(CN) — The U.S. National Security Agency spied on top European politicians, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with the help of Denmark's intelligence services between 2012 and 2014, according to European news reports.
On Sunday, Danish public broadcaster Danmarks Radio and other European news outlets, including Le Monde and Süddeutsche Zeitung newspapers, reported that the Danish Defense Intelligence Service, known as the Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste (FE) in Danish, gave the NSA access to subsea internet cables that allowed the U.S. agency to spy on numerous politicians in neighboring countries. Denmark, a European Union and NATO member, is a critical hub for internet and communications connections in Europe and beyond.
The news reports were based on an internal classified probe that the Danish government allegedly sat on for years. The reports shed more light on secret NSA surveillance programs that American whistleblower Edward Snowden first exposed in 2013.
U.S. President Joe Biden was the vice president when Snowden went public. At a moment when Biden is trying to reenergize the transatlantic relationship, the new revelations about Denmark's willingness to let the American spy agency eavesdrop on its neighbors — reportedly, Germany, Sweden, Norway and France — damages the unity of the EU and erodes trust.
Biden is expected to make his first trip as president to Europe in less than two weeks for a G7 summit in southwest England. Some European politicians say it is time for the U.S. and EU to sign a pact promising not to spy on each other.
On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron and Merkel denounced the Danish-American cooperation.
“I want to say that this is unacceptable between allies. That's clear,” Macron said at a joint news conference with Merkel. He demanded “complete transparency” from Copenhagen and Washington.
Merkel, speaking by via link, agreed with Macron, but she was mild in her response and said Denmark was cooperating. The NSA's espionage campaign on Merkel was revealed by Snowden in 2013, though the links to Denmark are new. The German government said it was unaware of Denmark's involvement until the news reports emerged Sunday evening.
The Danish government has not responded to the reports, though Trine Bramsen, the Danish defense minister, issued a statement saying “systematic eavesdropping of close allies” was “clearly unacceptable.”
Danmarks Radio reported the NSA collected everything from text messages to telephone calls made by European politicians, but only the names of three top German politicians were released in the news reports.
Besides Merkel, the NSA allegedly spied on Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democratic politician who served as Germany's foreign minister between 2013 and 2017 before becoming Germany's president, and Peer Steinbrück, the candidate for chancellor for the center-left Social Democrats in Germany's 2013 federal elections.
Steinbrück called it “grotesque” and “absurd” that FE allowed NSA to spy on politicians from a country allied with the U.S.
The data collected from internet lines were allegedly sent to a secret center run by the FE at Sandagergard, which is near Copenhagen's main airport.
Huge volumes of internet data were then analyzed by the NSA's surveillance program known as “XKeyscore,” the news reports state. Last year, the FE came under fire for illegally monitoring people in Denmark, a revelation that led to top-level resignations at the agency.
The NSA has shared its XKeyscore technology with other intelligence agencies, including Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (BND) and with the United Kingdom, according to Snowden's leaked files. Snowden said XKeyscore gave the NSA the ability to track almost anyone it wanted on the internet.
Legally, this kind of political espionage may not violate international law.
“Political espionage isn’t prohibited by international law. That’s the reality. It’s not nice, it’s not always decent — but there’s no problem with it when you consider international law,” Bart Groothuis, a Dutch European Parliament member, said in an interview with Politico. Groothuis is working on a new EU cybersecurity bill in the Brussels parliament.
Many European politicians expressed fury and indignation over the latest revelations.
Jens Holm, a member of Swedish parliament with the Swedish Left Party, called Denmark's actions “extremely outrageous.”
“We need to know who has been monitored, when and in what way,” Holm said in an interview with SVT, a Swedish public broadcaster that was part of a group of news outlets that revealed the U.S.-Denmark surveillance program. “It's extremely outrageous.”
He said he wants to know if his communications were collected. As a human rights advocate and a member of the Swedish parliament since 2010, he was concerned the U.S. spy agency may have obtained information about people he came into contact with. He said he's been in touch with Palestinians involved in the conflict with Israel, political activists in Colombia who are in danger from paramilitary groups and people who give shelter to refugees.
Holm said the NSA might have been interested in monitoring his communications due to his activism on behalf of Snowden, whom he nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Holm visited Snowden in Moscow in 2015.
Others, however, saw the spying revelations as simply part of what countries do.
“It's about interests, not friendships,” said Patrick Sensburg, a parliamentary member of Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union in Germany. Sensburg said it is common for countries, including European ones, to spy on each other.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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