Polish leader under fire over Pegasus hack scandal

WARSAW — The scandal around Polish security services allegedly using Pegasus malware to spy on opposition politicians is ensnaring Poland’s de facto ruler, JarosÅ‚aw KaczyÅ„ski, leader of the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party.

In a hearing Tuesday before a special committee of the Polish Senate, Marian BanaÅ›, head of the Supreme Audit Office (NIK), the country’s government watchdog, said his inspectors would likely summon KaczyÅ„ski to testify about whether the Israeli-developed software was used to illegally spy on people.

“I personally feel that Mr. JarosÅ‚aw KaczyÅ„si, as deputy prime minister in charge of security, should appear at the headquarters of NIK at the summons of inspectors and answer questions under threat of criminal charges for perjury,” BanaÅ› told the Senate panel.

Pegasus is turning into a massive problem for PiS, now embattled on several fronts, ranging from the conflict with the EU over rule of law to surging inflation making life difficult for the less affluent, the party’s core electorate.

The scandal was first reported by the Associated Press last month based on an investigation by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, a Canadian digital security nonprofit, which found the software had been used to break into at least three phones. One belonged to Senator Krzysztof Brejza, who said his phone was hacked 33 times while he was running the 2019 parliamentary election campaign of the opposition Civic Platform party.

Citizen Lab also found that the phone of Roman Gieertych, a prominent lawyer working for Donald Tusk, leader of Civic Platform as well as a former prime minister and European Council president, had been hacked, as had the phone of Ewa Wrzosek, a prosecutor who outraged the government by allowing an investigation into improper spending during last year’s presidential election, which was delayed due to the pandemic.

“We were used to [see] such cases in dictatorships. But we wondered what happened in Poland that spyware was used against a prosecutor,” John Scott-Railton, an analyst with Citizen Lab, told the Senate committee on Monday, calling the case “very disturbing.”

The government and its backers initially tried to downplay Pegasus, with some officials joking about a 1990s game console of the same name, but KaczyÅ„ski recently confirmed that Poland had bought the software from Israel’s NSO Group.

“It would be bad if the Polish services did not have this type of tool,” KaczyÅ„ski said, but insisted that it wasn’t used to spy on the opposition.

But that’s not enough for BanaÅ›, a former PiS ally who has become one of the party’s most dangerous foes.

“Deputy Prime Minister KaczyÅ„ski should answer questions about illegal spying on Poles,” he said.

The committee also heard from a previous NIK chief, Senator Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, who said that Pegasus was illegally acquired, as the 25 million złoty (€5.5 million) used to buy it came from a special Justice Ministry fund meant for crime victims and not the general budget, which is supposed to be used to finance the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA), the agency allegedly using the malware.

“Resources from the Justice Fund could not have been handed over to CBA because CBA is financed directly from the state budget,” he said.

The committee was set up by the opposition-controlled Senate but is being boycotted by PiS senators. The committee has limited powers, but the more powerful lower chamber Sejm, where PiS has a fragile majority, has refused to call its own investigation.

The committee hears from Brejza on Wednesday.

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