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Then, “I am determined [să am] a government truly made up of the best people,” declared Kyriakos Mitsotakis in April 2018 to an audience of industrialists and entrepreneurs.
Under his leadership, the vices of the past – nepotism, corruption – will no longer be tolerated. Greece, he announced on the day in July 2019 when he became prime minister, can “raise its forehead with pride again,” says Alexander Clapp in an opinion piece published in the New York Times.
Thus, Three years later, many uninitiated were already convinced of the reformation. Microsoft, Pfizer and JP Morgan Chase have opened branches in the country, a fast-track visa program has spurred thousands of digital nomads to move to Athens, and a relentless tourism campaign – “You’ll want to stay forever!” goes the slogan – lured a record number of Americans to the Aegean shore this summer. Even the EU’s surveillance of the economy has come to an end. After a decade of hardship, the country appears to have undergone a stunning transformation.
But inside Greece, a darker reality lurks. The corruption and conflicts of interest that Mitsotakis pledged to stamp out not only remain, but in many ways appear to have concentrated and deepened.
Far from being restructured, the Greek state only received a cosmetic makeover, a window dressing with administrators. In recent weeks a wiretapping scandal has spectacularly exposed the rot in the substrate. Dubbed Greece’s Watergate, it exposed the rancid espionage beneath the glitzy facade. The “Greece 2.0” promised by Mitsotakis is now proving to be the old one.
The scandal began with Thanasis Koukakis, a financial journalist known for investigating influential figures in the banking world. In June 2020, the Greek secret services put him under surveillance – intercepting both of his phones – on the grounds that he posed a threat to national security. Two months later, when tipped off that he was being tapped, Koukakis confronted the authorities. His spying stopped that very day.
And that seemed to be the end of it. But in July 2021 he received an SMS message from an unknown number. “Thanasis, did you know about this?” read the message in Greek, followed by an internet link, which he clicked on. That link infected his iPhone with Predator, a spyware app that sent his phone data to a mysterious company called Intellexa, registered in Cyprus but based in Athens.
Concretely, in September 2021 Nikos Androulakis – a member of the European Parliament and at that time with a high chance of taking over the leadership of Pasok, the Greek center-left party which is the traditional rival of Mitsotakis’ formation – received the same internet connection. Except he didn’t press her. Only a few days passed and, for reasons the government has yet to satisfactorily explain, he was legally under surveillance by the Greek intelligence services.
In the country, wiretapping has been a sinister feature of the Greek state for decades. But under Mitsotakis, nationwide espionage has expanded, becoming a largely unaccountable bureaucracy. One of his first moves as prime minister was to bring the intelligence services under the direct control of his office, and then install – by legislative amendment – the former head of a global security firm as their head. Since then the number of intercepted phones in Greece has only increased. Last year, on average, 42 devices were authorized for wiretapping each day, totaling more than 15,000 phones being spied on by the government at any given time.
That’s a staggering figure. And yet, this form of interception has always been legal – at least in theory. The use of the Predator app, which has been explicitly condemned by the EU, is a completely different story. Is it possible that the Greek secret services, which were already managing a vast espionage campaign, have delegated even more intrusive wiretapping to a mysterious private company? Could the Mitsotakis government be behind these hacking activities?
The prime minister’s office gives us a clue. On his fourth day in power, Mitsotakis appointed Grigoris Dimitriadis – his former election campaign director and also his nephew – as secretary general to the prime minister. The position is a crucial one in Greece, being an information channel between the prime minister and, in addition to other state institutions, the national security complex. In recent months, Greek journalists have made a series of sensational revelations about Dimitriadis, the most relevant being that, while in office, he made financial transactions with a circle of businessmen who also had business with the owner of Intellexa.
It is not clear whether Mitsotakis knew, and if so to what extent, about the use of the Predator app in Greece. He has yet to even address the matter directly, instead hinting that the scandal involving his government could be the work of “dark forces outside of Greece”. Members of his cabinet, however, denied the allegations. “The Greek state has not procured any illegal espionage systems from companies like Predator,” a minister insisted in June. But the question remains whether or not the Mitsotakis government bought information obtained through this form of espionage.
Currently, questions abound. Intellexa’s Athens headquarters have not yet been raided and can be assumed to be still operating. Why? The fallout seems to have been reserved for others: Mitsotakis’s spy chief and general secretary also resigned in early August. None of the resignations, both the prime minister’s office and a government official were quick to clarify, have absolutely nothing to do with the Predator attacks. One would have engaged in “improper actions” and the other would have been a victim of a “toxic climate”. What those actions consisted of and why that climate became toxic has not been specified.
The issue here is not necessarily that corruption has become even deeper under Mitsotakis compared to previous governments – or many other European governments. (Opposition leaders and journalists have also been attacked with spyware in France, Spain, Hungary and Poland.) Rather, it’s about the impossible-to-justify contradiction between the country that Mitsotakis insists on presenting abroad – a flawless democratic state whose respect for the rule of law and whose liberal certification should be rewarded with corporate investment and tourism dollars—and the one he actually leads.
In May, as the spying scandal began to close in on him, Mitsotakis flew to Washington to address Congress on the importance of upholding democratic values and fighting autocratic excesses. For 40 minutes he detailed the need for social trust and robust institutions. “The ancient Greeks,” he said between rounds of applause, “thought that arrogance, extremism and excess were the worst threats to democracy.”