A second list of possible targets of an alleged surveillance operation using the Pegasus spyware revealed in a global collaborative investigation includes the mobile phones used by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, and former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa.
The publication of the names on Monday evening set off a major political storm that has the potential to derail the Monsoon Session of Parliament that began earlier in the day.
At a press conference, the Congress demanded the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah and an investigation into the role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the alleged espionage. The party said it would raise the issue in Parliament, and get other opposition parties on board.
Digital news platform The Wire, which is part of the collaboration along with 16 media partners led by the Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and including The Washington Post in the United States, The Guardian in the United Kingdom, and Le Monde in France, reported that at least two mobile phone numbers used by Rahul Gandhi were among 300 “verified” Indian numbers listed as potential targets of the operation.
Phones of at least five of Gandhi’s close friends and other Congress leaders were also identified as potential targets using the spyware. Gandhi was twice selected as a potential surveillance target, the report said.
Two numbers belonging to Gandhi were picked as candidates for possible surveillance by the spyware developed by the private Israeli company NSO Group from mid-2018 to mid-2019 — that is, in the month leading up to, and perhaps a little after the last Lok Sabha elections.
The numbers of two of Gandhi’s close aides, Alankar Sawai and Sachin Rao, also figure in the list for mid-2019, The Wire reported.
According to The Guardian, the presence of a phone number in the database was not a confirmation of whether the corresponding device was infected with Pegasus or was subject to an attempted hack.
According to the NSO Group, as reported by The Wire, the leaked database is “not a list of numbers targeted by governments using Pegasus” and that it had “good reason to believe” the leaked data “may be part of a larger list of numbers that might have been used by NSO Group customers for other purposes”.
On Monday evening, Gandhi tweeted: “Uske dar par hansi aati hai, yeh Bharatiya Jasoos Party hai.” (I can only laugh at their fear…this is Bharatiya Jasoos Party.)
To The Wire, he said: “Targeted surveillance of the type you describe whether in regard to me, other leaders of the opposition or indeed any law-abiding citizen of India is illegal and deplorable. If your information is correct, the scale and nature of surveillance you describe goes beyond an attack on the privacy of individuals. It is an attack on the democratic foundations of our country. It must be thoroughly investigated and those responsible be identified and punished.”
Also on the list is election strategist Prashant Kishor, who worked with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in the recent West Bengal elections, and Banerjee’s personal secretary.
The Wire reported that unsuccessful attempts to initiate a Pegasus attack were made on Kishor’s phone in 2018. Traces of Pegasus were also detected on his phone in April, when the Assembly elections in Bengal were underway, and then in June and July.
Kishor said, “Those who did this wanted to take undue advantage of their position of power with the help of illegal snooping.”
In a Twitter post, Abhishek Banerjee referred to the BJP’s defeat in the Assembly elections. “Two Minutes of SILENCE for the SORE LOSERS! Despite ALLIES like ED, CBI, NIA, IT, ECI, BJP money + might and Pegasus Spying Mr Amit Shah couldn’t save his face in Bengal Elections 2021.Please COME Prepared with Better RESOURCES in 2024!”
Trinamool state general secretary Kunal Ghosh said: “The BJP is suffering from the fear psychosis of Abhishek Banerjee and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.”
Lavasa’s phone was selected as a potential candidate for surveillance just weeks after he recorded his dissent over the Election Commission’s response to complaints of violations of the Model Code of Conduct by Modi and Shah.
Lavasa declined to comment.
Others whose phones were allegedly selected for surveillance include Jagdeep Chhokhar, founder of the transparency nonprofit Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), virologist Dr Gagandeep Kang, and Hari Menon, the India head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Chhokhar said: “I was kind of surprised, but not totally. The people who are behind this exercise haven’t done their homework since it’s honestly not worth hacking my phone.”
Dr Kang said: “I have no clue why my number is on that list. I am given to understand that this pertains to 2018.” In 2018, Dr Kang was director of the Faridabad-based Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, an autonomous institute under the Department of Biotechnology.
The leaked global database of 50,000 telephone numbers was first accessed by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, who shared it with media organisations around the world.
In its report on Monday, Le Monde said that diplomats and ambassadors of Pakistan, China, Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Saudi Arabia are also on the list.
“Not surprisingly, Pakistan is the most scrutinized country. The numbers of Imran Khan and several of his ambassadors in India appear on the list as potential targets. Dozens of other diplomats and ambassadors posted in Delhi are also included, whether from Iran, Afghanistan, China, Nepal or Saudi Arabia. In Kashmir, several separatist leaders, including Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, and human rights defenders are also potential targets,” the report said.
While the consortium carrying out the investigation is yet to name the diplomats, the revelation from Le Monde has the potential of causing strain to diplomatic ties, especially with partner countries like Nepal, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
At the Congress press conference, Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, Congress leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, and the party’s chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala demanded the sacking of Amit Shah, who they alleged was the “person responsible” for the espionage.
Surjewala said the the reports of “illegal and unconstitutional” hacking of cell phones of constitutional functionaries, Union Ministers, present and former heads of India’s security forces, senior leaders of opposition, journalists, lawyers, and activists reflect a “treasonous and inexcusable dismantling of national security” by the BJP-led government.
“Rule of law, fundamental right to privacy and constitutional duties had been murdered in broad daylight… The Modi government is the deployer and executor of this illegal and unconstitutional snooping and spying racket…,” he said.
“Who in the Government of India purchased and deployed the illegal spyware Pegasus from NSO? Who — the Prime Minister or the Home Minister — authorised the purchase of Pegasus? How many hundred or thousand crores were spent? If the government was aware of the illegal purchase and deployment of the Pegasus spyware since April-May, 2019, why did it choose to stay mum?” Surjewala asked.
Senior Trinamool leader Derek O’Brien said, “Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are now converting the Gujarat model of 2002 into the India model of 2021.”
Senior Congress leader Manish Tewari demanded two investigations — one by a JPC to look at violation of privacy and the question of parliamentary oversight over intelligence agencies, and another by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court to fix criminal culpability of those responsible.
The CPM said, “It is clear that this government has engaged NSO for surveillance against its own citizens. The central government must come clean on what is its engagement with NSO, what are the terms and how much our public funds have been paid for this.”