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Scandinavian spy drama: the intelligence chief who got here below state surveillance | Denmark

Scandinavian spy drama: the intelligence chief who got here below state surveillance | Denmark

2023-11-09 02:35:15

Lars Findsen was in police custody when he found that spies from Denmark’s home intelligence company had tapped his telephone and wired his home with bugs.

The spies, he realized, had spent months eavesdropping on his every day life at dwelling, recording a whole lot of hours of his conversations in his dwelling, together with along with his three youngsters.

It was the form of intrusive surveillance operation usually reserved for a suspected terrorist or enemy overseas agent. Findsen was neither; he was Denmark’s high spy chief.

Findsen had spent many years working on the highest ranges of the key companies. He was appointed head of the nation’s overseas intelligence service in 2015. Beforehand, he had run its sister home company which, he now understood, had been monitoring his each transfer.

In custody, Findsen was offered with experiences from the operation. “That was the surprising factor,” he instructed the Guardian, “to sit down and take a look at your life reworked into police experiences written from surveillance tapes.”

Lars Findsen in 2019
Lars Findsen was appointed head of the nation’s overseas intelligence service in 2015. {Photograph}: Ritzau/Alamy

This autumn, the 59-year-old spymaster is because of stand trial on costs that he disclosed state secrets and techniques to journalists and shut family members together with his 84-year outdated mom, in a collection of conversations that seem to have been recorded by the tiny listening units that had been hidden in his dwelling.

The prosecution of such a senior intelligence official could appear extraordinary, however shortly after the proceedings get below manner, a separate trial will open during which Findsen’s former boss at Denmark’s defence ministry will face comparable costs.

The veteran authorities minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen is a towering determine in Danish politics who has held a number of senior cupboard positions. As defence minister till 2019, he oversaw the intelligence service run by Findsen.

The legal instances have rocked Denmark, a scandal that’s turned spy in opposition to spy and thrust into the highlight one of many nation’s most carefully guarded secrets and techniques – which each males now stand accused of betraying.

At stake, nonetheless, is greater than the destiny of two people. The drama has had a profoundly chilling impact on the Danish media and given rise to a slow-burning political disaster concerning the lengths to which an in any other case liberal European democracy is ready to go to regulate its secrets and techniques.

Alarmed by the federal government’s dealing with of the affair and the legal proceedings it’s now pursuing, one of many nation’s high authorized professors just lately requested: “What’s happening? Hi there, we’re in Denmark, a state ruled by the rule of legislation. Not Belarus.”

Claus Hjort Frederiksen
Claus Hjort Frederiksen believes his case is politically motivated, likening it to a bewildering ‘hoax’. {Photograph}: Ole Jensen/Corbis/Getty Photos

In unique interviews with the Guardian, Findsen and Frederiksen have spoken for the primary time with worldwide media about how they turned entangled on this usually confounding collection of occasions.

Neither the intelligence chief nor ex-minister are legally permitted to debate the precise costs in opposition to them, and their respective trials are as a result of be held in extremely uncommon secret proceedings.

Prosecutors have charged them with offences amounting to treason below a piece of the legal code not used for greater than 40 years. Underneath the draconian legislation, these discovered responsible could be imprisoned for as much as 12 years.

Each males imagine they’re harmless. Findsen has described the fees in opposition to him as “utterly insane”, whereas Frederiksen believes his case is politically motivated, likening it to a bewildering “hoax”. “To grasp what’s happening with me in the meanwhile,” he says, “consider Kafka”.

Simply one of many weird facets of each instances is that the unmentionable state secrets and techniques the boys are alleged to have leaked are actually open secrets and techniques and extensively identified to narrate to a long-standing intelligence partnership between Denmark and the US.

The key deal – the “crown jewels” of Danish intelligence – was hidden from the general public till particulars started to emerge in 2014, when documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed how European nations equivalent to Denmark assist facilitate the US’s globe-spanning digital surveillance.

