Greek government admits scale of its own 'Watergate' scandal

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The Independent Online

The scandal of the unidentified eavesdroppers has provoked fury and confusion in equal measure in a country that all but bankrupted itself in staging the Games 18 months ago.

Despite spending £800m on Olympic security, a government spokesman was forced to admit yesterday that phone tapping "started before the 2004 Olympic games and probably continued until March 2005, when they were discovered".

Among those who had their mobile conversations listened in on are the country's most prominent politicians, top military and police officials, several Arab businessmen, the Athens mayor and journalists. A number at the US embassy was also tapped. What has further angered Greeks was the admission that it was not the government that discovered the surveillance system but Vodafone, the mobile phone company, whose software was hacked into to set up the tap. The Public Order Minister, Giorgos Voulgarakis, told a news conference: "Had it not been for the check it is very conceivable the wiretaps would have continued." He said the eavesdropping was made possible when spy software installed in the provider's central offices diverted calls to an array of mobile phones acting as interceptors.

Mr Voulgarakis said the calls were being relayed to unknown destinations via four mobile phone antennas. The antennas cover a zone in the centre of Athens that includes the US embassy. But the government has refused to speculate whether foreign agencies were involved. However, the government was unable to offer any information as to who the perpetrators may have been. "It was an unknown individual, or individuals, who used high technology," the spokesman said.

Opposition parties have accused the government of being incapable of defending national security or citizen's rights. "This is the tip of the iceberg of the lack of transparency and decay," said the main opposition party leader, George Papandreou.

The Greek press have also asked questions about the handling of the case. In their editorials, pro-government and opposition papers alike have questioned the lack of security provided to citizens and demanded an in-depth investigation into the affair.

The case has been handed to a public prosecutor to investigate possible espionage charges.

The daily newspaper Ta Nea, which originally broke the story on Friday, was one of the many publications asking why Vodafone Greece, a subsidiary of the British firm Vodafone, shut down the illegal software as soon as it was discovered, instead of reporting it to the authorities and waiting for further instructions. This shutting down of the operation has made it impossible for the authorities to trace the taps.

The government has pledged that the inquiry will be full and fair. "Due process has been and will be followed," Panos Livadas, the general secretary at the ministry of state, said.