The Government of India has denied illegal snooping, through Pegasus spyware, as an eyewash in a two-page affidavit. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, on behalf of the Union Government, said it is open to the Supreme Court appointing a technical committee to probe whether the Israeli spyware was purchased by the Centre, and if so, which of its agencies used it and for what purpose.
However, the bench of Chief Justice NV Ramana, and Justices Surya Kant and Aniruddha Bose said a technical committee has certain limitations as it can go into the issue. “How will a technical committee examine whether permissions by authorities were given for interception of telephones, whether procedures established by law were adhered to or not, and who purchased the software,” it asked. “Experts can go into the angle of whether particular software was used or not in the phones. Other issues about permissions and sanction, procurement, which agencies did this, private or state, has to be examined by somebody. Who will examine that?”
Mehta said the technical committee can be authorized by the Supreme Court to go into all issues. He argued that the government has nothing to hide. “The committee can comprise neutral and independent experts and authorized by the court to go into all issues. The government has no difficulty in agreeing to this. The Supreme Court using its powers under Article 32 of the Constitution can decide whatever will be the terms of reference for the committee.” The Solicitor General said the committee would then carry the mandate from the Supreme Court to go into all issues.
The government in its affidavit, filed by Additional Secretary in Ministry of Electronics & IT, stated that with a view to dispel any wrong narrative spread by certain vested interests and with an object of examining the issues raised, the Union Government will constitute a Committee of Experts in the field which will go into all aspects of the issue.
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for journalist N Ram and Sashi Kumar, highlighted that the government has revealed nothing as also its minister in Parliament. “There is an admission from the government in 2019 on the floor of Parliament that it was aware of 121 Indians being snooped upon through the use of Pegasus. What did they do? Did they lodge an FIR? Did they take the matter with Israel or started an inquiry as is being done by the USA and France? The government has to come clean on this,” Sibal argued.
He said the government needs to answer simple questions which would not touch upon national security concerns as feared by the solicitor general. “The government can answer whether it purchased Pegasus, for what price; which of its agencies used it and for what purpose. Once the government gives this answer through an affidavit filed either by the home secretary or the cabinet secretary, things would become clear. In reality, the government is answering none of these questions through its short affidavit.”
On its part, the Supreme Court asked the petitioners that if the government files an affidavit saying that it has nothing to do with Pegasus, will they be satisfied and withdraw their PILs? “We will continue tomorrow (Aug 17). If you have a change of mind, let us know tomorrow. If Mr Mehta may decide to file an affidavit, then we have nothing to say, else we will hear all of you,” the CJI said before winding up the hearing.
The bench said it cannot compel the Centre to file an affidavit if it is reluctant to do so.