Supreme Court hearing next week on Pegasus spyware is of crucial importance

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By: Nitya Chakraborty

The Supreme Court’s observation on Wednesday that the two bench of judges headed by the Chief Justice of India N V Ramanna will be issuing a comprehensive order on the petitions challenging the use of the Israeli Pegasus spyware for snooping, is of special importance in influencing the political situation on the eve of the state assembly elections in 2022.

The significance of the comment by the CJI lies in the fact that the bench has taken note of the tactics of the centre, especially its Solicitor General Tushar Mehta in avoiding answer to the real issue which is at the core of the main petitions. The simple question is did any central agency hire the Israeli company NSO for this software and if so who. Any national government has every right to hire a foreign organisation for security purposes, especially in relation to deal with terror and intelligence gathering. Modi Government is also entitled to do that, but in case of this Pegasus use, it was not for information gathering from the anti-India outfits but from the country’s own politicians, activists and journalists.

The Defence Ministry has strongly denied any such deal. That is accepted but what about the other agencies belonging to the home ministry or the NSA’s office. There has been no denial on this. In fact the Home Minister is refusing to comment on this issue. The Government has also ruled out the setting up of any joint parliamentary committee to probe the issue. The monsoon session of Parliament came to an abrupt end on this Pegasus issue and now the Supreme Court remains the only forum which can do justice in clearing the mystery over the use of Pegasus spyware.

The learned judges have to note that India is having expanding relations with Israel during the last seven years of Narendra Modi regime and there have been many agreements with the Israeli Government headed by the former Prime Minister Netanyahu who had friendly relations with Narendra Modi. Only few months ago, Israel got a new Prime Minister and he would not mind helping investigating the role of the NSO in India, if properly requested.

Facts are, India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval visited Israel in March 2017preparatory to the Prime Minister’s visit in July that year. He had comprehensive talks with Israeli authorities on Israeli assistance for strengthening the security system in India.NSA has every right to do that in the country’s security interests as a part of fighting potential terror threat to India. India is one of the biggest customers of weaponry and security devices from Israel and NSO is a leading security services equipment provider including high grade software for surveillance.

The Pegasus spyware use  is not just a case of violation of privacy, or illegal surveillance or snooping by security agencies. It is much more. The Pegasus is military grade spyware which takes surveillance and hacking to a new level altogether.  If this is used by the central agencies on the opposition leaders and the human rights activists, apart from journalists, this cannot be done without the approval from the highest political authorities. That way, the buck stops at PMO and the Home Ministry. PM has to get cleared of the allegations if those are ‘unfounded’ as the official sources are saying.

The NSO itself has stated in its official website that the company “licenses its products only to government intelligence and law enforcement agencies for the sole purpose of preventing terror and serious crime”. It is also known that the licenses are given under the supervision of the Defence Export Control Agency of the Israeli ministry of defence. And such transactions are done only at the inter-governmental level. Just as Indian Prime Minister signed a deal on Rafale planes with the French President as a part of inter government agreement. So the question may be asked during PM’s visit in July 2017, was such an inter government agreement was done?

The Mexican government has confirmed that the Pegasus spyware was acquired in 2011 first by the defence ministry and later by the National Security Intelligence Service and other state security forces. Mexico seems to have acknowledged their acquiring the Pegasus spyware but the Modi government refuses to  give any straight answer to the issue though it is of paramount importance to the polity of the Indian state.

More information has been coming from different countries of the world about the role of the controversial Pegasus spyware in snooping on prominent individuals.  All these details will be of importance to the learned judges in arriving at their observations. Media reports say that the phone numbers of fifteen French ministers were picked by Morocco for probable infection by the Pegasus spyware, according to Radio France, one of the members of the Pegasus Project international consortium of journalists.

Apart from French President Emmanuel Macron, the numbers of then Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, his wife, one of his assistants, his adviser Gilles Boyer; the Keeper of the Seals, the Interior Minister, the Minister of the Economy, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Education, the Agriculture Minister, the Minister of Budget, the Minister of Territorial Cohesion, the Minister of Relations with Parliament, the Minister of Overseas Territories, the Culture Minister, the Housing Minister, the Minister for Ecological Transition, and the Minister of Local Authorities were present in the alleged target list.

Both the French Government and the Mexican Government, who have been the targets, have initiated proper investigations. It is time that in view of the refusal of the Indian Government to clear the confusion, the Supreme Court moves on its own and set up a SIT to be monitored by the Court, to probe the Pegasus issue. Present CJI has shown his guts and sense of justice on many major issues in the recent days. It is hoped that his ‘comprehensive order’ next week will help in demystifying the role of Pegasus spyware in India. (IPA Service)

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