The disclosures have solid a protracted shadow over the scandal that’s ensnared Findsen and Frederiksen. The dimensions of western intelligence companies’ bulk surveillance programmes might have pale from most recollections. In Denmark, repercussions of Snowden’s leaks are nonetheless enjoying out as we speak.

Spy turns whistleblower

On the windswept southern tip of Amager, the island instantly south of Copenhagen, there’s a cluster of drab gray buildings surrounded by a excessive barbed-wire fence and watchful surveillance cameras. Often known as “the Farm”, the positioning is dwelling to Denmark’s overseas intelligence service, and it’s the place one among its younger officers set the story in movement.

In June 2014, the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Data revealed a chunk based mostly on Snowden’s leaks revealing a secret settlement between the intelligence service, referred to as DDIS, and the US Nationwide Safety Company to faucet fibre-optic cables transporting web visitors by Denmark.

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US and Denmark’s secret cable-tapping deal


US and Denmark’s secret cable-tapping deal

Within the Nineties, the US and Denmark struck a deal to secretly intercept telecoms and web visitors passing by Danish fibre-optic cables after spies on the US Nationwide Safety Company (NSA) found the Scandinavian nation was a crucial hub for international communications visitors.

The extremely categorized deal, Danish newspaper Berlingske reported, was saved secret for greater than twenty years by a succession of presidency ministers, officers and spy chiefs. The settlement itself has remained locked in a secure on the headquarters of its overseas intelligence service in Copenhagen.

For the reason that Nineties, the quantity of web visitors passing by the cables vastly elevated and the cable-tapping programme turned a serious strategic asset for Denmark. Due to the nation’s geographic location, the association seems to have yielded a wealthy supply of intelligence from intercepts of Russian and Chinese language communications.

Underneath the deal, each US and Danish intelligence companies had been forbidden from intercepting the communications of Danish residents nonetheless this was referred to as into query in 2020 when an unbiased oversight physique mentioned there have been dangers this had occurred.

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The article offered the primary glimpse of one of many nation’s most delicate secrets and techniques and seems to have caught the eye of the intelligence officer who labored as a hacker within the company’s cyber-division.

Former colleagues mentioned he was seen as a rising star, although he was additionally identified to be suspicious of the company’s relationship with the NSA and had considerations the US was illegally amassing Danish residents’ knowledge.

The intelligence officer, who was in his 30s, helped launch an inside investigation, codenamed Operation Dunhammer, into whether or not the NSA was abusing the cable-tapping deal. When its findings had been shared with senior managers, his considerations had been dismissed as unfounded and he was ordered to stop the investigation.

Fairly than drop it, the spy took the extraordinary step of starting to secretly report conversations with colleagues. Conversations concerning the NSA partnership with Denmark’s most senior spymasters, together with Lars Findsen, seem to have been amongst these captured over a interval of a number of years.

At the moment, Findsen is sharply crucial of the officer and says there was “no foundation” for his actions. He was, he says, “unhinged and had his personal narrative”.

Claus Hjort Frederiksen (left) at home, with Lars Findsen
Claus Hjort Frederiksen (left) at dwelling, with Lars Findsen. {Photograph}: Ritzau/Jacob Ehrbahn/Scanpix/Alamy Reside Information.

In late 2019, the officer’s considerations discovered their solution to the unbiased oversight physique that supervises Danish intelligence, which took possession of his secret recordings – as many as 100 hours of audio – in addition to the interior Dunhammer report. Behind closed doorways, the spy had turned whistleblower.

A ‘historic scandal’?

In August 2020, “all hell broke unfastened”, a former intelligence official recollects. The unbiased watchdog, led by a senior decide, revealed in a quick assertion that it had obtained a considerable amount of materials from a whistleblower and listed a collection of incendiary allegations about how the DDIS spy service was working.

Amongst its findings, the physique warned there have been “dangers within the central a part of DDIS’s intelligence gathering capabilities that unauthorised intelligence has been gathered on Danish residents”. The assertion was not specific, however in accordance with former officers this was a reference to knowledge collected below the NSA cable-tapping programme.

The fallout was fast. Findsen and several other colleagues on the company had been positioned on indefinite go away. “It was not a pleasant state of affairs,” says Findsen.

