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

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

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 discovered, had spent months eavesdropping on his each day life at dwelling, recording a whole lot of hours of his conversations in his dwelling, together with together 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 providers. 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 introduced with experiences from the operation. “That was the stunning factor,” he advised the Guardian, “to take a seat and have a look at your life remodeled into police experiences written from surveillance tapes.”

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trial on fees that he disclosed state secrets and techniques to journalists and shut kinfolk together with his 84-year outdated mom, in a collection of conversations that seem to have been recorded by the tiny listening gadgets that have been hidden in his dwelling.

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

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 felony instances have rocked Denmark, a scandal that’s turned spy towards 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, nevertheless, 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 manage its secrets and techniques.

Alarmed by the federal government’s dealing with of the affair and the felony proceedings it’s now pursuing, one of many nation’s high authorized professors lately requested: “What’s occurring? Whats up, we’re in Denmark, a state ruled by the rule of regulation. 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 Pictures

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 fees towards 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 bit of the felony code not used for greater than 40 years. Beneath the draconian regulation, these discovered responsible might be imprisoned for as much as 12 years.

Each males imagine they’re harmless. Findsen has described the costs towards him as “utterly insane”, whereas Frederiksen believes his case is politically motivated, likening it to a bewildering “hoax”. “To know what’s occurring with me in the mean time,” he says, “consider Kafka”.

Simply one of many weird elements of each instances is that the unmentionable state secrets and techniques the boys are alleged to have leaked at the moment are open secrets and techniques and broadly 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 paperwork leaked by Edward Snowden revealed how European nations reminiscent of Denmark assist facilitate the US’s globe-spanning digital surveillance.

The disclosures have solid an extended shadow over the scandal that’s ensnared Findsen and Frederiksen. The dimensions of western intelligence companies’ bulk surveillance programmes might have pale from most reminiscences. In Denmark, repercussions of Snowden’s leaks are nonetheless taking part in out at the moment.

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. Referred to as “the Farm”, the location 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 Info printed a chunk primarily based on Snowden’s leaks revealing a secret settlement between the intelligence service, generally known as DDIS, and the US Nationwide Safety Company to faucet fibre-optic cables transporting web site visitors by means of 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 site visitors passing by means of Danish fibre-optic cables after spies on the US Nationwide Safety Company (NSA) found the Scandinavian nation was a vital hub for international communications site 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 site visitors passing by means of the cables vastly elevated and the cable-tapping programme turned a significant 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.

Beneath the deal, each US and Danish intelligence companies have been forbidden from intercepting the communications of Danish residents nevertheless 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 issues the US was illegally gathering Danish residents’ information.

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 have been shared with senior managers, his issues have 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 file 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.

In the present day, Findsen is sharply vital 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 Stay Information.

In late 2019, the officer’s issues discovered their technique 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 remembers. The unbiased watchdog, led by a senior decide, revealed in a short 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 information collected below the NSA cable-tapping programme.

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

The media branded the findings a “historic scandal” and urged the spies have been working outdoors the regulation, successfully appearing 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 Pictures

Responding to the protection, Frederiksen, who had left the defence ministry a 12 months earlier, defended Findsen and the opposite officers. “That is what triggered my involvement on this case,” Frederiksen says. “I knew them as loyal workers, devoted and sincere individuals, who have been unjustly labelled as having achieved one thing improper.”

In September 2020, Frederiksen publicly criticised the choice to publish the watchdog’s findings and, crucially, whereas defending the DDIS workers he appeared to supply the primary on-the-record affirmation of the existence of the cable-tapping take care of 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 threat a jail sentence,” he mentioned on stay TV earlier than remarking that Denmark “tremendously 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. Individuals near Findsen have been immediately unable to contact him. It was as if he’d disappeared.

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What only a few in Denmark knew was that, days earlier, a group of armed officers had stopped the spy chief at Copenhagen airport and, before anyone could notice, quietly arrested him.

‘Microphones were everywhere’

Speaking to the Guardian as he prepares for trial, Findsen appears relaxed, though there is undoubtedly a quiet anger as he describes the events of the past three years.

Released from prison in February 2022 after 70 days in custody, Findsen technically remains head of the spy agency DDIS, albeit suspended and on two-thirds salary. He says he cannot be certain he’s not still under surveillance.

Suddenly finding himself in prison, he says, was strange. “There were no other spy chiefs,” he jokes. He says he established good relations with the other prisoners. “They were much younger than me. They were there for things like drugs, arms dealing and kidnapping, so it was a different environment for me.”

Findsen’s close ties to the domestic service, which he previously ran after 9/11, added to the sense of betrayal when he came to understand colleagues had authorised a surveillance operation against him, which he believes lasted for more than a year.

“The microphones were everywhere,” he says, not just in his kitchen and living rooms, but in his car and holiday home.

