How Denmark became the NSA's listening post in Europe

The Danish Foreign Intelligence Service has worked closely with American spies for decades.
The Danish Foreign Intelligence Service has worked closely with American spies for decades. © iStock

Sunday's revelations that Danish spies helped the US National Security Agency (NSA) monitor European leaders highlighted the pivotal role that the Scandinavian country has played for US intelligence services, a collaboration that has intensified over the years.

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Denmark served as an outpost for NSA agents spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other politicians across the Rhine, as well as French, Norwegian and Swedish personalities between 2012 and 2014, if not longer. That revelation, made public on May 30, was the result of an investigation by Danish public television (DR), with the cooperation of several European media outlets, including France’s Le Monde daily.

The ambition of American cyber spies who want to wiretap the whole world, including their allies, is nothing new. Edward Snowden's 2012 revelations exposed the broad reach of the country's massive cyber-surveillance programme. The Danish TV investigation is based on an internal Danish intelligence report commissioned in 2013 in response to the Snowden scandal, to determine the extent to which the United States had deployed its big ears on Danish soil.

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An unofficial member of the 'Five Eyes' club

Many were surprised to learn that the US had chosen this small country in northern Europe as its base for spying on its continental allies, and that the Danish Defense Intelligence Service (Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste, or FE) had agreed to collaborate with them.

Experts say they shouldn’t have been.

"It's not all that surprising, and these new revelations just add more detail to a scandal that broke last year in Denmark," Flemming Splidsboel Hansen, a specialist in international security issues at the Danish Institute of International Relations, told FRANCE 24. Indeed, the FE has been in the hot seat since the spring of 2020 for having allowed the NSA to wiretap Danish personalities and industrial groups.

"At the time, authorities were rather cryptic, saying only that they regretted that the Defense Intelligence Service had not intervened to prevent 'a foreign power' from spying on Danish soil," Splidsboel Hansen said. It took the tenacity of local media to discover that the unidentified spies were the Americans. "That is probably the only country that can afford to do that on our soil without fearing the consequences," Splidsboel Hansen added.

If the NSA appears to be able to use Denmark as a base for spying on Europe with impunity, it is thanks to a long tradition of collaboration between the two countries' intelligence services. "Denmark has become a sort of de facto and unofficial member of the 'Five Eyes' club (the grouping of the intelligence services of the five main English-speaking countries)," wrote the Danish weekly Weekendavisen.

Wires and wars

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 an espionage gold mine: the submarine cables that carried electronic communications between the United States and Europe ran through its territorial waters. The FE secretly succeeded in tapping into them and went to the US intelligence services to cash in on that access. "The NSA jumped at the opportunity," Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany's leading center-left newspaper, wrote.

Equally, Denmark has been engaged in a policy of military support for Washington that almost makes the United Kingdom look like a second-class ally. "We fought alongside the Americans in Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan. You could say that we are a warring country, and that has been the case for almost 30 years," Splidsboel Hansen said.

Such military collaboration "necessarily entails an increase in the exchange of intelligence”, Splidsboel Hansen added.

When the NSA was considering, at the end of the 2000s, setting up a data centre in Northern Europe to process some of the information it collects on the continent, Denmark seemed the natural home. With American help, the Defense Intelligence Service built a large data processing centre on the island of Amager, east of Copenhagen, which allowed the two intelligence services to exploit communications intercepted by US cyber surveillance.

What does Denmark get in return?

Washington values its northern European ally all the 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 years to come. "I think that collaboration will increase further, given the issues around the Arctic," Splidsboel Hansen said, referring to the growing competition for natural resources between Arctic nations.

This partnership between allied spies is not a one-way street. "It has allowed Denmark to have better quality American intelligence than Germany, for example," Splidsboel Hansen said. It also endows Copenhagen with "political weight in Washington that we would not have had otherwise," he continued.

But is that enough? The cascade of revelations over the past year over the assistance offered by Danish spies to their NSA colleagues come at a cost to the country's image. "This is surely not going to make relations between Denmark and the other states of the European Union any easier," Splidsboel Hansen said.

For the moment, though, he believes that it looks to have been worth the risk for Danish authorities. "What matters to leaders is the impact on national public 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 merely exploiting Denmark as a cheap cell tower for its cyber spies.

>>>Translated from the original in French

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