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‘Greek Watergate’ looms over reelection of tarnished prime minister

Greeks go to the polls this spring with a major domestic surveillance scandal hanging over the country’s ruling conservative party, marring the lionized image of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

(CN) — Is the telegenic, Harvard-educated gentleman politician from Athens who “speaks Davos,” as the Economist magazine said of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, also the man overseeing a wide-scale, abusive and illegal regime of domestic spying?

The “Greek Watergate,” as the scandal engulfing the prime minister and his government has been dubbed, is leaving a glaring hole in Mitsotakis' sunny assurances he's the steady-handed financial and political savior of Greece, the debt-burdened “sick man of Europe.”

As scandals go, this Watergate-like case of alleged government corruption and abuse of power is a slow-drip affair: For the past year, each month has brought to light more evidence of Mitsotakis' likely knowledge and possible involvement in the surveillance of opposition politicians, journalists, government ministers, military officers, allies, prosecutors and others.

“Mitsotakis was very keen to project a new image of Greece: liberal, progressive,” said Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst with Teneo, a London-based political risk firm. “It did him well until this scandal exploded.”

It's a complex and murky political story ripened from this new age of Big Data and the nightmare of governments turning into dreaded Big Brothers.

The first inklings of the spying scandal stirred in December 2021 when Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto high-tech expert group, issued a report about its discovery of a novel spyware known as Predator.

Spyware – software that hacks into smartphones and computers – is a booming and often nefarious industry at the nexus of big money, politics, technology and intelligence agencies. Military-grade digital espionage tools are now routinely purchased and used by governments, such as was the alleged case in Greece.

“It is a major scandal which speaks to bigger questions such as democratic backsliding in Europe,” said Myrto Tsakatika, a politics professor and expert on Greece at the University of Glasgow. “This is a test for Greek democracy.”

Following Citizen Lab's report, Greek investigative reporters dug deeper and began to reveal a dirty open secret: The European Union, and in particular Greece and its balmy Mediterranean neighbors Cyprus and Malta, have become havens for a flourishing, largely unregulated and legally dubious spyware industry. Predator, like other spyware programs, has links to technology developed by Israeli secret services.

The spying furor turned dramatic and public in early April 2022 when Thanasis Koukakis, a business investigative journalist and editor for CNN Greece, announced his Apple smartphone was hacked by Predator. The revelation came after Citizen Lab diagnosed his phone and found it had been infected by Predator in 2021. Later, Koukakis discovered the spyware hack was mirrored by government-approved wiretapping of his phone by Greece's National Intelligence Service, or EYP. The EYP was set up with the help of the United States after World War II and modeled on the Central Intelligence Agency.

The scandal widened still further and morphed from a spying scandal against pesky journalists to leaks about government-sanctioned wiretap surveillance and alleged spyware attacks on opposition politicians.

The EYP was given the green light by prosecutors to wiretap Nikos Androulakis, the leader of PASOK, Greece's longtime center-left party and rival to New Democracy. PASOK and New Democracy have dominated Greek politics since the end of Greece's military dictatorship between 1967 and 1974.

Nikos Androulakis, head of the opposition socialist PASOK party, who is also a European Parliament member, speaks during his party's meeting at the Parliament in Athens, Greece, on Aug. 25, 2022. (George Kontarinis/Eurokinissi via AP, File)

Last August, Mitsotakis was forced to admit that the EYP had indeed wiretapped Androulakis' phone, but he denied any knowledge of the spying. He also strenuously denied allegations that Greece was deploying spyware.

In an effort to nip the scandal in the bud, Mitsotakis got rid of his EYP chief, Panagiotis Kontoleon, and sacked his nephew, Grigoris Dimitriadis. He'd appointed Dimitriadis as his general secretary and liaison to the EYP. In December, his government also banned the use of spyware by private individuals, though the legislation did not bar the government from using it.

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The snowballing of leaks and new allegations about government spying sent a shudder across Europe, setting off warning sirens about Greece too lapsing into authoritarian-style rule under Mitsotakis.

