Denmark's top foreign intelligence chief has been suspended for spying on Danish citizens illegally for up to six years after a whistleblower released a trove of documents to government regulators.
In a press release [PDF, in Danish] yesterday, the independent regulator of the Danish security services (Tilsynet med Efterretningstjenesterne or TET) said it had received information from a whistleblower in November that revealed the country's foreign intelligence service "had withheld key and crucial information," and given "incorrect information on matters relating to the collection of the service and disclosure of information."
The Danish government announced that head of the Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste (FE) service, Lars Findsen, as well as two senior officials that focused on military intelligence – and who were not named – had been "relieved of duty for the time being."
The TET states that the FE service has carried out "operational activities in violation of Danish law, including obtaining and passing on a significant amount of information about Danish citizens."
It also notes that "central parts of FE's acquisition capacities" contain "risks that unjustifiably can be obtained against Danish citizens" – suggesting some kind of mass surveillance capability or illegal data gathering. It also noted that "FE's management has failed to follow up on or further investigate indications of espionage within the area of the Ministry of Defense."
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Faced with requests for information on the illegal activity, it appears that the FE and Findsen decided to brazen it out and claim they had no relevant documents. But then "one or more" whistleblowers provided the oversight body with some kind of proof of what was going on.
"The material is of such a nature that the Authority decided to focus its control of the FE in order to carry out an in-depth study of the present circumstances," the release states.
The TET clearly decided its authority and ability to oversee the intelligence services was at stake and notes that it sought, and received, repeat support from the Defense Minister in its investigation. The final report was delivered to her on Friday, the TET notes, and stretched to four volumes, with conclusions and recommendations.
"It is absolutely vital that we can have confidence that our intelligence services are acting within their powers," said Defense Minister Trine Bramsen on Monday, adding that the intelligence services must "work closely with control and supervisory bodies."
In its report, TET asks for the law that provides it with its oversight powers be reviewed and revised – presumably to make it harder for the intelligence agencies to hide such information in future.
And it argues for an expanded and strengthened whistleblower scheme. "Such a scheme should aim to improve the ability of current and former FE employees to comment on criticisable matters in the authority without fear of negative retaliation, including employment or criminal law consequences," it argued.
It wants the ability for whistleblowers to be able to share classified information and additional resources to be given to such a scheme to make sure it is viable.
Despite the enormity of the claims – that the intelligence service illegally spied on Danish citizens, then passed the information onto others and then lied about it to an independent oversight board – the TET warns that due to the "extremely sensitive" nature of the information, the public may never learn exactly what happened.
Despite arguing that "it is essential that the public gets as complete an insight into this as at all possible," it then immediately notes that given the "classified content thereof, the Authority may not provide further information to the public."
It's easy to see parallels between this situation and that of Edward Snowden, who worked for America's NSA spying agency. In that case, Snowden felt obliged to flee the country and make highly sensitive documents available to journalists in order to get the word of illegal surveillance of US citizens out.
Snowden is still a wanted man and despite the spy programs he exposed later being ruled unconstitutional, no one within the NSA or related intelligence services was ever suspended – even after the US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied in Congress about US domestic surveillance.
Clapper faced no penalty, retired on a full pension, and began a new career on the conference and TV chat show circuit. ®