ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s prime minister said Monday he was unaware that the country’s intelligence service had been bugging an opposition politician's mobile phone for three months, insisting that he wouldn't have allowed it had he known.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who faces elections next year, made the remarks in a televised address to the nation three days after a wiretapping scandal led to the resignations of the head of the National Intelligence Service, Panagiotis Kontoleon, and the general secretary of the prime minister’s office, Grigoris Dimitriadis.
“What happened might have been in accordance with the letter of the law, but it was wrong,” Mitsotakis said. “I didn’t know about it and obviously, I would never have allowed it.” The National Intelligence Service, known by its acronym EYP, answers directly to the prime minister’s office, a change Mitsotakis brought about himself after winning 2019 elections.
Mitsotakis said the mobile phones of Nikos Androulakis, who had been running for the leadership of the socialist PASOK opposition party at the time, had been placed under “legal surveillance” from Sept. 2021 for three months. The wiretaps had been halted “automatically” a few days after Androulakis won the party leadership race, he said, but did not elaborate on why the opposition politician was targeted.
“Even though everything happened legally, the National Intelligence Service underestimated the political dimension of the particular action,” Mitsotakis said. “It was formally adequate, but politically not acceptable. It should not have happened, causing rifts in citizens’ trust in the national security services.”
The prime minister said that since the handling of the issue was inappropriate, the head of EYP “was removed immediately” and his own office’s general secretary “assumed the objective political responsibility” by resigning.
On Friday, the prime minister’s office did not give any reason for Dimitriadis’ resignation. But a government official insisted it was “related to the toxic climate that has developed around him" and that it had nothing to do with spyware targeting Androulakis’ phone.
Androulakis dismissed Mitsotakis' comments on Monday as a bid to play for time, saying the prime minister “methodically avoided providing explanations.”
“Mr. Mitsotakis, I request that the reason why I was under surveillance by EYP be announced forthright,” he said. “I won't accept any cover-up.”
Androulakis filed a complaint with prosecutors at Greece’s Supreme Court on July 26 saying there had been an attempt to bug his cellphone with spyware named Predator.
The opposition politician, who is also a member of the European Parliament, said he became aware of the Predator bugging attempt after being informed by the European Parliament’s cyber security service a few days earlier.
“If it hadn't been for the official report of the European Parliament's special service, we would not have learnt anything about these dark practices,” Androulakis said Monday.
Androulakis was considered the favorite to succeed his party leadership vote. As head now of Greece’s third largest party, he is likely to hold the balance of power in the next election — due by mid-2023 at the latest — if no party wins enough seats to form a government without needing a coalition partner, as current opinion polls suggest.
Panos Skourletis, parliamentary representative of the main opposition SYRIZA party, said Richard Nixon resigned as U.S. president exactly 48 years ago because of a similar scandal and that his party expects Mitsotakis to “at least do the same today ... to apologize and resign.”
Responsibility for the wiretaps, Skourletis said on private Open TV, “in no way ... stops at Mr. Dimitriadis and Mr. Kontoleon.”
Responding to a SYRIZA request, the government said later Monday it agreed to shorten the summer recess for Parliament's plenary session by nine days to debate the wiretaps on Aug. 22.
In April, Greek 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 Committee to Protect Journalists had called for a “swift and thorough investigation ... (to) determine who orchestrated that monitoring, and hold them to account.”
The government has denied it uses Predator software, and Mitsotakis did not mention the journalist in his Monday address.
The prime minister said the government would propose changes to how EYP operates, including increasing its accountability and parliamentary supervision, and making internal changes to bolster transparency, personnel training and internal controls.
Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed.