Pegasus: Supreme Court Issues Notice to Centre on Pleas for Independent Probe

The solicitor general claimed that a public affidavit on the matter would compromise national security, as terrorists may be able to shield themselves from Pegasus.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday issued notice to the Union government on a batch of pleas seeking an independent probe into the Pegasus snooping allegations. However, the bench said that it did not want the government to disclose anything which might “compromise national security”.

A bench headed by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana sought the Union’s response on the pleas and said it will take up the matter after 10 days and see what course should be adopted.

The bench, also comprising Justices Surya Kant and Aniruddha Bosee, told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta that the apex court does not want the government to disclose anything which may compromise national security. “We do not want national security to be compromised, but the phones of individuals were attacked as per their claims. Only a competent authority can respond on that,” Justice Surya Kant said.

The top court said this after Mehta argued that divulging the information in an affidavit, as sought by the petitioners, would involve aspects of national security.

According to Bar and Bench, Mehta said that the government is willing to give details whether Pegasus was used or not to an expert committee but not make it public before the court as it will help terrorists and other similar elements to take preventive steps.

“The government does not mind saying it before an expert group. Suppose a terrorist organisation uses technology to communicate with sleeper cells and we say we are using Pegasus they will modulate the apparatus in such a way that it is not Pegasus compatible,” the Solicitor General said.

Also read: Backstory: Amidst Pegasus Storm Comes a Reminder That Parliament, Media Are Parallel Sites of Deliberation

He further said, “We can divulge to committee of experts and the expert body will be a neutral body. The committee will place its report before the court. But how can we sensationalise the issue? Would you as a constitutional court expect such issues to be divulged before the court and put it up for public debate.”

On August 16, Monday, the Union government filed an affidavit before the apex court saying that it will constitute a committee of experts to look into the Pegasus spyware scandal. The government did not say who will be on the committee or the timeframe for its investigation. However, the top court said the affidavit has not satisfied allegations on whether or not Pegasus spyware was used by the government.

Mehta replied to the court’s observations saying that the issue involved aspects of national security and was not simple enough to be addressed through affidavits.

Mehta’s claim on “compromising national security” if the Pegasus row is discussed in court is surprising, given that some branches of the Union government have already spoken in the parliament about whether or not they bought and used Pegasus. However, the Modi government has remained silent on whether the Indian government as a whole has purchased the spyware.

On August 9, minister of state for defence Ajay Bhatt, while replying to a question in Rajya Sabha, said, “Ministry of Defence has not had any transaction with NSO Group Technologies.” He was asked whether the government had carried out any transaction with the NSO Group Technologies.

The NSO claims that the military-grade spyware is only sold to “vetted governments” and the Indian government has neither denied nor confirmed purchasing Pegasus. The Union government also avoided a discussion on the Pegasus row in spite of the Opposition’s unrelenting demand for talks and a judicial inquiry into the revelations.

The government moved to disallow a question raised by CPI MP Binoy Viswam in the Rajya Sabha seeking details of whether the government entered into a contract with the NSO Group. It cited that “the ongoing issue of Pegasus” is sub judice after “several PILs have been filed in the Supreme Court”. The question was addressed to the Ministry of External Affairs.

IT and communications minister Ashwini Vaishnaw – whose number was among the 300 verified Indian numbers listed as potential targets for surveillance during 2017-2019 – had said in parliament that the reports were “aimed at maligning Indian democracy.”

The court is hearing a batch of pleas, including the one filed by Editors Guild of India, seeking independent probe into the matter.

A total of nine petitions had been filed on the findings made public by the Pegasus Project, a collaborative investigation that involves more than 80 journalists from 17 news organisations – including The Wire – in 10 countries, coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab.

Read The Wire’s coverage of the Pegasus Project here.