“There is a dangerous turn taken by Greece,” said Saskia Bricmont, a Green party Belgian politician and member of a European Parliament committee probing spyware use in the EU.

She charged that Greece was on the path to joining Poland and Hungary as political pariahs in the EU. Both Warsaw and Budapest are accused of dangerous anti-democratic backsliding under the rule of far-right ultra-nationalist parties – Law and Justice in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary. Both governments have also allegedly used spyware against critics.

“They [the Greek government] used a very intrusive spyware violating data privacy rules; violating intimacy, family life, the private life of people,” Bricmont charged. “It is high time for the EU to react considering the evolution of the situation in Greece.”

The investigative committee of the European Parliament, Greek opposition parties, journalists, human rights activists and others are demanding answers from Mitsotakis – but so far they've not gotten many back. Greece continues to deny it purchased and used spyware; meanwhile, it has disclosed very little about its state-sanctioned wiretapping.

“We haven't used [spyware] to monitor anybody because we don't have it,” a Greek government official said. “That's the official line that's been repeated. There has been legal surveillance, but not using Predator.”

The government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, accused the European Parliament investigative committee and critics in Greece of exaggerating claims against Mitsotakis for political aims.

“It's been widely misrepresented, misreported and exploited,” the official said.

Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch European Parliament member with the liberal Renew Europe group and rapporteur for the spyware committee, doesn't believe the denials.

“I like to make the comparison with a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle: There are still a hundred pieces missing, but you can see what the image is and it is not pretty,” In 't Veld said at a November news conference at the end of field hearings in Greece. “Everything is pointing in the direction of people in government circles.”

Mitsotakis has expanded surveillance and his associates, including his nephew Dimitriadis, are connected to spyware vendors.

Since he took office, the number of legal wiretap orders has grown from 11,680 in 2019 to 15,475 in 2021, according to the Hellenic Authority for Communication Security and Privacy, a government watchdog agency.

Critics also question Mitsotakis' decision to bring the EYP under his supervision. The interior ministry previously oversaw the spy agency. At the same time, Mitsotakis is accused of stymieing probes. Greece's judiciary has been largely quiet about the scandal too.

“I have to say that as a Greek born in 1974, the year that democracy stabilized in the country, this is the most concerned I've been about the state of democracy in Greece,” said Tsakatika, the University of Glasgow professor.

She said prime ministers in other Western European democracies under such a cloud of scandal would have resigned by now.

The European Commission has refused to take action against Europe's sprawling spyware abuse. No arrests have been made in connection to the various spying scandals in Europe. Virtually all details about each country's spying program remain under wraps.

Only naturally, Mitsotakis' image as the model of a refined new brand of conservative leadership is taking a beating internationally.

Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis shows a map of Europe during his announcement on the country's Covid-19 lockdown in Athens on Nov. 5, 2020. (Dimitris Papamitsos/Greek Prime Minister's Office via AP)

On paper, the 54-year-old Mitsotakis comes across a stellar captain to lead Greece out of its economic doldrums.

A brilliant Harvard and Stanford student, he speaks four languages flawlessly. Cosmopolitan and ultra-modern, his resume shines with stints at the Chase Bank and McKinsey and Company, a global management consulting firm, during a long stretch of work in the heart of London's financial hubs; also in London, he set up a private equity and venture capital fund. Then in 2003, he turned his skills and attention to politics – following a family tradition.

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After coming to power in 2019 by defeating the far-left Syriza party, Mitsotakis became the toast of Europe. He was hosted regularly at the World Economic Forum in Davos and hit all the sweet spots.

With stunning ease, he “speaks Davos." In perfect English, he knocks out one-liners about “the green transition,” digitalizing government, upholding NATO, transforming Greece into a magnet of foreign investment.

In May 2022, just before the spying scandal exploded in Athens, Mitsotakis was invited to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress in Washington. It was a hit.

Sprinkling his speech with historical references equating democracy in America to that of ancient Athens, he delivered just what Congress wanted to hear: Vows to defend Ukraine, fight autocrats, fend off populism and cultivate democracy at home and abroad.

When he speaks, he brims with firm confidence and faithfully predicts a sunny outlook for Greece and its role in the EU.

