Sunday’s revelations that Danish spies helped the US National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor European leaders highlighted the crucial role that the Scandinavian country has played in US intelligence, a collaboration that has intensified over the years.
Denmark served as an outpost for NSA agents spies on German Chancellor Angela MerkeI and other politicians across the Rhine, as well as French, Norwegian and Swedish personalities between 2012 and 2014, if not longer. This revelation, which was published on May 30, was the result of an investigation by Danish public television (DR), in collaboration with several European media, including France’s daily Le Monde.
The ambition of American cyber spies who want to eavesdrop on the whole world, including their allies, is nothing new. Edward Snowden’s revelations from 2012 revealed the country’s wide reach massive cyber surveillance program. The Danish TV investigation is based on an internal Danish intelligence report that was commissioned in 2013 in response to the Snowden scandal to determine the extent to which the United States had placed its big ears on Danish soil.
An unofficial member of “Five Eyes” club
Many were surprised to hear that the United States had chosen this small country in northern Europe as a base to spy on its continental allies, and that the Danish Defense Intelligence Service (Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste, or FE) had agreed to cooperate with them.
Experts say they should not have been.
“It’s not so surprising, and these new revelations only add more detail to a scandal that broke out last year in Denmark,” Flemming Splidsboel Hansen, a specialist in international security at the Danish Institute for International Relations, told FRANCE 24. The fact is that FE has been in hot seats since the spring of 2020 for allowing the NSA to intercept Danish personalities and industry groups.
“At that time, the authorities were quite cryptic and only said that they regretted that the defense intelligence service had not intervened to prevent” a foreign power “from spying on Danish soil, says Splidsboel Hansen. “It is probably the only country that can afford to do that on our land without fear of the consequences,” added Splidsboel Hansen.
If the NSA seems to be able to use Denmark as a base to spy on Europe with impunity, it is thanks to a long tradition of cooperation between the two countries’ intelligence services. “Denmark has become a kind of de facto and unofficial member of the club ‘Five Eyes’ (the grouping of intelligence services in the five main English-speaking countries),” wrote the Danish weekly Weekendavisen.
Pipelines and war
The connection between the northern European nation and the American superpower dates back to the early 1990s. At that time, Copenhagen realized that it was sitting on a spy gold mine: the submarine cables that carried electronic communications between the United States and Europe ran through its territorial waters. The FE secretly managed to take advantage of them and went to the US intelligence services to monetize that access. “The NSA jumped at the chance,” wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s leading center-left newspaper.
Similarly, Denmark has engaged in a policy of military support for Washington that almost makes Britain look like a second-class ally. “We fought with the Americans in Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. You could say we are a warring country, and that has been the case for almost 30 years,” said Splidsboel Hansen.
Such military cooperation “necessarily entails an increased exchange of intelligence”, Splidsboel Hansen added.
When the NSA considered setting up a data center in northern Europe in the late 2000s to process some of the information collected on the continent, Denmark seemed to be the natural home. With American help, the Defense Intelligence Service built a large data processing center on the island of Amager, east of Copenhagen, which made it possible for the two intelligence services to utilize communications captured by US cyber surveillance.
What does Denmark get in return?
Washington values its northern European ally even more because of its strategic location in the North Sea not far from the Arctic Ocean, which is likely to become even more important in the coming years. “I believe that cooperation will increase further, given the issues surrounding the Arctic,” said Splidsboel Hansen, referring to the growing competition for natural resources between Arctic countries.
This partnership between allied spies is not a one-way street. “It has made it possible for Denmark to have American intelligence of better quality than, for example, Germany,” said Splidsboel Hansen. It also gives Copenhagen “political weight in Washington that we otherwise would not have had”, he continued.
But is that enough? The cascade of revelations over the past year over the assistance that Danish spies offer their NSA colleagues is costing the country’s image. “This will certainly not make relations between Denmark and the other states in the European Union easier,” said Splidsboel Hansen.
At the moment, however, he believes that it seems to have been worth the risk to the Danish authorities. “What is important for leaders is the impact on national opinion, and so far the consequences have been limited,” he said.
Still, if more revelations are revealed, Splidsboel Hansen predicts that the pressure will increase on the Danish government to prove that Washington is not just using Denmark as a cheap cell tower for its cyber spies.
>>> Translated from original in French