Watching the watchers: controlling our secret guardians

Denmark’s domestic intelligence agency hasn’t always played by the rules. Is more transparency the answer?


Who watches the watchmen? So asked Roman poet Juvenal 1,900 years ago, but itÂ’s an issue that remains with us today.

The Danish organisation charged with keeping an eye on dangerous people is Politiets Efterretningstjeneste, known more commonly as PET. Charged with fighting espionage, extremism and terrorism, itÂ’s PET who will tap your phone, bug your office and read your (e)mail should you happen to appear on their radar.

While intelligence agencies are supposed to keep us safe, their secrecy has led to them becoming a law unto themselves, not dissimiliar to the East German Stasi. And yet by their very nature, organisations like PET need to remain covert in order to do the job we need them to do. So how does a country operate a useful domestic intelligence agency while also keeping it accountable to the people it is supposed to protect?

In Denmark, there are two mechanisms in place overseeing PETÂ’s activities. First is parliamentÂ’s PET oversight committee, which acts as a liaison between PET and parliament. Second is the Wamberg Committee, which consists of four prominent members of society whose job is to ensure the organisation sticks to its remit.

The guidelines dictate that no-one can be arbitrarily investigated. While radical political types are probably of great interest to PET, they may not open a file on someone simply because they are a member of a political organisations. Just because Søren the plumber joined a legal, though controversial, far-right group does not give PET the right to start a file on him.

But even if someone seems to pose a real threat, PET has to have the approval of the Wamberg Committee to open new files. The committee also checks files at random to ensure no one is being investigated who shouldnÂ’t be, and that files that have been inactive for ten years are destroyed.

Despite these safeguards, it was revealed that between 1965 and 1985 PET was hiding files from the Wamberg Committee. These files, on some 25,000 individuals, were not placed directly in the archive but instead were classified as ‘working files’, which that agents use to collect information in ongoing investigations. About 6,500 of these individuals were named simply for being members of legal political organisations.

The practice was revealed in 2009 in a 4,000-page report by the PET Kommissionen, which was established to investigate PETÂ’s actions during the Cold War. With this information only coming to light in the reportÂ’s publication in 2009, the finding demonstrated how easily PET could hide information from those tasked with keeping tabs on them.

PET has used other loopholes to keep outdated files on individuals. A 1965 deal struck with the State Archives allowed them to keep files open based on PET’s own appraisal that they were of historic significance. This was challenged in 2007 by the justice minister at the time, Lene Espersen, as well as Enhedslisten MP Søren Søndergaard, who discovered a file had been kept on him for over 25 years based on a statement he made in 1983 that the American Embassy should be attacked with Molotov cocktails.

Currently a debate is swirling about PETÂ’s power to deny applications for citizenship. Once an individual has passed the necessary steps to become a Danish citizen, the parliamentary committee that bestows citizenship consults PET to hear if they are considered a threat to the country. If they are branded dangerous, they can be removed from the list if a majority in the committee votes in favour.

And yet neither the committee nor the individual is allowed to know the reasons for PETÂ’s judgement.

“This sort of rejection should be validated and the applicant should have the opportunity to complain about PET’s evaluation,” MP Zenia Stampe (Radikale) told Berlingske newspaper.

Anxiety over PETÂ’s power led to the Socialdemokraterne this summer demanding that PET becomes more transparent.

“Access to PET’s archives needs to protect information that is secret for security reasons but there still needs to be more openness and balance in what people have access to,” MP Rasmus Prehn (Socialdemokratnerne) told Information newspaper, though historian Paul Villaume argued in the same article that opening the archives completely might be counterproductive.

“I have heard from people who have the right to access information that it’s a sewer for rumours and half truths. We therefore have to be sure that we protect people’s right to privacy.”

The question is how do you implement checks on an organisation that needs to remain secret to do its job? And who will check those making checks? And check those who are checking those who are checking those.

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Note to readers: The Copenhagen Post will now refer to national political parties by their Danish names and abbreviations. DOWNLOAD The Copenhagen Post’s overview of Danish political parties.