In 1968, shortly after he was born, his family fled Greece following the installation of a military junta in power in 1967. His family was put under house arrest by the dictatorship.

After the fall of the junta, his father, Konstantinos Mitsotakis, returned to Greece and rose to become New Democracy's leader and prime minister in 1990.

In a strange twist, the government of his father was embroiled in a wiretapping scandal too, a row that played a part in his father's electoral defeat in 1994 after only one term in office.

Now big doubts about Mitsotakis' honesty are stalking him as he seeks reelection.

Up to now, he's stuck to his guns and relentlessly pointed to his ability to lead Greece back from the brink. His message is simple: Greece is back and open for business.

There's no question Greece's economy has grown exponentially in the four years since Mitsotakis and New Democracy resumed power after four years in the opposition.

Their grip on Greek politics was broken in 2015 during the Greek debt crisis which brought hundreds of thousands of Greeks onto the streets to protest a crippling debt repayment bailout plan imposed by the so-called “Troika”: The European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Syriza, a coalition of former communists and other left-wing proponents, won the 2015 election and gave Greece its first far-left government since the restoration of democracy in 1974.

During the financial crisis, Greece suffered a contraction equal to about a quarter of its national gross domestic product, the biggest drop of any Western economy outside wartime.

Mitsotakis entered the Maximos Mansion, the prime minister's residence, at just the right time. By 2019, four years of painful Troika-imposed cuts to public spending were over and the economy took off as Mitsotakis cut taxes and red tape for businesses, lured foreign investment, privatized a trove of public assets and kept the reins tight on government spending.

Growth was rapid and yielded eye-popping GDP figures, among the strongest in Europe. Employment cranked up along with real wages and foreign investors flocked in to take advantage of Mitsotakis' vaunted Greek miracle.

For now, Mitsotakis has managed to mostly weather the storm caused by the spying scandal. In part, that's because Greece has a long and sordid history of government surveillance and this new chapter of political skulduggery isn't a surprise for many Greeks.

“Generally, there has been a general lack of public interest because the assumption in Greece has always been that phones were tapped,” Piccoli, the Teneo analyst, said. “The only question is this time they got caught.”

Amazingly, Mitsotakis is still expected to come out on top at the end of what is shaping up to be long election year. Due to changes in Greece's election laws, it is likely that two elections will be held before the next government is formed.

Polls show New Democracy holding onto a lead over its chief rivals on the left – PASOK and Syriza.

“The opposition has not really managed to capitalize on this scandal,” Piccoli said.

Regardless, “Greece's Watergate” isn't likely to be swept under the rug easily.

“Over time, as we've moved online more and more, especially in the past few years, the security of our devices has really become an issue that's increasingly become front and center,” said Siena Anstis, a legal adviser at Citizen Lab. “There is a proliferation of initiatives in the U.S. – and in the EU to an extent – addressing the issue of spyware.”

In the U.S., the White House and Congress are moving to ban spyware altogether and the Biden administration blackballed NSO, an Israeli global spyware firm that developed and sold Pegasus, a powerful spyware used by governments around the world to spy on domestic adversaries.

The legality of spyware is a gray area, but governments do allow its purchase for monitoring criminal organizations, terrorist cells and other national security threats.

However, exploitation of spyware by unscrupulous governments – often by authoritarian regimes and dictatorships – has become a global scourge.

Spyware's criminal potential is notorious. Such software has been identified as a key factor in the harassment and even assassinations of government critics, human rights investigators and others.

Most gruesomely, spyware is believed to have been involved in the killing and dismemberment of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey in 2018.

Tsakatika, the Greek politics scholar, said confronting the surveillance scandal and getting the truth about what's gone on under Mitsotakis' watch is fundamental.

“It touches on all these questions of freedom of the press, guarantees for judicial independence,” she said. “The key here is the effect it's having on democracy in the sense of government and opposition.”

She added: “We need to know in democracies that everyone, all the political forces respect the rules of the game. I think this was a major breach of that trust that is very basic in a democracy.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Government, International, Politics

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