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Wiretapping scandal in Greece

December 16, 2022

The list of people suspected of having been spied on by the state keeps getting longer. Yet there has been no public outcry. The scandal may not impact much on the 2023 parliamentary elections.

Closeup of a hand holding a smartphone displaying some text in Greek
Surveillance spyware was installed on Greek smartphones without the targets' knowledge

Greek police have raided the Athens office of the Israeli firm Intellexa. The company distributes the illegal Predator wiretapping software that has been making headlines in Greece since the summer after it was found on journalists' and politicians' cell phones.

"They found three broken chairs and a broken table," Kostas Vaxenavis laughs. The editor-in-chief of the government-critical Documento newspaper can't quite suppress his cynicism. There were overwhelming suspicions, yet it has taken until now for the public prosecutor to act, he says. "They staged this show nine months after the Intellexa affair came to light. Of course they didn't find anything."

For Vaxenavis, this is no surprise. He believes there is hardly anyone in the apparatus of state who is seriously interested in getting to the bottom of the ever-growing wiretapping scandal.

After initial reports in summer about the illegal surveillance of the investigative journalist Thanasis Koukakis, and the surveillance of the head of opposition party PASOK by the Greek intelligence service (EYP) on orders from the prime minister's office, Vaxenavis and his research team uncovered further cases in early November.

They published a list of 33 names of people who, Documento says, were spied on using the illegal wiretapping software. These included leading members of the government, such as the foreign minister Nikos Dendias and the development minister Adonis Georgadis, media mogul and shipowner Evangelos Marinakis, and the former conservative prime minister, Antonis Samaras.

Kostas Vaxevanis, in a grey shirt, sits in front of a desk with the 'Documento' logo above it on the wall
Kostas Vaxenavis is an investigative journalist and editor-in-chief of Documento newspaper, which broke the spyware storyImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

Since then, Documento has added more names to the list. Those affected include parliamentarians, owners of leading media companies, journalists, businesspeople, and people associated with these targets. What is striking is that not only were opponents of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, both within and outside his party, spied on, so were some of his confidants.

How many were affected altogether? "We're talking hundreds of people," Vaxenavis answers. He suspects the government has gathered information with which they could be blackmailed. As a result, he suggests many would not speak out officially, even if their phones were infected with Predator.

Targeted communications?

Although the Greek scandal is definitely receiving a certain amount of publicity, there has been no major public outcry. "The government is trying to give the Greek people the impression that this is not a serious matter," Vaxenavis told DW. For three years now, he says, a communications team in the Maximos Mansion, the prime minister's official residence, has been using "dirty, yet familiar, old" techniques. He claims that whenever research is published that exposes serious abuses by the government, news stories are circulated to divert attention to issues such as public security or Greece's ongoing dispute with its neighbor Turkey.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in a dark suit, raises his hand in a wave on a visit to London last year.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is suspected of involvement in the wiretapping scandalImage: Justin Ng/Avalon/Photoshot/picture alliance

In addition, journalists are being publicly discredited, Vaxenavis says. "Once again, they [i.e. the government – Editor's note] are trying to give the impression that these revelations are just political intrigue. When we uncovered the Novartis scandal, they spread the story in the media that it was not in fact a scandal but some journalist's badly done research, instigated by the opposition."

Vaxenavis was substantially involved in reporting on the Novartis scandal, which exposed shady deals between the Swiss pharmaceutical company and high-ranking Greek politicians. The government sued Vaxenavis and a long legal battle ensued. It was not until this summer that the case was resolved — in Vaxenavis's favor.

Growing concern abroad

The government denies having used Predator. After the first 33 names were published, government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou commented that the report was replete with stories, but presented no evidence. Nonetheless, he said, the accusations had to be thoroughly investigated by the Greek authorities and judiciary. Vaxenavis and other journalists covering the issue have been waiting for answers ever since.

Pegasus: the invisible spy

The Predator scandal has, however, sparked greater concern in other countries. International media, including The New York Times and the French newspaper Le Monde have regularly covered developments. A report by the European Parliament's PEGA committee, which investigates the use of surveillance spyware such as Pegasus and Predator, makes clear that the illegal Predator software is being used to spy on citizens.

The Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld, who as rapporteur investigated the problems around illegal wiretapping in Greece, stated that, while there was no definitive evidence, everything pointed to members of government circles being involved. She also criticized the Greek authorities' unwillingness to cooperate.

Internal crisis

Although pressure on the Greek prime minister is clearly mounting, his party, Nea Dimokratia, remains stable. At the end of November, opinion polls indicated that it had barely lost support since the scandal broke, and was still the strongest party, at just over 30%.

According to Dimitris Christopoulos, who heads the department of political science at Panteion University in Athens, this is because the population is struggling with the current economic situation and is more concerned about that than worrying about illegal spyware.

Dimitris Christopoulos sits in a home office, smiling slightly in an open-necked blue shirt.
Dimitris Christopoulos, Dean of the Department of Political Science at Panteoin University in AthensImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

"It's not the biggest problem for people in Greece," he told DW. "I don't think a wiretapping scandal looms all that large in a country with problems like the ones we're facing here." He points out that even Nixon was re-elected a year after the Watergate affair.

However, the political scientist adds, this doesn't mean the government hasn't been damaged by the scandal. "This government has lost the unity it had enjoyed to date in Europe and internationally," he says. "Mitsotakis can't save face anymore."

Above all, Christopoulos believes the Greek prime minister's position within his own party has been weakened. "Until this summer, Mitsotakis and his team set the political agenda. Now he's lost that advantage." However, he sees Nea Dimokratia as resilient and capable of recovering from this crisis. In order to achieve this, he believes, it's conceivable that the party may distance itself from Mitsotakis.

This article has been translated from German.

Portrait of a man with brown hair and a beard
Florian Schmitz Reporter with a focus on Greece