Editorial | Spying trial shouldn’t keep secrets behind closed doors

Just when we thought the only debate left about espionage was whether intelligence agency dossiers about public figures should be destroyed once they are no longer in the searchlight, Denmark has been reminded that there are still spy stories to tell, and that not all of those stories lie in the past.

But while interest in revelations last week by historian Thomas Wegener Friis – that a prominent Dane was a Cold War communist spy – begins and ends for most people with the speculation of who the person might be, a second spying allegation last week serves as a warning that espionage remains a tool states use, even amongst allies.

No-one disputes that University of Copenhagen professor Timo Kivimäki was giving information to Russian diplomats, or that he was being paid for it. Whether the information he passed on makes him guilty of spying, however, is something that must be decided by a court.

It’s good news that Kivimäki gets to face his accusers, but if everything goes according to the Foreign Ministry’s plan and the trial is held behind closed doors, his trial won’t be such good news for the public. True, such a move would benefit relations with Russia by helping keep potentially embarrassing details out of the public eye. But it will do so at the expense of letting ordinary people know that foreign governments might be interested in obtaining the kind of information they work with.

Kivimäki admittedly did “analytical and scientific work” for the Russians. With Russia no longer a military adversary of Denmark, one can only imagine what type of information they were looking for. Were they trying to learn what Denmark’s intentions in the Arctic are? Or were they simply fishing after corporate secrets?

And if Russia is spying against Denmark, then it’s conceivable other states could be looking for similar information; it’s not beyond reason that China could be interested in company secrets about green technology, or that the US might be interested in infiltrating extremist Muslim groups. And other smaller states and factional groups might have their own reasons for snooping around in Denmark’s affairs.

Letting people know what type of information the Russians were looking for is important because it lets people know that modern spying involves ordinary people with access to ordinary information. We shouldn’t have to wait 40 years for a historian to tell us that.

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