Felipe Gonzalez is in trouble again. Days before Spain assumes the EU presidency, the Prime Minister - obsessed with projecting an unruffled image to the world - finds his Socialist government embroiled in perhaps its worst scandal.
The state intelligence service, Cesid, for years recorded and kept the taped telephone conversations of the King and dozens of lesser mortals, apparently without the Prime Minister's knowledge. The revelation has scandalised the public more than any of the government's previous misdeeds and has set politicians speculating about a possible conspiracy against Spain's young democracy.
The defence minister of the time, Narcis Serra, yesterday explained to sceptical and at times rowdy MPs how Cesid apparently escaped government control between 1984 to 1991 to conduct illegal bugging that Mr Gonzalez says he learnt about only from reading the anti-government newspaper El Mundo.
Mr Gonzalez watched tense and grim-faced as Mr Serra, his deputy prime minister and right-hand man, spoke. It was not true, Mr Serra said, that Cesid had spied on private citizens. Cesid "did not organise any conspiracy of espionage against politicians, businessmen or journalists. It never tried to interfere with private telephone conversations. What happened was that a breach of internal instructions of the control of information caused the facts we are analysing today".
The leader of the conservative Popular Party, Jose Maria Aznar, cancelled a trip to the US to attend, but the opposition counterattack was led by his deputy, Francisco Alvarez Cascos. "The truth threatens to finish Mr Gonzalez, so Mr Gonzalez has no alternative but to destroy the truth," Mr Alvarez Cascos said. Ignorance of the facts was no excuse, he said.
Cesid's boss, Emilio Alonso Manglano, who was sacked last week, was yesterday accused by a military judge of illegal phonetapping and allowed to remain free on bail of 1m pesetas (pounds 5,320). His deputy, Juan Alberto Perote, suspected of filching the tapes when he left Cesid in 1991 and passing them to the press, is in military detention accused of revealing secrets affecting national security.
Mr Gonzalez has asked the Attorney General to investigate who taped the conversations and how the tapes were spirited out of Cesid's archives. He plans no action until the inquiry is complete at the end of the month. His response, condemned by one commentator yesterday as "the judicialising of a politicial crisis", follows a well-established pattern. Critics complain that this tactic of handing hot potatoes to the labyrinthine legal system is simply a ruse to gain time and get Mr Gonzalez off the hook.
Some Socialist MPs speculate that the man behind the scam is Mario Conde, the disgraced banking supremo sacked as boss of Banesto bank in 1994 and jailed for suspected criminal fraud and embezzlement. Mr Conde said months ago when freed on 10m pesetas bail that he was victim of political dirty tricks and, according to press reports, accuses Mr Serra of having spied on his personal life using secret Cesid funds. Mr Conde is reported to have met Colonel Perote shortly before the story broke.
Police confess they have no leads about something on which an intelligence service worth its salt might have been expected to keep tabs: who planted the Eta car bomb that devastated a street in the heart of Madrid on Monday, killing a policeman. It has prompted the question: what exactly is the point of Cesid?
In contrast to previous scandals, such as the absconding of the former Civil Guard chief Luis Roldan, or the activities of anti-Eta death-squads, which prompted Socialist ranks to clang shut, the bugging saga has opened wide fissures in the government.
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