Issues related to alleged Pegasus snooping would involve aspect of national security: Centre to SC

New Delhi, Aug 16 (PTI) The Centre told the Supreme Court on Monday that issues pertaining to alleged Pegasus snooping would involve aspects of national security and the attempt of the petitioners seeking probe into the matter appears to be to make a sensitive matter “sensational”.

The government, which said there is “nothing to hide” and it will constitute a committee of eminent experts to examine all the aspects related to the matter, told the apex court that this is a “highly technical issue” which needs expertise.

A bench headed by Chief Justice N V Ramana was told by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, that any discussion or debate on these issues would involve the aspect of national security.

The bench, also comprising justices Surya Kant and Aniruddha Bose, deliberated upon the aspect of whether the Centre, which on Monday filed a short-limited affidavit, should file a detailed affidavit in the matter.

“Essentially, if your lordships are convinced that this needs to be gone into, then there would be issues of national security,” Mehta told the bench which was hearing a batch of pleas seeking independent probe into the alleged surveillance of certain eminent people in India through the use of the Israeli spyware.

Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for veteran journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar who have filed one of the petitions in the matter, said the Centre should clearly state whether the government or their agencies have used Pegasus and there would not be any issue of national security in this.

The bench told Sibal that it cannot compel anyone to file affidavit.

Mehta said the government will appoint neutral eminent experts from the field and they would examine it and place it before the top court.

“I do not think the government can be more transparent and fair than this,” he said, adding that response given by the IT minister in the Parliament on the issue deals with every aspect.

Sibal argued that the Centre should file an affidavit and state on oath whether the government or its agencies have used Pegasus.

He said the limited affidavit filed by the Centre in the matter does not answer the issues raised by them.

“The matter, in my respectful submissions as an officer of the court and not as the one representing the government, cannot be as simple that you file affidavit whether Pegasus was used or not or whether it was purchased or not,” Mehta said.

“This is an issue where any answer, any discussion, any debate and any facts being placed would necessarily involve a kind of national security concern,” he added.

During the over one-hour long hearing, Mehta told the bench that petitioners have relied on reports published by a web portal.

“According to us, a false narrative is created,” he said, adding, “There is nothing to hide. Kindly appreciate the bona fide gesture of the government.”

The bench said it is not saying anything against the government but there are issues about areas in which the committee cannot go into.

Mehta said the apex court may lay down the terms and reference of the committee

“We are dealing with a sensitive matter and the attempt appears to be to make it sensational,” he said.

Mehta said there are official interceptions also which takes place as per the law and rules provided therein and there is a proper system in place for that.

While saying that it would continue hearing arguments in the matter on Tuesday, the bench told Mehta, “If you have any change in your mind, you tell us tomorrow”.

Senior advocate Rakesh Dwivedi, appearing for one of the petitioners, said the Centre’s submission that it would set up a committee of experts would not inspire confidence in the minds of people and instead, the court should appoint a panel and supervise it.

Sibal also raised objection over the affidavit filed by the Centre which has said that petitions filed in the matter are based on “conjectures and surmises” or on other unsubstantiated media reports.

Earlier in the day, the Centre filed an affidavit in the top court and said its position on the alleged Pegasus snooping has already been clarified in Parliament by IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw.

“A bare perusal of the captioned petition and other connected petitions makes it clear that the same are based on conjectures and surmises or on other unsubstantiated media reports or incomplete or uncorroborated material,” the affidavit said.

With a view to dispelling any wrong narrative spread by certain vested interests and with an object of examining the issues raised, the government will constitute a committee of experts, it said.

The apex court is hearing a batch of pleas, including the one filed by the Editors Guild of India, seeking independent probe into the alleged Pegasus snooping matter.

They are related to reports of alleged snooping by government agencies on eminent citizens, politicians and scribes by using Israeli firm NSO’s spyware Pegasus.

An international media consortium has reported that over 300 verified Indian mobile phone numbers were on the list of potential targets for surveillance using Pegasus spyware.

Earlier, during the hearing of the matter, the top court had said that allegations of Pegasus related snooping are “serious in nature” if reports on them are correct.

It had also asked the petitioners whether they had made any efforts to file a criminal complaint on this.

Editors Guild of India has sought in its plea that a special investigation team be set up to conduct a probe into reported surveillance of journalists and others.