How Denmark became the NSA’s listening post in Europe

Sunday’s revelations that Danish spies were helping the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) track European leaders highlighted the pivotal role the Scandinavian country has played for U.S. intelligence, a collaboration that has intensified over the years.

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, which was made public on May 30, was the result of an investigation by the Danish public television (DR), with the collaboration of several European media, including the French daily Le Monde.

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

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 a base for spying on its continental allies, and that the Danish Defense Intelligence Agency (Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste, or FE) had agreed to cooperate with them.

Experts say they shouldn’t have been.

“It’s not too surprising, and these new revelations only add more detail to a scandal that broke out in Denmark last year,” 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 spring 2020 for allowing the NSA to eavesdrop on Danish personalities and industry groups.

“At the time, the authorities were quite cryptic, saying only that they were sorry that Defense Intelligence had not intervened to prevent ‘a foreign power’ from spying on Danish soil,” Splidsboel Hansen said. It took the persistence of the local media to discover that the unidentified spies were the Americans. “That is probably the only country on our land that can afford to do that without fearing the consequences,” added Splidsboel Hansen.

If the NSA appears 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 intelligence services of both countries. “Denmark has become a kind of factual and unofficial member of the ‘Five Eyes’ club (the grouping of the intelligence services of the five main Anglophone 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. It was then that Copenhagen realized it was a spy gold mine: The submarine cables carrying electronic communications between the United States and Europe ran through territorial waters. The FE covertly managed to tap into them and went to US intelligence to cash in on that access. “The NSA seized the opportunity with both hands,” wrote the German center-left newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Likewise, Denmark is embroiled in a policy of military support for Washington, which almost makes the UK look like a second-class ally. “We fought alongside the Americans in Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. You could say we are a warring country, and we have been for nearly 30 years,” said Splidsboel Hansen.

Such military cooperation “necessarily entails an increase in intelligence sharing,” 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 it gathers on the continent, Denmark seemed its natural home base. With US help, the Defense Intelligence Agency built a large data processing center on Amager Island, east of Copenhagen, allowing the two intelligence agencies to take advantage of communications intercepted by US cyber-surveillance.

What does Denmark get in return?

Washington appreciates its Northern European ally all the more for 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 think cooperation will increase further given the problems around the Arctic,” said Splidsboel Hansen, referring to the growing competition for natural resources between Arctic countries.

This collaboration between Allied spies is not a one-way street. “It has enabled Denmark to have better quality American intelligence than, say, Germany,” said Splidsboel Hansen. It also lends Copenhagen “a political weight in Washington that we otherwise would not have had,” he continued.

But is that enough? The accumulation of revelations over the past year about the help that Danish spies have provided to their NSA colleagues is at the expense of the image of the country. “This will certainly not make relations between Denmark and the other states of the European Union any easier,” said Splidsboel Hansen.

For now, however, he believes it appears to have been worth the risk to the Danish authorities. “What matters to leaders is the impact on national public opinion, and so far the consequences have been limited,” he said.

But as more revelations are revealed, Splidsboel Hansen predicts that pressure will increase on the Danish government to prove that Washington is not just exploiting Denmark as a cheap cell tower for its cyber spies.

>>> Translated from the original into French

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