The United States used a partnership with Denmark’s foreign intelligence unit to spy on European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, according to Danish public broadcaster Danmarks Radio (DR).
The findings are the result of an internal investigation conducted by the Danish Defence Intelligence Service (FE) in 2014 and 2015, DR said in a report on Sunday, citing nine unnamed sources who had access to the classified information.
According to the investigation, the US National Security Agency (NSA) used a collaboration with FE to eavesdrop on Danish information cables to spy on senior officials in Sweden, Norway, France and Germany from 2012 to 2014.
In addition to Merkel, the NSA also spied on then-German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and former German opposition leader Peer Steinbruck, DR said.
The investigation found the NSA had access to extensive data streams that run through internet cables to and from Denmark and intercepted everything from text messages and telephone calls to internet traffic including searches, chats and messaging services.
Denmark, a close US ally, hosts several key landing stations for subsea internet cables to and from Sweden, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
One DR source described FE’s access to the cables as having “strategic significance” for relations between the US and Denmark.
The FE launched the internal investigation – code-named “Operation Dunhammer” – following concerns about Edward Snowden’s leaks in 2013 revealing how the NSA works.
But upon receiving the Dunhammer findings, FE’s top management at the time did not scrap the collaboration with the NSA, according to DR.
Danish Minister of Defence Trine Bramsen, who took over the defence portfolio in June 2019, was informed of the spying in August last year. That same month, she suspended the head of the Defence Intelligence Service and three other officials.
DR said Bramsen declined to comment on its report but told the broadcaster that the “systematic eavesdropping of close allies is unacceptable”.
In Washington, the NSA did not immediately reply to a request for comment from the Reuters news agency, while the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) also declined to comment.
Snowden, the former NSA contractor-turned whistleblower, accused US President Joe Biden of being “deeply involved” in the case. The US leader was vice-president when Snowden blew the lid on the NSA’s mass spying programme.
“Biden is well-prepared to answer for this when he soon visits Europe since, of course, he was deeply involved in this scandal the first time around. There should be an explicit requirement for full public disclosure not only from Denmark, but their senior partner as well,” he tweeted.
A spokesperson for the German chancellery told Reuters it only became aware of the allegations when asked about them by journalists. The spokesperson declined to comment further.
Steinbruck, the former German opposition leader, condemned the alleged US spying.
“It is grotesque that friendly intelligence services are indeed intercepting and spying on top representatives of other countries,” he told German broadcaster ARD. “Politically, I consider it a scandal.”
Sweden’s Minister of Defence Peter Hultqvist told Swedish SVT broadcaster that he “demanded full information on these things”.
And Norway’s Minister of Defence Frank Bakke-Jensen told broadcaster NRK that he “took the allegations seriously”.
The French government on Monday said the allegations are “extremely serious” if proven.
“It is extremely serious, we need to see if our partners in the EU, the Danes, have committed errors or faults in their cooperation with American services,” Europe Minister Clement Beaune told France Info radio.
“Between allies, there must be trust, a minimal cooperation, so these potential facts are serious,” said the minister.