The media branded the findings a “historic scandal” and steered the spies had been working exterior the legislation, successfully performing as a “state inside a state”. As one entrance web page learn: “Spy chiefs accused of unlawful surveillance”.

Lars Findsen in Copenhagen in December 2017
Lars Findsen in Copenhagen in December 2017. {Photograph}: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP/Getty Photos

Responding to the protection, Frederiksen, who had left the defence ministry a yr earlier, defended Findsen and the opposite officers. “That is what triggered my involvement on this case,” Frederiksen says. “I knew them as loyal staff, devoted and trustworthy folks, who had been unjustly labelled as having accomplished one thing incorrect.”

In September 2020, Frederiksen publicly criticised the choice to publish the watchdog’s findings and, crucially, whereas defending the DDIS staff he appeared to supply the primary on-the-record affirmation of the existence of the cable-tapping cope with the US glimpsed within the Snowden leaks.

Frederiksen acknowledged the association once more in subsequent interviews and went additional in one other media look in December 2021. “I’m going to watch out what I can say, in any other case I’ll danger a jail sentence,” he mentioned on dwell TV earlier than remarking that Denmark “vastly advantages from being allied with the NSA”.

Shortly earlier than the interview, a government-appointed panel of judges had rejected the unbiased watchdog’s findings, seemingly drawing a line below the controversy.

Behind the scenes, there had been a exceptional twist. Folks near Findsen had been out of the blue unable to contact him. It was as if he’d disappeared.

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What just a few in Denmark knew was that, days earlier, a gaggle of armed officers had stopped the spy chief at Copenhagen airport and, earlier than anybody might discover, quietly arrested him.

‘Microphones had been in every single place’

Talking to the Guardian as he prepares for trial, Findsen seems relaxed, although there’s undoubtedly a quiet anger as he describes the occasions of the previous three years.

Launched from jail in February 2022 after 70 days in custody, Findsen technically stays head of the spy company DDIS, albeit suspended and on two-thirds wage. He says he can’t be sure he’s not nonetheless below surveillance.

Out of the blue discovering himself in jail, he says, was unusual. “There have been no different spy chiefs,” he jokes. He says he established good relations with the opposite prisoners. “They had been a lot youthful than me. They had been there for issues like medication, arms dealing and kidnapping, so it was a unique surroundings for me.”

Findsen’s shut ties to the home service, which he beforehand ran after 9/11, added to the sense of betrayal when he got here to grasp colleagues had authorised a surveillance operation in opposition to him, which he believes lasted for greater than a yr.

“The microphones had been in every single place,” he says, not simply in his kitchen and dwelling rooms, however in his automobile and vacation dwelling.

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In custody, he was proven the surveillance experiences getting used as proof in opposition to him. His every day household life was described within the form of paperwork he’d spent a profession in intelligence studying. “I used to be speaking to my youngsters once they got here again from faculty and issues like that.”

Maybe unusually for a spy chief, Findsen had developed relationships with journalists, on which he’s believed to have relied to counter destructive tales about DDIS as soon as despatched dwelling in 2020 after the watchdog’s damning assertion.

Prosecutors allege that Findsen shared state secrets and techniques with two reporters, in addition to shut family members, his girlfriend and an outdated good friend. A lot concerning the case stays shrouded in secrecy however Danish journalists reported final yr that prosecutors allege Findsen’s conversations associated to the NSA cable-tapping partnership.

In April 2021, for instance, he’s alleged to have spoken to his 84-year-old mom concerning the whistleblower who raised the alarm concerning the deal. Lots of the conversations, it’s alleged, risked inflicting “important harm” to Denmark’s “safety and relations with overseas powers”. Unable to debate the precise costs, Findsen describes them as “loopy and ridiculous”.

As for the whistleblower, he stays an elusive protagonist on the coronary heart of the affair. Now in his 40s, he’s by no means spoken publicly. He not works at DDIS and seems to be dwelling a quiet life within the countryside working a small cybersecurity enterprise. He didn’t reply to the Guardian’s requests for remark.

