“Systematic wiretapping of close allies is unacceptable,” came a recent comment from Danish Defence Minister Trine Bramsen. And yet, it appears this is exactly what Denmark has been doing. Bramsen was responding to reporting that revealed the Danish Defence Intelligence Service (Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste, or FE) had cooperated with the US National Security Agency (NSA) to enable spying on several European partners and close allies.
Considering the major reputational costs that would surely have been evident from the outset, why did Denmark agree to this partnership? Why would it allow the NSA to use Danish data cables to spy on senior officials in France, Germany, Norway and Sweden, including German chancellor Angela Merkel?
For a Danish audience this scandal is part of a longer story. In 2019, the independent board overseeing Danish intelligence services (Tilsynet med Efterretningtjenesterne, created in 2014 after the Edward Snowden leaks) received information about the FE collaborating with the NSA. The board produced a report in August 2020 criticising the intelligence service for serious wrongdoings.
Still little is known of the board’s strictly confidential four-volume report, which was submitted to Bramsen, but its press statement publicly criticised the FE for initiating “operational activities in violation of Danish law, including by obtaining and passing on a significant amount of information about Danish citizens”.
As a result of the report, five top intelligence officials were removed from office. A few months later, media reports revealed that the collaboration had enabled the NSA not only to spy on neighbouring countries’ officials, but also Danish ministries and defence companies.
The exact nature of the retrieved information and how it was used is unclear but the fact that any information of this kind was gathered at all is in complete contrast to the FE’s purpose to prevent and counter threats to Denmark and Danish interests.
The most recent media reporting suggests in more detail that the FE had collaborated with the NSA to allow the US to spy on neighbouring countries though Danish internet cables between 2012 and 2014. It was revealed that the NSA was purposefully targeting high-ranking European officials, using their phone numbers as “selectors” to identify data of interest.
Why chance it?
Denmark’s geographical location makes the country attractive for the NSA, not least because it hosts several key underwater cables for neighbouring countries. These cables can be used to get information about not only internet access, chats and messaging services, but also text messages and phone calls.
When considering why Denmark would allow itself to become a conduit for espionage against its allies, it’s worth remembering that, as a small country, it is dependent on security guarantees from other states. Denmark has aligned itself closely with the US – the world’s largest military superpower – not just through NATO, but also bilaterally. For Denmark, the cooperation with the US and the NSA is crucial, both in terms of technology and access to intelligence.
The FE is highly dependent on the NSA to combat terrorism. Through the NSA, it gains access to advanced technology such as the program Xkeyscore, used to search through and filter the raw data from the cables. It also seems that the FE had access to information about planned terror attacks via the NSA.
Even though progress has been made on the European side in regard to increasing cooperation on security and defence matters, Nato and particularly the US continue to be Denmark’s most important security guarantor.
Since the 1990s, but particularly since 9/11, Danish foreign policy has been described as “super-atlanticist” – prioritising building common values and interests with the US. This “strong and seemingly unwavering support for the American world order” means Denmark is “willing to pursue costly and risky policies to support the superpower”.
Additionally, Denmark remains to a large extent outside European Union security and defence cooperation because of its defence opt-out. Negotiated after the Danish population rejected the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum in 1992, the defence opt-out prevents the country from participating in those parts of the EU’s foreign and security policy that affect defence and any military cooperation at EU level.
This puts the relationship to the US (and Nato) at the forefront of Danish security and defence decision-making. Nor does the EU (yet) have the strength to defend itself against Russia and China should the need arise, which in part explains the draw of the US partnership.
Facing the music
The French government described the allegations against Denmark as “extremely serious”, with President Emmanuel Macron pointing out that “this is not acceptable between allies, and even less between allies and European partners”.
Merkel agrees, but has struck a more conciliatory tone, seeing “a good basis not only for the resolution of the matter, but also to really come to trusted relations”. However, Peer Steinbrück, former German opposition leader and candidate for chancellor, called it a political scandal.
Even closer to home, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said “it is unacceptable if countries which have close allied cooperation feel the need to spy on one another”. Peter Hultqvist, Sweden’s defence minister, has demanded “full information”.
Much of these events date back to the time of the Snowden years, when it was revealed that even Germany’s foreign intelligence agency cooperated with the NSA to spy on its neighbours. It thus remains to be seen how much damage will really be done to Denmark’s relations with the rest of Europe. A government-commissioned investigation is due to report back later in 2021.
However, it may be that this scandal might provide an opportunity for Denmark to take an honest look at its security and defence priorities – and its relations with European allies. A recent poll shows that 66% of Danes believe that Europe cannot always rely on the US and needs to look after its own defence capabilities. This puts Denmark’s super-atlanticist orientation into question and suggests its most important strategic partners may lie closer to home.
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