The Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has attempted to douse a wiretapping scandal engulfing his government, claiming he had no idea the country’s socialist party leader was being monitored by intelligence services reporting directly to him.
In an address to the nation on Monday, Mitsotakis described the phone tapping of Pasok party chief, Nikos Androulakis, as a mistake that should never have occurred.
“What was done may have been in accordance with the letter of the law but it was wrong,” he said. “I did not know and obviously I would never have allowed it.”
The eavesdropping took place over a three-month period last year when the newly revitalised centre-left Pasok, Greece’s third largest political force, was preparing to elect a new leader. An MEP, 43-year-old Androulakis had been favoured to win the race.
As the revelations came to light with the Mediterranean nation’s spy chief and Mitsotakis’ most trusted aide resigning over the affair, officials in the centre-right government were reported as saying that the wiretaps had been ordered by the Ukrainian and Armenian intelligence services. The social democrat’s sensitive role on the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee, which deals with China, was cited.
But the prime minister, facing his toughest hour in office since assuming power in July 2019, emphasised that while the surveillance had been approved by a senior prosecutor, as required by law, it was “politically unacceptable”.
“In our democracy shadows cannot be allowed to exist and that is why I want to speak to you openly about recent developments,” he told Greeks at the start of the near seven-minute long address.
“Although everything took place legally, the Intelligence Service, EYP, underestimated the political dimension of this particular action. It was … politically unacceptable.”
Greece’s political scene has been profoundly shaken by a scandal that the leftist opposition has wasted no time in likening to Watergate.
Androulakis, who has called for a parliamentary investigation into the matter, expressed dismay that the Greek government had resorted to the “dark practices” last employed by the colonels who seized power in 1967 throwing the country into seven years of military rule.
“I will continue to fight so that justice, the Greek parliament and European institutions will bring all the truth to light,” the Pasok leader tweeted, saying the eavesdropping had humiliated and exposed Greece internationally.
European parliament sources, signalling the scandal is far from over, have said the affair will almost certainly be taken up when the 705-seat chamber returns from its summer recess.
A MEP since 2014, Androulakis claims the Strasbourg-based organisation’s cybersecurity unit has enough evidence to prove that attempts were made to monitor his mobile phone using Predator malware.
An EU member state wiretapping a Euro MP would be seen as particularly egregious. The Greek government spokesperson, Ioannis Oikonomou, insisted on Monday that Athens had never used the ‘notorious malware’ and that the ‘legal’ surveillance of Androulakis had been conducted with “conventional means”.
Mitsotakis, who faces re-election next year, took control of EYP within weeks of assuming office. Amid mounting calls for his resignation many described his effort at damage control as being too little too late.
“Apart from being a liar he came across as arrogant and without remorse,” the main opposition Syriza party said in a statement adding that it beggared belief that senior government figures had previously denied the wiretapping had ever occurred.
Opposition politicians pointed to the fierce denials of both the Ukrainian and Armenian ambassadors to Athens as further proof that the administration had not come clean. The diplomats have reacted with outrage to suggestions that their countries had requested the wiretaps with Kyiv’s envoy, Sergii Shutenko, describing the claims as being “divorced from reality”.
The Armenian ambassador Tigran Mkrtchyan went further, calling the allegation “a shameless lie”. “Armenia has never asked any government to wiretap anyone’s phone,” he said.
Analysts voiced surprise at the absence of any attempt to explain why Androulakis had been monitored at all, although he is not alone.
Before the Pasok leader went public with the Predator claims – lodging a complaint with supreme court prosecutors in Athens on 26 July – two Greek journalists had also taken legal action following digital evidence that they, too, had been spied on by an administration that has faced accusations internationally of attempting to limit press freedoms.
“It was a speech that left many questions unanswered,” said Lamprini Rori, assistant professor of political analysis at Athens University. “Yes, Mitsotakis accepted that it was a mistake but public opinion and the political elite wanted to know why Androulakis was monitored in the first place and that was never addressed.
The scandal was undoubtedly a blow for the Greek prime minister who had taken pride in being supported by centrists at the last election. “The crisis will cost the government that part of the electorate,” said Rori. “Centrist voters will find it hard to trust New Democracy after this.”