In custody, he was shown the surveillance reports being used as evidence against him. His daily family life was described in the kind of documents he’d spent a career in intelligence reading. “I was talking to my children when they came back from school and things like that.”

Perhaps unusually for a spy chief, Findsen had developed relationships with journalists, on which he’s believed to have relied to counter negative stories about DDIS once sent home in 2020 after the watchdog’s damning statement.

Prosecutors allege that Findsen shared state secrets with two reporters, as well as close relatives, his girlfriend and an old friend. Much about the case remains shrouded in secrecy but Danish journalists reported last year that prosecutors allege Findsen’s conversations related to the NSA cable-tapping partnership.

In April 2021, for example, he is alleged to have spoken to his 84-year-old mother about the whistleblower who raised the alarm about the deal. Many of the conversations, it is alleged, risked causing “significant damage” to Denmark’s “security and relations with foreign powers”. Unable to discuss the specific charges, Findsen describes them as “crazy and ridiculous”.

As for the whistleblower, he remains an elusive protagonist at the heart of the affair. Now in his 40s, he’s never spoken publicly. He no longer works at DDIS and appears to be living a quiet life in the countryside running a small cybersecurity business. He did not respond to the Guardian’s requests for comment.

State secrets in the public domain

In December 2021, a week after the Frederiksen, the former minister, mentioned the NSA cable-tapping deal on television, police officers turned up at his home. Standing outside the thatched fisherman’s cottage, the officers informed the 76-year-old he’d been charged with treason.

The charges have been brought under a section of the criminal code last used against an East German Stasi agent in 1979. It is the same law that is being used in Findsen’s case but Frederiksen is accused of disclosing classified information in media appearances rather than in private. He denies revealing state secrets in the interviews, since the information he shared – which he can no longer repeat – had been in the public domain since the 2014 Snowden story.

Edward Snowden
Documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed how European countries such as Denmark help facilitate the US’s globe-spanning electronic surveillance. Illustration: Joseph Pierce/The Guardian

“The present government is of the opinion that a secret is a secret,” Frederiksen says. “It might have been described in the newspapers, but they still say it’s a secret.” In court, the trial is expected to turn on whether an open secret can still be a state secret.

The paradox in both cases is that Findsen and Frederiksen, according to people who know them, are staunch believers in DDIS’s US partnership and proud of its special relationship with the NSA. They are not themselves whistleblowers.

Prosecutors are nevertheless seeking custodial sentences for both men. Frederiksen believes the courts will ultimately find it hard to send someone in his mid-70s to prison, and says he will “fight to the bitter end”. The strain on him is clear.

After retiring as an MP last year following 22 years in frontline politics, his time is now spent talking to defence lawyers as well as visiting his wife each day at a care home. She has Alzheimer’s and does not understand the legal jeopardy her husband faces.

“I thought my retirement would mean peaceful periods where my wife and I could have travelled,” he said. “But everything just went wrong and I was accused of serious crimes.”

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A sense of disbelief

The former minister believes that Denmark’s centre-left prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, must have ultimately authorised the prosecutions.

“I’m fully convinced that this is a political case,” he says. “It’s a decision that had to be made at a very high level.”

Former officials agreed that the decision to pursue the cases and spy on an intelligence chief is likely to have been signed off by a security committee chaired by the prime minister. They also point to the fact that prosecutions under the rarely used section of the criminal code require the approval of a senior minister.

Denmark’s justice minister, Peter Hummelgaardsaid in a statement: “I’d like to emphasise that neither the prime minister, myself, the former minister for justice, nor any other minister in the government has approved investigative steps taken in the cases against Frederiksen and Findsen.”

In Copenhagen, among the officials, former spies and journalists who spoke to the Guardian for this article, there’s a sense of disbelief about what’s transpired.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that something like this was possible in Denmark,” says Hans Davidsen-Nielsen, a reporter at Politiken.

The veteran security reporter is one of the journalists who prosecutors allege received classified information from Findsen. He may be called as a witness in the trial this autumn, and says he will refuse to testify, preferring to risk punishment rather than discuss his sources.

Shortly after Findsen’s arrest in 2021, police summoned several other journalists as witnesses as part of a wider leak investigation. At around the same time, the intelligence agencies held meetings with the top news publishers and warned them that journalists could also be charged for disclosing classified information.

“The case has had a massive impact on the free press in Denmark,” according to Davidsen-Nielsen. “Official sources have now to a great extent disappeared because they do not dare talk to us.”

Frederiksen believes the forthcoming criminal trials are part of a wider crackdown against leaks from officials. “The idea is to scare officials in the secret services but also in the central ministries in Copenhagen.” The government, he says, is trying to warn them: “You should see what happens when you talk to journalists.”

Additional reporting by Lucy Hough

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