The United States National Security Agency (NSA) has used a partnership with Denmark's foreign intelligence unit to spy on senior officials of neighboring countries, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, according to Danish state broadcaster DR.
The findings are the result of an internal investigation in the Danish Defense Intelligence Service (DDIS) from 2015 into the NSA's role in the partnership, DR said, citing nine unnamed sources with access to the investigation.
According to the investigation that covered 2012 and 2014, the NSA used Danish information cables to spy on senior officials in Sweden, Norway, France and Germany, including former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and former German opposition leader Peer Steinbrück.
Asked for comment on the DR report, a spokesperson for the German Chancellery said it only became aware of the allegations when asked about them by journalists, and declined to comment further, as Reuters reported.
Denmark, a close ally of the U.S., hosts several key landing stations for subsea internet cables to and from Sweden, Norway, Germany, Holland and the United Kingdom. The internal investigation within the DDIS was launched in 2014 following concerns about Edward Snowden's leaks the previous year revealing how the NSA works, according to DR.
In Washington, the NSA did not immediately reply to a request for comment and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) declined to comment. A spokesperson for the DDIS declined to comment.
"It is grotesque that friendly intelligence services are indeed intercepting and spying on top representatives of other countries," Steinbrueck told German broadcaster ARD. "Politically, I consider it a scandal."
Sweden's Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist told Swedish SVT broadcaster that he "demanded full information on these things." Norway's Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen told broadcaster NRK that they "take the allegations seriously."
"It's unacceptable if countries which have close allied cooperation feel the need to spy on one another," Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg told public broadcaster NRK. According to Agence France-Presse (AFP) she said Norway had asked Denmark "for all the information they have".
France said Monday that media reports are "extremely serious."
"It is extremely serious, we need to see if our partners in the European Union, the Danes, have committed errors or faults in their cooperation with American services," Europe Minister Clement Beaune told France Info radio. Beaune added it would also be very serious if it turned out Washington had been spying on EU leaders.
"Between allies, there must be trust, a minimal cooperation, so these potential facts are serious," said the minister, adding the facts must first "be verified" and then "conclusions drawn in terms of cooperation."
"This is not something that should be played down," Beaune said, while acknowledging that similar allegations had emerged back in 2013 of U.S. spying on Merkel. "We are not in some kind of cuddly world so this kind of behaviour can unfortunately happen," he said.
Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said he had been "in contact with Denmark's defense minister to ask if Danish platforms have been used to spy on Swedish politicians."
A German government spokesman said Monday that Berlin was "in contact with all relevant national and international interlocutors to get clarification".
DR said the NSA had taken advantage of a surveillance collaboration with Denmark's military intelligence unit FE to eavesdrop.
But it was unclear whether Denmark knew at the time that the US was using the cables to spy on Denmark's neighbors. Contacted by AFP, Denmark's military intelligence unit refused to comment on the revelations.
A decision in August last year to suspend the head of the Danish Defense Intelligence Service and three other officials from their posts following criticism and accusations of serious wrongdoing from an independent board overseeing the unit, centered around the 2015 investigation, according to DR.
The Danish government said last year it would initiate an investigation into the case based on information from a whistleblower report. That investigation is expected to be concluded later this year.