How did the US National Security Agency use Denmark to spy on European leaders?

What was revealed Sunday of the assistance provided by Danish intelligence agents to the US National Security Agency to monitor and spy on European leaders is an affirmation of the leading role played by this Scandinavian country in assisting the US intelligence services. Cooperation strengthened and consolidated over the years.

Denmark served as a rear base for US National Security Agency agents to spy on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other German politicians as well as French, Norwegian and Swedish figures between at least 2012 and 2014. This is revealed by an investigation by the Danish Public Television (DR) published on Sunday 30 May, and was co-authored by several European media, including the French newspaper Le Monde.

The ambition of American digital agents to eavesdrop on the whole world, including their allies, is nothing new. What Edward Snowden disclosed in 2012 made it possible to learn the scale of the agency’s extensive cyber surveillance program. The Danish TV investigation is also based on an internal report in the Danish intelligence service in 2013 after the Snowden scandal to find out the extent of US wiretapping on the national soil.

Unofficial member of the “Five Eyes” club

The cooperation of the Danish Military Intelligence Service (Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste, FE) was highlighted in a public television report, but it was the Americans’ choice of this small northern European country as their base for wiretapping their allies on the Old Continent.

In fact, “this is not surprising, and these new discoveries add nothing but some details to a scandal that erupted last year in Denmark,” recalls Fleming Spledspol Hansen, an international security specialist at the Danish Institute of International Relations contacted by FRANCE 24. The Danish intelligence service has already been in trouble since the spring of 2020 after it was revealed that it had allowed the National Security Agency to wiretap personalities from large Danish industrial groups.

“At the time, the authorities were somewhat vague, claiming only to regret the absence of the intelligence service to prevent a foreign power from spying on Danish soil,” asserts this expert who worked himself for the Danish foreign intelligence service. It took stubbornness from the local media to get to the bottom of the fact that these spies are Americans. “Maybe it is the only country that can do this on our soil without fear of suffering the consequences,” asserts Fleming Spledspool Hansen.

If the US National Security Agency is able to use Denmark in this way with impunity to spread wiretapping tools across Europe, this is due to a long history of joint cooperation between the intelligence services of the two countries. “Denmark has become somewhat and de facto an unofficial member of the ‘Five Eyes Club’ (the intelligence grouping of the five major English-speaking countries),” asserts the Danish weekly Weekendavisen.

cables and wars

This rapprochement between the northern European country and the American superpower dates back to the early 1990s. It was then that Copenhagen realized that it was sitting on a goldmine of espionage: the undersea cables that run through its territory and carry electronic communications between the United States and Europe beneath the surface of its territorial waters. And the intelligence service succeeded in secret in planting devices on these submarine cables and turning this act into a source for obtaining funds from the American intelligence services. “The NSA has seized the opportunity,” says the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s leading center-left newspaper.

At the same time, Denmark has a policy of supporting Washington militarily, which could almost make the United Kingdom look like a second-class ally to Washington. “We fought alongside the Americans in Libya, Syria and even Afghanistan. We can say that we have been a country at war for nearly 30 years, and we continue to do so,” explains Fleming Spledspool Hansen. It is military cooperation that “necessarily requires cooperation at the level of information exchange and intelligence,” adds the specialist at the Danish Institute of International Relations.

When the US National Security Agency planned, in the late 2000s, to establish a data center in northern Europe to process part of the information it collected about the old continent, Denmark seemed the natural candidate to establish this center. Hence, the Danish intelligence built a large information processing center with American help on Amager Island, east of Copenhagen, which allows the two intelligence services to take advantage of all intercepted communications using American electronic monitoring methods.

What did Denmark get in return?

Washington is becoming more attached to its ally in Northern Europe whose strategic location – next to the North Sea and not far from the Arctic Ocean – is likely to gain significant importance in the coming years. “I think that the cooperation between the two parties will be increased and strengthened due to issues related to the Arctic Ocean,” estimates Fleming Spledspool Hansen.

This cooperation between allied spies is not a one-way street. “It allowed Denmark to obtain much better American intelligence than, for example, Germany,” assures the Danish expert. It is also a way for Copenhagen “to obtain political credit in Washington that it would not have otherwise had.”

But is this enough? There is no doubt that the continued disclosure, nearly a year ago, of the assistance provided by Danish intelligence agents to their colleagues in the US National Security Agency will affect the country’s image in the world. “This will certainly be reflected in the relations between Denmark and other countries in the European Union,” admits Fleming Speledesbühl Hansen.

For now, this expert believes the game is still worth the trouble for the Danish authorities. “What matters to leaders is the impact they have on national public opinion. So far, the consequences are still limited.” But if new information continues to be revealed, Hansen expects pressure to grow on the Danish authorities to prove that Washington is not exploiting it for free.




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