It’s understandable if PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt is feeling a little uncertain about her relationship with the US these days. Since the early days of the War on Terror, Denmark has walked in lock-step with the Americans on security issues. The partnership, forged initially between former president George W Bush and former PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has been a fruitful one, earning not just Rasmussen the job as NATO secretary general, but also one of President Barack Obama’s infamous “punching above your weight” pats on the back for the country’s contributions to US-led military coalitions .
Given the tight relationship between the two, the comments this week by Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist who first interviewed NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, that the two countries have a similar mindset when it comes to intelligence gathering, were of little surprise (though no less unsettling). The list of cases in which Denmark has collaborated with the US in recent years is long: double-agent Morten Storm, drug smuggler Camilla Broe being extradited to the US as the first Dane ever sent to a non-EU country for prosecution, CIA rendition flights passing through Danish territory, a dressmaker and a cigar seller having their funds frozen after coming into conflict with US law. There are more.
Compared with other cases in which Denmark has refused to co-operate with other countries on law-enforcement issues – most notably Niels Holck, who is wanted for prosecution in India – it’s clear that Denmark’s intelligence community has more than a casual relationship with the Americans.
With suspicion that the US is spying on other European leaders growing increasingly stronger, the question Thorning-Schmidt and other Danish leaders must be asking themselves is whether their willingness to work with the US has put them in a protected category. Greenwald, in his interview with Berlingske, described the US as spying on enemies and allies alike. If this is the case, there’s no reason to assume that Washington’s spies give Denmark any special treatment.
But before Thorning-Schmidt gets too flattered about the prospect she´s on a par with Angela Merkel, the PM might want to wait a moment. While it’s likely there are some bi-lateral issues the US is gathering intelligence about – including Arctic policy and quite possibly nationalised healthcare – it’s reasonable to assume that Denmark ranks low on Washington’s list of priorities.
That isn’t to say that Thorning-Schmidt’s conversations haven’t been collected. Whether it was Echelon, Prism, Tempora or some other secret programme that has yet to come to light, it’s always been rumoured that the NSA could hoover up electronic communications en masse. Those collection efforts – if it turns out they exist – have no doubt snapped up the communications between Danish government officials in the same way they would have gathered communications between ordinary Danes.
As upsetting as that might be, the question is whether anyone in Denmark – whether public figure or private citizen – has anything anyone in Washington is really interested in listening to.