Reports in the Danish media allege that the United States spied on the country’s government and its defense industry, as well as other European defense contractors, in an attempt to gain information on its fighter acquisition program. The revelations, published online by DR, Denmark’s Danish public-service broadcaster, concern the run-up to the fighter competition that was eventually won by the U.S.-made Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter.
The report cites anonymous sources suggesting that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) targeted Denmark’s Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the defense firm Terma, which also contributes to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
Allegedly, the NSA sought to conduct espionage using an existing intelligence-sharing agreement between the two countries. Under this agreement, it is said the NSA is able to tap fiber-optic communication cables passing through Denmark and stored by the Danish Defense Intelligence Service, or Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste (FE). Huge amounts of data sourced from the Danish communication cables are stored in an FE data center, built with U.S. assistance, at Sandagergård on the Danish island of Amager, to which the NSA also has access.
This kind of sharing of confidential data is not that unusual within the intelligence community, in which the NSA is known to trade high-level information with similar agencies within the Five Eyes alliance (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States), as well as other close allies, such as Germany and Japan, for example.
It would be hoped, however, that these relationships would not be used by the NSA to secretly gather information on the countries with which it has agreements, which is exactly what is alleged to have taken place in Denmark.
A source told DR that between 2015 and 2016 the NSA wanted to gather information on the Danish defense company Terma in a “targeted search” ahead of Denmark’s decision on a new fighter jet to replace its current fleet of F-16s. This is the competition that the F-35 won in June 2016.
According to DR, the NSA used its Xkeyscore system, which trawls through and analyzes global internet data, to seek information on Terma. An unnamed source said that search criteria had included individual email addresses and phone numbers of company employees.
Officially described as part of the NSA’s “lawful foreign signals intelligence collection system,” Xkeyscore is understood to be able to obtain email correspondence, browser history, chat conversations, and call logs.
In this case, the sources also contend that the NSA used its access to Danish communication cables and FE databases to search for communications related to two other companies, Eurofighter GmbH and Saab, who were respectively offering the Typhoon and Gripen multi-role fighters for the Danish F-16 replacement program. While the Gripen was withdrawn from the Danish competition in 2014, the Typhoon remained in the running until the end, alongside the F-35 and the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
The whistleblower reports are said to have warned the FE leadership about possible illegalities in an intelligence collaboration between Denmark and the United States to drain Danish internet cables of information that the intelligence services could use in their work. Furthermore, the reports allegedly warned that the NSA was also targeting a number of Denmark’s “closest neighbors,” including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden and that some of the espionage conducted by the NSA was judged to be “against Danish interests and goals.”
Regardless of how the FE and the government react to the latest allegations, if they are substantiated, then the terms of the current U.S.-Danish intelligence-sharing agreement may be judged to be in need of at least a major review. If there is any substance to these allegations, then it’s possible other countries that have made controversial choices to select the F-35 may come under new scrutiny, as well.