Pegasus row: SC issues notice to the Centre
Putting Narendra Modi Government in a tight spot, the Supreme Court Tuesday issued notice to the Centre in the controversial Pegasus snooping matter, making it clear that it did not want the government to disclose anything which compromises national security. The apex court, which asked the Centre what is the “problem” if the competent authority files an affidavit before it on the issue, said it was not asking the government to disclose any information which relates to security and defence of the nation as these things must be “confidential and secret”. The Centre has been asked to reply by 10 days by the top Court.
The bench headed by Chief Justice N V Ramana said this after Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, repeatedly said that divulging information on affidavit on the issue of whether the Israeli firm NSO‘s Pegasus spyware was used or not would involve the aspect of national security. The Bench said the petitioners, who are civilians and some of them are persons of eminence, have alleged snooping on their phones through the Israeli spyware.
Sibal said the government must reply to the fact whether Pegasus as technology was used or not.
“They are alleging snooping or hacking or whatever you call interception of their phones. Now, this can be done in the case of civilians also and rules permit this. But that can be done only with the permission of the competent authority. There is nothing wrong with that. What is the problem if that competent authority files an affidavit before us,” the bench, also comprising Justices Surya Kant and Aniruddha Bose, told Mehta. The bench said it doesn’t want even a word in the affidavit regarding the defence or national security of the country.
“That issue is absolutely beyond the domain of these proceedings and like you, we are extremely reluctant to know anything about that… That is something that must be confidential and secret. There is no issue on that,” the bench said. While referring to the aspect of national security, Mehta said the government is not saying it will not tell this to anyone. “I am just saying that I don’t wish to tell it publicly,” he told the bench, which posted the matter for hearing after 10 days.
He said the government had made its stand clear in the affidavit which was filed on Monday. “Our considered response is what we have respectfully stated in our last affidavit. Kindly examine the issue from our point of view as our affidavit is sufficient,” Mehta told the bench, adding, “The Government of India is before the highest court of the country.”
He said the Centre has said in its affidavit that it will constitute a committee of experts to examine all the aspects and the panel will submit its report before the top court. He said if the government of any country will divulge information about which software is used and which is not used, then those involved in terrorist activities may take pre-emptive steps. “We will have nothing to hide. These are the issues of national security. Which software is used or which is not used would essentially be a matter of national security which we cannot hide from the Court,” he said.
Mehta argued that the government will place all the material before the committee, which will consist of neutral experts and not government officials, and the panel will examine it and report to the apex court. “This can’t be a subject matter of affidavit and public debate,” he said, adding, “This is a sensitive matter and this has to be dealt with sensitivity.”
When Mehta referred to the national security aspect, the bench said it was not asking the government to disclose any such thing. “We as a court, you as the Solicitor General and all the lawyers as officers of this Court, none of us will like to compromise with the security of the nation. There is no question,” the bench said.
“We will issue a simple notice on these petitions. Let the competent authority under the rules take a decision as to what extent and what information is to be disclosed and then next course of action can be evolved,” it added. The bench told Mehta that it was not compelling the government to divulge any such information which it doesn’t want to.
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for veteran journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar who have filed a petition in the matter, said they do not want the state to divulge any information which may have bearing on national security. “On behalf of the petitioners, I state that the security of the State is as important to the citizens of this country as it is to the state. We don’t want the state to give us any information about any security aspect in respect of the use of any device. That is not our intention and that is not even the petition,” he said. The Court is hearing a batch of pleas, including journalists like Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Editors Guild of India, seeking an independent probe into the matter.
Sibal said the government must reply to the fact whether Pegasus as technology was used or not. Mehta said the Court may consider permitting the Centre to constitute a committee that will place the report before the bench. “This is all at the stage of admission (of petitions). We had thought that a comprehensive reply or something will come but now you have filed only a limited one, let us see. In the meanwhile, we will think over how to go ahead with the matter,” the bench observed.
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