European leaders as well as many EU media outlets were shocked to learn that the U.S. had chosen Denmark, a small country in northern Europe, as its base for spying on its continental allies, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Danish Defense Intelligence Service (Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste,or FE),the country’s secret services, had agreed to collaborate with the U.S. National Security Agency（NSA) to spy on top European Union（EU) politicians under the Barack Obama administration, according to Danish public broadcaster Danmarks Radio (DR).
That revelation, made public at the end of May, was the result of an investigation by DR, with the cooperation of several European media outlets, including France’s Le Monde, German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung, German broadcasters NDR and WDR, and public broadcasters from Sweden (SVT) and Norway (NRK).
Citing nine unidentified sources familiar with the investigation, the allegations are contained in an internal classified report on the FE’s role in the surveillance partnership agreement with the NSA from 2012 to 2014, if not longer.
Merkel was reportedly among the main targets, as well as two of her past rivals for the chancellery, the former German opposition leader and Social Democrats Peer Steinbrück and Germany’s then-foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is now the country’s president.
DR also reported that other high-level officials had been surveilled from Norway and Sweden, though did not name them. The Danish broadcaster said NSA whose alleged tapping of Merkel’s mobile phone was first disclosed by former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013.
Snowden shared documents with The Guardian showing that a US official had handed the agency 200 phone numbers, including those of world leaders, for the agency to monitor.
The report did not name any of the 35 world leaders that were allegedly on in the list. However, few months after the initial reports, the German government publicly said it
had information that suggested the U.S. might have monitored Merkel’s mobile phone.
Germany’s Federal Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into the allegation, but dropped it in 2015, saying it had uncovered insufficient evidence to launch a successful prosecution.
The new investigation details alleged support from the Defense Intelligence Service (FE). The connection between Denmark and United States dates back to the early 1990s.
At that time, FE realized that it was sitting on an espionage gold mine: the submarine cables that carried electronic communications between the U.S. and Europe ran through its territorial waters.
FE secretly succeeded in tapping into them and went to the U.S. intelligence services to cash in on that access.
When Washington was considering, at the end of the 2000s, setting up a data center in Northern Europe to process some of the information it collects on the continent, Denmark seemed the natural home. With the help of NSA, the Defense Intelligence Service built a large data processing center on the island of Amager, southeast of Copenhagen, which allowed the two intelligence services to exploit communications intercepted by U.S. cyber surveillance, according to the investigation.
The intelligence was gathered through an analysis of software known as Xkeyscore, developed by the NSA, according to DR. And the agency “intercepted both calls, texts and chat messages to and from telephones of officials in the neighbouring countries.” The alleged set-up allowed the NSA to obtain data using the telephone numbers of politicians as search parameters. The FE’s subsequent secret investigation into the affair was codenamed “Operation Dunhammer” and concluded in 2015.
“Denmark has become a sort of de facto and unofficial member of the ‘Five Eyes’ club,” wrote the Danish weekly Weekendavisen.
“The NSA jumped at the opportunity,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s leading center-left newspaper, wrote.
This partnership between allied spies is not a one-way street. The cascade of revelations over the past year over the assistance offered by Danish spies to their NSA colleagues, however, come at a cost to the country’s image.
“It has allowed Denmark to have better quality American intelligence than Germany, for example,” said Flemming Splidsboel Hansen, a specialist in international security issues at the Danish Institute of International Relations. It also endows Copenhagen with “political weight in Washington that we would not have had otherwise,” Hansen continued.
“This is surely not going to make relations between Denmark and the other states of the European Union any easier,” Hansen added. 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 if more revelations are revealed,Hansen predicts.
Leaders in Europe have reacted to the revelations that Danish authorities cooperated with the NSA’s spying operations. After a virtual Franco-German meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the actions by Danish authorities. Both Macron and Merkel said they expected the U.S. and Danish governments to present explanations over allegations Washington spied on European allies with Copenhagen’s aid.
“If the information is true,” Macron said during a statement to the press following a virtual Franco-German summit , these practices are “unacceptable between allies, and even less acceptable between European allies and partners.” Macron urged for the U.S. to make “full clarity” on the “past facts,” but also on “current practices.”
Merkel said she agreed with French President Emmanuel Macron’s assertion that wiretapping between allies was unacceptable. But Berlin seemed to take a slightly softer tone.
“Nothing has changed in our stance to the clarification given by the predecessor at the time,” Merkel said, referencing the initial claims raised in 2013.
Merkel at the time declared that “spying among friends” was unacceptable. Steinbrück, on the other hand, told DR that it would be hypocritical for Germany to express discontent over Denmark’s alleged spying, as the 2013 intelligence leak made by Edward Snowden revealed that the German intelligence service BND had spied on other countries both on its own and while working with the NSA.
Both Norway and Sweden appeared reluctant to confront U.S. officials over reports the U.S. spied on their leaders.
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her defense minster, Frank Bakke-Jensen, Solberg called any such spying “unacceptable” but added that the U.S.s had given assurances it had stopped spying on its allies in 2014, after Oslo launched a protest against the practice. She even said that wasn’t worried if they’d spied on her personally, suggesting she leads a “boring” life.
“Spying on others “creates more mistrust than it creates collaboration. So, it’s not a smart investment for the United States,” she told the Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
Solberg said she had also spoken with her Danish counterpart, Mette Frederiksen, about the case.
“I reiterated to her that we consider spying on close friends and allies as unacceptable and unnecessary,” Solberg said.
Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said he had been “in contact with Denmark’s defense minister to ask if Danish platforms have been used to spy on Swedish politicians.”
Danish Defense Minister Trine Bramsen only gave a blanket condemnation. She told DR that”systematic eavesdropping of close allies”was “clearly unacceptable”.
“The Danish government can and will not comment on speculation in the media concerning our intelligence services,” said Bramsen in a statement.
The ambition of American cyber spies who want to wiretap the whole world, including their allies, is nothing new. The U.S. is globally recognized as the world’s largest perpetrator of espionage. It has diverse means to commit acts of espionage including stealing data and manipulating applications on mobile phones using analog mobile base station signals, hacking cloud servers, spying through submarine cables, and installing surveillance equipmentin in nearly 100 embassies and consulates overseas to spy on other countries.
Reports of the NSA spying on U.S. allies first came to light in 2013 through disclosures by Snowden. He exposed the broad reach of the country’s massive cyber-surveillance program. The Danish broadcaster investigation is based on an internal Danish intelligence report commissioned in 2013 in response to the Snowden’s revelation, to determine the extent to which the United States had deployed its big ears on Danish soil.
In the wake of the 2013 Snowden reports, Obama committed to stop spying on allies. However, it was not clear at this point whether the spying via Denmark happened prior to, or after, this promise.
As the election winding dowin in Germany, German’s new leader may wonder whether his phone has been, or will be tapped again. In fact, no one really know whether U.S. have ever stopped spying on its European allies or any other countries.