BRUSSELS (Dispatches) -- Two weeks before the U.S. president makes his first visit to Europe since being elected, Danish media reported the country’s secret services helped American counterparts to eavesdrop on European leaders.
The report thrust Europeans back to the dark days of 2013, when whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed massive U.S. surveillance programs that included tapping the mobile phones of allied heads of state — including that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
At the time, it was then-President Barack Obama who had to have the awkward conversations with EU leaders about spying on allies. Now it will be up to his former vice president to reassure the Europeans as he heads to Cornwall, in the UK, on June 11 for a G7 gathering where matters of transatlantic trust, cooperation and digital trade will be high up on the agenda.
The timing of Danish public broadcaster’s report, which was reprinted by multiple European news outlets, could hardly be trickier for Biden.
Washington and Brussels are in the midst of negotiating a new transatlantic data transfer deal to replace a previous one that was knocked down by the EU’s top court over concerns about U.S. spying. Monday’s report is bound to sharpen the EU’s focus on U.S. spying powers, legal limits and guarantees for Europeans’ data, all of which the court ruled are lacking.
“If these revelations are correct, I want to say it is not acceptable among allies, very clearly,” said French President Emmanuel Macron at a briefing on Monday. “It is even less acceptable among allies and European partners, so I am attached to having ties between Americans and Europeans that are based on trust,” Macron said. “There’s no space between us for suspicion.”
Macron said his government has asked Denmark and the U.S. “to share all the information tied to this spying, and so we are waiting for their answers.”
Merkel, who joined Macron virtually for the briefing, said: “We have already discussed these things a long time ago in connection with the NSA. Our position in relation to the investigation of the issues at that time has not changed.”
Danish Defense Minister Trine Bramsen told DR, the broadcaster that broke the story, that “systematic interception of close allies is unacceptable.”
The report alleges that Danish intelligence services lent their U.S. counterparts at the National Security Agency access to spy on top German, French, Norwegian and Swedish politicians through internet cables in Denmark. Merkel was reportedly among the targets, as well as leading German politicians including Peer Steinbrück, a former finance minister, and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Other unnamed, high-level officials had been surveiled in France, Norway and Sweden.
It also brings Snowden back onto center stage. Snowden’s revelations have led to major arguments over the security and privacy of Europeans — including the collapse of the Privacy Shield data transfer agreement and its predecessor Safe Harbor — and continue to poison transatlantic ties. Many of the key characters who navigated the 2013 episode are now back in play, including Biden, who was vice president at the time, and Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s digital chief, who was then part of Denmark’s government.
“Biden is well-prepared to answer for this when he soon visits Europe since, of course, he was deeply involved in this scandal the first time around,” Snowden said on Twitter Monday. He called for “an explicit requirement for full public disclosure not only from Denmark, but their senior partner as well.”
Germany “is in contact with all relevant national and international bodies for clarification,” said government
spokesperson Steffen Seibert, but he declined to comment on intelligence matters.
The Snowden files detailed similar spying activities by the UK’s intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), on Belgium’s state-owned telecoms operator Belgacom in 2013. Belgian investigators concluded in 2018 the Brits were behind the hack, according to a report seen by local press.
Calling it a “bomb” undermining European cooperation, Bart Groothuis, a Dutch MEP in charge of shepherding the Commission’s new cybersecurity bill through Parliament said he’d “favor a clause in national intelligence legislation saying that, in principle, we don’t spy on partner countries inside the EU.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Monday the reports of the U.S. snooping on senior European politicians have revealed just “the tip of the iceberg”.
Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova expressed astonishment that NATO member-states had no idea what was happening on their soil.
“It is very uncomfortable, but the truth is far more frightening than what the media rarely reports on. I think they have no idea what is happening in their domain,” she said.
“I think this is just the tip of the iceberg, and the situation is even more dire for NATO member states themselves,” she added.