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Mitsotakis seeks to deflect parliamentary attacks over Greek spy scandal

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ATHENS — Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Friday sought to deflect increasingly heated attacks in parliament over a spiraling phone-tapping scandal by accusing unidentified foreign entities of trying to destabilize the country amid an energy crisis and increased threats from Turkey.

Earlier this month, Greece’s spy chief and the government’s general secretary lost their jobs after revelations that the phone of an opposition leader, Nikos Androulakis, had been tapped. In a labyrinthine case, Mitsotakis’ center-right government admits that the intelligence service conducted this legal wiretapping, but is denying any involvement with what it calls separate illegal cases, in which Androulakis and journalists were bugged with spy software called Predator.

During a heated parliamentary session on Friday, Mitsotakis dug in and refused to answer the key question of why the phone of Androulakis, head of the center-left Pasok party, had been bugged. Alexis Tsipras, leader of the biggest opposition party, the left-wing Syriza group, slammed the hack as a “criminal act” and said that Mitsotakis’ handling of the case should lead to his resignation.

Mitsotakis, who faces a national election by next year at the latest, vowed to stay in government and not call a snap election, arguing that he needed to stick around to ensure stability in the face of threats from unnamed foreign forces.

“I’m well aware that there are interests that want weak governments, because they believe that this increases their ability to exert influence,” he said. He added that everyone should calm down because Greece’s neighbors, referring to Turkey, “remain unpredictable.” 

“War, the huge energy crisis, high prices, all bode for a very difficult winter. And not only that. In Evros [the Greek-Turkish border region], a new wave of invasion is already being planned, this time under a supposedly humanitarian mask,” he added.

Mitsotakis defended the workings of the country’s national intelligence service (EYP), saying its operations were essential to the country’s security, despite the misstep of tapping an opposition leader’s phone, in what he said was a legal but “politically unacceptable” operation. 

“Nothing must bring into question this valuable operational branch of the state,” Mitsotakis said during the debate called by Syriza, after it was revealed that Androulakis, head of Greece’s third largest party, was put under surveillance for three months by EYP last year, when he was running for his party’s leadership. 

In the dark?

Mitsotakis also insisted he was personally unaware of the wiretapping and that he would not have approved it had he known. “No prime minister can be aware of who EYP taps,” he said.

Greece’s National Intelligence Service does, however, report directly to the prime minister’s office, according to a change in legislation voted in by the ruling New Democracy government.

“The biggest cowardice is not to accept political responsibility and say ‘It’s not my fault, it’s my nephew’s fault,'” Tsipras replied, referring to the fact that the government’s general secretary, who resigned because of the scandal, earlier this month was Mitsotakis’ nephew.

“That is what you plead, that you are so irresponsible and so inadequate that even your closest associate, even your closest relative was operating in such serious matters without your knowledge,” he added.

Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Mitsotakis was pressed by all party leaders to answer why Androulakis was under surveillance.

“You are obliged to give an answer. What was this national reason?” Tsipras demanded. “Is Mr. Androulakis an agent of foreign interests … Is he a spy of foreign forces? Is he dangerous to our national interests?”

Androulakis filed a complaint with prosecutors at Greece’s Supreme Court on July 26 over the Predator spyware, and demanded to know the reasons for the intelligence service’s hack.

Predator pressure

In April, financial journalist Thanassis Koukakis said he had been notified by digital rights group Citizen Lab that his phone had been the target of surveillance by Predator software from July to September 2021. The government also admitted during a closed parliamentary session that he was also under survaillance by EYP, according to several lawmakers present in the session. Athens, however, separately denies any connection with the Predator software.

Last November, journalist Stavros Malichudis realized from a leaked report that the government had spied on him. The government denied the allegation and the media paid little attention to it.

The head of Pasok’s parliamentary group Michalis Katrinis accused the government of deliberately obscuring the company that operates and sells the Predator software in Greece, despite its offices being only some 10 kilometers from the Greek parliament.

“What are the personal, family and professional relations of the people who own and trade Predator with central executives of the system of the [the PM’s office] … Whose morbid strategy is served by the effort to trap and blackmail journalists, politicians and businessmen?” he asked.

Androulakis lashed out against the government while speaking to his parliamentary group on Thursday, saying that they were “plotting against him.”

“A shadow state mechanism wanted to hold Pasok hostage. The plan failed miserably,” he said.“The government repeatedly claims that the Greek authorities do not use Predator. But is it the simultaneous [surveillance by] EYP and Predator within a few days a coincidence?” he asked rhetorically. 

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