The Supreme Court on Tuesday issued notice to the Centre seeking a comprehensive reply on whether the government used Pegasus, military-grade spyware to snoop on journalists, union cabinet ministers, top court judge when he was in office, civil rights activists, SC staffers and other private citizens.
"We do not want national security to be compromised, but the phones of individuals were attacked as per their claims. Only a competent authority can respond on that," Justice Surya Kant said addressing the Centre's concerns on national security.
The bench led by CJI NV Ramana along with Justices Aniruddha Bose and Kant has been hearing a batch of pleas seeking a court-monitored probe in the Pegasus snooping issue.
During the hearing, the Centre said it has "nothing to hide from the court" but added that it would prefer filing a detailed affidavit accepting or denying the use of Pegasus before an expert committee. Representing the Centre, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued that placing such facts in the public domain would have a detrimental effect on national security.
"Tomorrow, web portals will say military resources were used illegally. Let us have a committee and we will place all information before it," Mehta said. "All petitions ask for one thing, an inquiry by the Supreme Court. Yesterday, they asked that they just want the government to answer whether Pegasus was used. This software is purchased by all countries. But which software was used or not is never divulged by any country for national security reasons," Mehta added.
The top court listed the matter after 10 days, during which CJI Ramana said the bench would decide on whether to set up an Expert Committee as proposed by the government.
Unequivocally deny snooping allegations: Centre to SC
In its reply filed on Monday, the Centre "unequivocally" denied "all and any" allegations of snooping and said the accusations were mere "conjectures and surmises" based on "other unsubstantiated media reports or incomplete or uncorroborated material."
However, to prevent dispel a "wrong narrative" shared by "vested interests", the government offered to constitute a "neutral" Committee of Experts that would probe this issue.
On Monday, when the court expressed its unhappiness over the government's reply, Mehta said the subject matter would implications on national security and could not be addressed by way of affidavits.
Referring to Union Minister of Information and Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw's statement before the Parliament that was annexed in the reply, Mehta said the concerned minister had already given details as to how the Pegasus issue has been raging fire over the past few years.
"We are dealing with a sensitive matter, but an attempt is being made to make this sensational," Mehta had said. Mehta then asked that if the government said no, it did not use Pegasus, would the petitioners withdraw their applications filed in this court.
Centre's reply skimpy and non-committal: Petitioners to SC
Even as the top court had expressed its dissatisfaction over the Centre's two-page reply filed on Monday "unequivocally" denying "all and any" allegations of snooping, the petitioners said the reply was "skimpy" and "delightfully non-committal".
Advocates representing the petitioners said the Centre was being evasive and urged the bench to direct the Home Ministry, to file a more comprehensive reply addressing key issues including answering a key question: Did the government or any of its agencies use Pegasus?
Appearing for journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar, senior advocate Kapil Sibal said: "The government of India must state on oath if they or their agencies have ever used Pegasus. This fact has to be either denied or accepted. That has not been done in the affidavit filed by the Centre.
Sibal argued that the issue at hand was not about a breach of individuals' rights, but about "institutions". It was about the protection of the judiciary and the media—two pillars of democracy which was attacked by Pegasus, Sibal added.
"France has started a national level investigation through court procedures, Israel is also conducting the enquiry, but the Indian government says all is fine. This is wholly unacceptable," Sibal had said.
The competent authority is the Home Secretary and not the IT ministry which had filed the response, Sibal said. "If an interception is allowed legally then the home secretary will know. If he says he doesn't know then it has been done without his knowledge. France has started a national level probe through court procedures, Israel is also conducting an enquiry, but the Indian government says all is fine," he added.
Updated On: 2021-08-17T14:10:50+05:30