Greece, EU accused of probing spy scandal only in 'superficial' way

Opposition politican Nikos Androulakis (left) and journalist Thanasis Koukakis were spied on by Greece's national intelligence service. PHOTOS: AFP

ATHENS/BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) - The Greek government and the European Union should move faster on probes over surveillance of an opposition politician and a journalist, a senior European lawmaker said, as the scandal threatens further domestic turmoil.

The authorities' investigation into the national intelligence service has been "extremely superficial", said Sophie in 't Veld, the rapporteur at the European Parliament committee for inquiry into the use of Pegasus and other surveillance spyware.

The scandal centres on decisions by the national intelligence service to spy on Nikos Androulakis, the leader of Greece's opposition socialist Pasok party and a member of the European Parliament, and journalist Thanasis Koukakis.

The head of Greek intelligence, Panagiotis Kontoleon, and the prime minister's chief of staff - and nephew - Grigoris Dimitriadis, resigned earlier this month amid the fallout.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who upon taking office assumed direct oversight of the spy agency, denied any knowledge or involvement.

With many questions remaining unanswered, this could prove to be a significant political crisis for Greece, which heads to national elections expected next spring.

Political party leaders are set to discuss the issue in parliament on Friday (Aug 26) and a parliamentary committee will convene next week to further investigate the issue.

"The Greek authorities, on the one hand, they claim they are innocent so they've got nothing to hide, and on the other hand they are very reluctant to shed light on the whole matter, and so far all their moves over the last year or so have been to cover things up," in 't Veld said.

The government and the intelligence services have said that the surveillance was legal for national security purposes and approved by a prosecutor, but haven't disclosed what method was used to tap the two men's phones and why the phones were hacked.

The government has also denied that security services bought or used a spyware called Predator, which was detected on Androulakis's phone during a check by European Parliament security experts.

'Dark practices'

"The Predator spyware was used to tap my phone, while only a few days earlier I had been placed under surveillance" by the Greek intelligence agency, Androulakis said in early August. "Had it not been for the European Parliament's official report, we would not have been aware of these dark practices."

The malware, made by Cytrox Ltd., a surveillance startup with reported ties to North Macedonia, was deployed against Androulakis and Koukakis, according to forensic analysis by the digital rights group Citizen Lab and the European Parliament. The spyware has been marketed by a Greece-based company called Intellexa, which didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

"It's been months since it was revealed that the phones of a journalist, and more recently of a lawmaker of the political opposition, were hacked, and yet a lot of questions remain unanswered," said Ilia Siatitsa, the senior legal officer at the London-based non-profit Privacy International.

"The Greek government has not been able so far to explain the coincidence that the phones of the journalist and the parliamentarian of the political opposition were targeted by Predator around the same period that there was a warrant allowing the Greek National Service to tap their phones."

A report from Google's Threat Analysis Group published in May suggested that the software is routinely used by "government-backed actors" in nations including Greece, Egypt, Indonesia and Spain. It was also used to breach phones belonging to US officials stationed around the world.

Androulakis filed a complaint last month with the prosecutor saying that someone had tried to tap his mobile phone and intercept personal data. Koukakis has alleged that his smartphone was infected with surveillance software, prompting a separate investigation by a prosecutor.

Greek denial

Separately, the European Commission said it is studying Greece's response to questions about the surveillance and whether any of it could have violated the the European Union's data protection laws.

"I can assure you that the National Intelligence Agency (EYP) has not bought or ever used this software or any other illegal surveillance system," Ioannis Vrailas, Greece's representative to the EU, wrote in a letter dated Aug 2.

In 't Veld said the commission's response so far has been inadequate. "One thing is certain: They cannot be accused of having an excessive sense of urgency," she said. "And they seem to think it is a diplomatic thingy, to be settled discreetly with the governments. Wrong. It is a deeply political issue, affecting the fundamentals of EU democracy."

She also lamented that neither European Parliament's biggest party, the EPP, nor Jeroen Lenaers, an EPP member who chairs the spyware inquiry, have supported her Renew party's call for testimony from both Androulakis and Koukakis this month, as well as a fact-finding mission to Greece.

The inquiry committee, set up in March, is mired in talks of procedures, rules and planning, she said.

"It is bigger than Watergate, but nobody seems to be moving," in 't Veld said. "I believe the leadership of this inquiry committee should be alert and committed. We need to get to the heart of the matter, we need to be on top of things."

EPP spokespeople didn't reply to requests seeking comment. A spokesperson for European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said she is taking the allegations of illegal surveillance seriously and will ensure they're investigated.

Spy history

Surveillance operations have become increasingly routine in Greece, with more than 15,000 phones being monitored at any given time - up more than 30 per cent since 2019.

After the country's spy chief resigned earlier this month, the Greek government said it will reform how its intelligence service is supervised.

The Greek parliament's committee on institutions and transparency on Wednesday approved the appointment of the new head of the spy service, Themistoklis Demiris. Mitsotakis is under pressure for his administration's handling of the case and the opposition has called on Mitsotakis to resign over the case.

Pasok asked for the creation of a special inquiry commission to investigate the surveillance of its leader. The main opposition Syriza party of former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has indicated it's willing to support the request.

The Greek premier's New Democracy party also agrees on the need for a commission, but will try to extend the investigation to include the spy service's conduct over the past decade.

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