ATHENS – As Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is trying to deal with growing criticism over revelations that a rival politician and journalist had their phones bugged, so were those of more than 15,700 others.
The now shaken-up National Intelligence Service (EYP) – whose former chief Panagiotis Kontoleon quit over the scandal – hasn’t identified who is being tracked nor why, but the scandal has shown how widespread that spying has become.
The New York Times said the phone tapping of PASOK Socialist leader Nikos Androulakis and financial journalist Thanasis Koukakis – who the paper said was looking into powerful business interests close to Mitsotakis – has put the onus about spyware squarely on Greece.
“The charges of government spying detonated into a sprawling scandal that is now shaking the very top of the Greek government, raising fears of widespread surveillance throughout Europe, and potentially putting another crack in Europe’s united front against Russian for its war in Ukraine,” the paper said.
It began to unravel, Reuters said earlier – and the Times further elaborated – when Kontoleon told a parliamentary committee overseen by a New Democracy lawmaker who reportedly tried to keep it quiet, that EYP had tracked Koukakis through his phone using Predator spyware.
Then Androulakis, also a Member of the European Parliament, bought a new phone and took his old device to a cybersecurity research lab there which found an attempt had been made to install Predator.
That was in September, 2021, three months before he won the leadership of PASOK that merged with the center-left Movement for Change KINAL party whose fortunes he has resurrected.
Then came reports that his phone was bugged too and he said it was by EYP, which was listening to all his conversations, including with former premiers and other party leaders.
Mitsotakis said he was never informed or wouldn’t have allowed it but agreed to an investigation and the Greek Parliament will be called back early from recess on Aug. 22 to look into it in what’s likely to be a ferocious debate.
THE DOGGED DAYS
Mitsotakis also pushed out his General-Secretary – his nephew Dimitris Grigoriadis – who worked with EYP and whom the premier said kept him out of the loop about the eavesdropping on Androulakis.
The scandal broke at a propitious time for the government though – as most Greeks in August are away at their villages or islands and interest in news falls off with people at the beach and tourists pouring into the country.
But still, the paper said: “Greece today is awash in talk of blackmail, Watergate and a secret police state that uses a pervasive, legal surveillance program … to start, extend or cut off wiretaps in this country of 10.5 million people,” and made Predator part of the vocabulary.
There’s a new EYP chief but the furor hasn’t died down, Androulakis refusing government offers of a briefing as to why he was tapped – Kontoleon had said both that it was “in the national interest” and at the request of Ukrainian and Armenian intelligence, those countries denying it.
Androulakis said he doesn’t trust the government even after other reforms to EYP that kept it directly under Mitsotakis, as he insured when he took power in July, 2019 snap elections in ousting the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA.
SYRIZA likened it to Watergate and The Times said renewed memories of the 1967-74 right-wing military dictatorship that – in the days before the Internet, cell phones and high-tech, tried to keep tabs on everyone.
The European Parliament also could look into the cases in Greece as it has a committee already probing the use of more sophisticated Pegasus spyware in the 27-member bloc.
The head of that panel, Sophia in ‘t Veld from The Netherlands, tweeted that investigations into spyware should now “involve a check of the phones of all politicians and top level officials … to get a full picture of the spying activity by governments.”
Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, one of the world’s foremost authories on surveillance and spyware, said that Predator, which is made in North Macedonia but now part of a company headed by Tal Dilian, an ex-Israeli intelligence officer with headquarters in Athens, was sold to Greece.
The government had denied using it and its defenses and arguments have shifted as more information has come out and spokesman Giannis Oikonomou ominously suggested that the phonetap files of Androulakis may have been destroyed.
Development Minister and New Democracy Vice-President Adonis Georgiadis said it’s possible that Russian or Turkish hackers did it, suggesting a different kind of conspiracy to topple the government.
“If I were Mr. Putin, I would be very happy if the governments that were so opposed to Russia would fall,” Georgiadis told the paper, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ire over European Union sanctions for the invasion of Ukraine.
Mitsotakis, said The Times, also had mentioned that there could be “shady forces outside Greece” working “to destabilize the country,” but critics aren’t buying it.
“It was obvious that the government was lying,” said George Katrougalos, the former Greek foreign minister from SYRIZA who was at the parliamentary committee where Kontoleon opened Pandora’s Box.
For all the political wrangling, worries about governments spying on citizens and journalists, whistleblowers and others has further cranked up critics who see spies everywhere – especially with governments using spyware.
“It can watch, it can record,” said PASOK spokesman Dimitrios Mantzos who said that in this case it was done by the government, despite the denials. “It’s too Greek for us to understand, but it’s all Greek,” he told the paper.
Koukakis, whose case had been essentially forgotten, said what happened to him has put the spotlight on surveillance techniques that some analysts said are too tempting for goverments to resist.
“The revelation of Androulakis’ case is a blessing for me,” said Koukakis, who the paper said is convinced that Mitsotakis was told about the surveillance although the premier blamed Kontoleon and Grigoriadis.
The story broke not long after Mitsotakis said he wouldn’t call snap polls and would finish his term before mid-2023 elections although the turmoil could continue and New Democracy’s lead in polls has now fallen.
Androulakis said the scandal won’t go away soon and told the paper that he thinks the government is spying on people, and not just him although no other names have emerged from the thousands said being tracked.
“I never expected the Greek government to put me under surveillance,” he has said, “using the darkest practices.”