That Old Story: Spying on Friends

One has to be repeatedly reminded that the theatre of international relations knows no friends and only national interests, whatever those might be.  Intelligence services, being an expression of those interests, do not necessarily discriminate in targeting their quarry.  The revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013 about warrantless and unwarranted surveillance by the US National Security Agency was revealing on this point, though it merely confirmed centuries of understanding in politics: In our friends and foes, we mistrust.

Having spilled such valuable beans, Snowden readied us for what should have been regarded as banal, even farcical.  As Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists summarised, “The rule is that everybody spies on everybody – except when they have an agreement not to.”  And, just in case you were in doubt “they may still do so.”  In terms of the United States, he was not shy: “We are photographing and listening to the entire globe.”

The entire globe naturally includes peeking into the affairs of one’s allies.  “Even among friends,” a serious Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University said in 2013, “a lot of espionage takes place, and some of that espionage is targeted against national security.”  Kupchan sees this as solid bookkeeping. “There is more mundane day-to-day intelligence gathering, which is focusing on intelligence that would be relevant to American statecraft: who is likely to be the next foreign minister, what’s Germany’s position on negotiations with Iran?”

Snowden showed how the NSA exploited its partnership with various intelligence networks to get a leg up into the surveillance of various allies. One of these partnerships involved Denmark.  The relationship with the Danish Defence Intelligence Service (Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste or FE), it transpired, involved conducting surveillance upon senior officials in Sweden, Norway, France and Germany.  This says much about the Danish political experiment, a small establishment in search of a relevant, collaborative purpose.  To that end, the FE-NSA enterprise involved using XKeyscore, an NSA-developed software tool revealed by Snowden, which intercepts calls, texts and chat messages received and sent from the phones of the officials.

The 2013 exposure prompted an internal investigation into the Danish Defence Intelligence Service codenamed “Operation Dunhammer”.  The findings of the Dunhammer report were then aired in selective form across a range of media networks: Danmarks Radio, NRK, SVT Nyheter, NDR, WDR, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Le Monde.

When asked to comment on the issue, Danish Defence Minister Trine Bramsen reiterated with bone dull tediousness “that this government has the same attitude as the former Prime Minister expressed in 2013 and 2014 – systematic wiretapping of close allies is unacceptable.”

As always with such disclosures, there is much ventilating fury, feigned surprise and naïve implausibility.  This lies in the residue of desperation and misplaced expectation: fidelity undermined and compromised.

On such occasions, the outraged claim they had no idea, even in the face of news that was old news.  Peer Steinbrück’s words of hurt to the German broadcaster ARD were angry but rehearsed for the occasion. It was, claimed the former Social Democratic Party candidate for chancellor, “grotesque that friendly intelligence services are indeed … spying on top representatives.”  By way of contrast Patrick Sensburg of the commission with oversight over Germany’s intelligence services, barely bats an eyelid.  Denmark, he assumes, had not deliberately intercepted the communications of top politicians.  A sweet suggestion.

France’s Europe Minister, Clément Beaune, stayed to the script in strolling fashion, calling the findings “extremely serious”, though his views should be taken at a pinch.  According to Beaune, “We need to see if our partners in the EU, the Danes, have committed errors in their cooperation with American services.”  But this came with a neat, even comic caveat. “Between allies, there must be trust, a minimal cooperation.”  Clearly, the minimal aspect prevailed here.

Towards the northern European states, the Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist could hardly be said to be outraged in an interview with SVT Nyheter.  The behaviour of such figures before scandal is to treat it as an interlude of interest.  He acknowledged the Danish response that such eavesdropping on allies was “unacceptable”, which was mighty fine of him.  He was also adamant that espionage activity from his country was not directed at Danish or Norwegian politicians (the Germans and French do not warrant a mention), suggesting that the Swedes are just that much better in all of this.

Deafening silences have followed in Washington and Copenhagen in the intelligence community.  The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the NSA, and the Danish Defence Intelligence Service, have declined to comment.  Former chiefs of the FE, Lars Findsen and Thomas Ahrenkiel, are keeping mum about the matter.

As with President Barack Obama before him, Joe Biden will face a few questions on his visit to Europe in a fortnight.  He was, in Snowden’s view, “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 in Denmark, but their senior partner as well.”

The only thing of interest that may come of these meetings is the cold realisation that espionage reduces all relationships to those of adversaries.  Misnamed friends cannot be trusted in the business of gathering intelligence.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.