Change of stand on Pegasus Centre refuses to file detailed affidavit
- Not a matter for public domain, govt tells SC
- Apex court to pass interim order in a day or two
New Delhi: The NDA government on Monday said "it had nothing to hide" but cited "national security" to tell the Supreme Court that it would not file a detailed affidavit in response to petitions seeking a formal inquiry into the Pegasus spyware scandal.
"Filing an affidavit and making it public discourse is not possible as it will affect national security... We cannot let terrorists know what software is used..." Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told a three-member bench headed by Chief Justice NV Ramana.
"No, Mr Mehta, last time we wanted an affidavit and that is why we granted you time and now you are saying this... we are going back again and again... we reiterate... we don't want to know about national security. The issue is... we have citizens saying their phones were tapped," the Chief Justice stressed.
"We have to do something. You have something else to say..." he asked Mehta, to which the Solicitor General said: "No". "Mr Mehta... beating about the bush will not solve the issue. Let us see what order we have to pass," the Chief Justice said.
The court has reserved interim orders and said it will announce these in two to three days. It has also, however, offered the government a measure of reprieve, saying it can approach the court before then if it changes its mind on filing an affidavit.
An annoyed Supreme Court earlier reminded the Union government that it was only asked to respond to claims individuals' phones had been hacked. "Last time also... we clarified nobody... is going to intervene in a way that affects national security..." Justice Surya Kant said, adding, "... there are claims of individual phones being hacked. Which agency has powers (to conduct surveillance on Indians and their phones) and whether it is authorised or not."
"If individuals are saying their privacy was violated... it is serious and we are ready to go into it. We will form a committee of experts," Mehta countered. But the court seemed unimpressed and pointed out "appointing a committee is not an issue". It also pointed out such a report would normally also be a matter of public record.
"... purpose of the affidavit was supposed to be that we know where you stand. As per your own IT Minister's statement in Parliament - that without subjecting the phone to technical analysis - it is hard to assess whether phone was hacked or not," the court added.
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for two of the petitioners, said: "... we don't want to hamper national security... (but) if Pegasus was used, and ordinary citizens targeted, it is very serious," he said, pointing to reports German police had bought and used Pegasus. "Why can't the Indian government not admit its use of Pegasus? Why should the government be allowed to set up a committee of its own?" he asked.
The government earlier filed a limited affidavit saying the petitions were based on "conjectures... or unsubstantiated media reports..". That petition referred to a statement by IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw that said "checks and balances" in the Indian judicial and executive systems precluded such illegal activities.
The Pegasus scandal involves allegations an Indian client of the NSO Group used the software to conduct illegal surveillance - as recently as July 14 - on 300+ Opposition leaders, journalists and others, including Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, Trinamool MP Abhishek Banerjee, poll strategist Prashant Kishor and industrialist Anil Ambani.