance throughout Europe and potentially puts another crack in Europe's united front against Russia for its war in Ukraine.

Greece today is awash in talk of blackmail, Watergate and a secret police state that uses a pervasive, legal surveillance programme with more than 15,000 orders last year alone to start, extend or cut off wiretaps in this country of 10.5 million people.

Predator, a malicious spyware used to penetrate cellphones, has become part of the Greek vocabulary.

Mitsotakis, a conservative who took personal control of the intelligence portfolio in 2019 and whose own father was weakened by accusations of political espionage when he himself served as prime minister about 30 years ago, is in full damage-control mode.

He fired his loyal spy chief, Panagiotis Kontoleon, accepted the resignation of the government's general secretary, Grigoris Dimitriadis - who is also his nephew - and this week gave a nationally televised address full of denials and proposals for reforming the spy agency, including adding a layer of judicial scrutiny before wiretap authorisation.

"I didn't know about it, and obviously I would never have permitted" it, Mitsotakis said of the spying on his political rival, although the intelligence agency comes under his oversight.

The scandal has echoes of the dark old days of Greece's military junta, but it is also very much in keeping with the current European moment.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has been a target of the powerful spyware Pegasus; so, reportedly, have French President Emmanuel Macron, the former prime minister of Belgium and top European Union officials.

There is growing concern that Europe, so proud of its privacy protections and rule of law, is rampant with listening devices and espionage at a moment when its democracies are being threatened by Russian aggression. So much so, the EU is regularly checking devices.

Investigations into spyware should now "involve a check of the phones of all politicians and top level officials," Sophie in 't Veld, chair of the European Parliament's special committee on spyware, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday (Aug 9). "To get a full picture of the spying activity by governments."

Greece has now vaulted to the top of the worry list. Allies of Mitsotakis', a staunch defender of Ukraine, have argued that the scandal is not just a threat to Greek stability but to the common cause against Russia.

"If I were Mr Putin, I would be very happy if the governments that were so opposed to Russia would fall," said Adonis Georgiadis, a government minister and vice president of Mitsotakis' New Democracy party.

Although he stressed he was not blaming Russia for the hacking, he added that Russia had exerted influence in Greece before: "So if they did it in the past, why not do it now?" Turkey, too, he said, "could be" behind it all.

Mitsotakis, in his speech, also talked cryptically of the possibility of "shady forces outside Greece" working "to destabilise the country".

Opponents say the government's insinuations amount to a desperate smoke screen to avoid the obvious issue - that it had gotten caught spying on its own citizens and political rivals.

"It was obvious that the government was lying," said George Katrougalos, former Greek foreign minister of the main opposition Syriza party, who attended the confidential July 29 meeting, the substance of which he said he could not divulge.

Opposition party officials have interpreted the nondenials of the intelligence chief about spying on journalists, and even on a migrant child, as confirmations they had done so.

The extent of the government's surveillance might never have come to light had Nikos Androulakis - leader of Greece's third-largest political party, the centre-left Pasok-Kinal - not upgraded to a new iPhone.

In June, an aide suggested that he give his old phone to the new spyware-detecting lab in Brussels at the European Parliament, where he is also a member. Technicians found he was the target of a cyberattack on Sept 21 by the malware Predator, which can take over an entire cellphone.

"It can watch, it can record," said Dimitrios Mantzos, the Pasok party spokesperson, who said the culprit had "to be domestic" because Greek fingerprints were all over the place. "It's too Greek for us to understand, but it's all Greek."

The party leader was not the only target.

Thanasis Koukakis, an investigative reporter who had broken news in 2019 about Greece's major banks, noticed problems with his new iPhone in June 2020. He asked a source if it was possible he was under surveillance.

The source told him he was. He said he was shown transcripts of his conversations.

He complained to the country's communication and privacy watchdog.

Before he could get an answer, the government amended a law in March 2021, allowing it to withhold information from people being investigated on questions of national security. The privacy watchdog told him that it had no information about his phone.

Later, an investigation by Reporters United, which included state intelligence documents and the prosecutor's orders, showed that the government surveillance was ended the same day he filed his complaint.

It also turned out that Koukakis' phone was infected with Predator, which he discovered only in March, after Citizen Lab, the world's foremost expert on spyware, tested his device. The government denied having anything to do with it.

Only on Wednesday did he finally receive a call from a prosecutor from the country's highest court to set up an appointment about his complaint.

The whole affair has set off a political upheaval in Greece, with parliamentary elections approaching by next summer.

Georgiadis acknowledged that any evidence of Mitsotakis' having known about the surveillance would be "very bad. But he didn't know".

He put the blame on what he called the "political screw-up" of the fired spy chief.

But Androulakis, like many Greeks, is convinced the enemy is within.

"I never expected the Greek government to put me under surveillance," he has said, "using the darkest practices."

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