State secrets and techniques within the public area

In December 2021, every week after the Frederiksen, the previous minister, talked about the NSA cable-tapping deal on tv, law enforcement officials turned up at his dwelling. Standing exterior the thatched fisherman’s cottage, the officers knowledgeable the 76-year-old he’d been charged with treason.

The costs have been introduced below a piece of the legal code final used in opposition to an East German Stasi agent in 1979. It’s the identical legislation that’s being utilized in Findsen’s case however Frederiksen is accused of exposing categorized data in media appearances somewhat than in personal. He denies revealing state secrets and techniques within the interviews, for the reason that data he shared – which he can not repeat – had been within the public area for the reason that 2014 Snowden story.

Edward Snowden
Paperwork leaked by Edward Snowden revealed how European nations equivalent to Denmark assist facilitate the US’s globe-spanning digital surveillance. Illustration: Joseph Pierce/The Guardian

“The current authorities is of the opinion {that a} secret is a secret,” Frederiksen says. “It might need been described within the newspapers, however they nonetheless say it’s a secret.” In courtroom, the trial is predicted to activate whether or not an open secret can nonetheless be a state secret.

The paradox in each instances is that Findsen and Frederiksen, in accordance with individuals who know them, are staunch believers in DDIS’s US partnership and pleased with its particular relationship with the NSA. They aren’t themselves whistleblowers.

Prosecutors are nonetheless searching for custodial sentences for each males. Frederiksen believes the courts will finally discover it arduous to ship somebody in his mid-70s to jail, and says he’ll “battle to the bitter finish”. The pressure on him is evident.

After retiring as an MP final yr following 22 years in frontline politics, his time is now spent speaking to defence attorneys in addition to visiting his spouse every day at a care dwelling. She has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t perceive the authorized jeopardy her husband faces.

“I believed my retirement would imply peaceable durations the place my spouse and I might have travelled,” he mentioned. “However all the pieces simply went incorrect and I used to be accused of great crimes.”

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A way of disbelief

The previous minister believes that Denmark’s centre-left prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, will need to have finally authorised the prosecutions.

“I’m totally satisfied that it is a political case,” he says. “It’s a call that needed to be made at a really excessive degree.”

Former officers agreed that the choice to pursue the instances and spy on an intelligence chief is prone to have been signed off by a safety committee chaired by the prime minister. Additionally they level to the truth that prosecutions below the hardly ever used part of the legal code require the approval of a senior minister.

Denmark’s justice minister, Peter Hummelgaardsaid in an announcement: “I’d like to emphasize that neither the prime minister, myself, the previous minister for justice, nor another minister within the authorities has authorized investigative steps taken within the instances in opposition to Frederiksen and Findsen.”

In Copenhagen, among the many officers, former spies and journalists who spoke to the Guardian for this text, there’s a way of disbelief about what’s transpired.

“By no means in my wildest goals did I believe that one thing like this was potential in Denmark,” says Hans Davidsen-Nielsen, a reporter at Politiken.

The veteran safety reporter is without doubt one of the journalists who prosecutors allege acquired categorized data from Findsen. He could also be referred to as as a witness within the trial this autumn, and says he’ll refuse to testify, preferring to danger punishment somewhat than talk about his sources.

Shortly after Findsen’s arrest in 2021, police summoned a number of different journalists as witnesses as a part of a wider leak investigation. At across the identical time, the intelligence companies held conferences with the highest information publishers and warned them that journalists may be charged for disclosing categorized data.

“The case has had a large influence on the free press in Denmark,” in accordance with Davidsen-Nielsen. “Official sources have now to a fantastic extent disappeared as a result of they don’t dare speak to us.”

Frederiksen believes the forthcoming legal trials are a part of a wider crackdown in opposition to leaks from officers. “The concept is to scare officers within the secret companies but in addition within the central ministries in Copenhagen.” The federal government, he says, is making an attempt to warn them: “You must see what occurs if you speak to journalists.”

Further reporting by Lucy Hough

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