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Snowden’s back: Spying scandal clouds EU-US ties ahead of Biden visit

Media reports allege Danish intelligence helped the US spy on top European politicians.

Joe Biden must feel like he's having flashbacks.

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 U.K., 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 [of spying] 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. We rely on trusting relations and what was right then is right now. I was reassured by the fact that Denmark, too — the Danish government, the minister of defense — have made it very clear what they think of these things, and in this respect, I see a good basis not only for clearing up the facts but also for really establishing relations based on trust.”

Danish Defense Minister Trine Bramsen told DR, the broadcaster that broke the story, that “systematic interception of close allies is unacceptable.”

The NSA has declined to comment on the report.

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 surveilled in France, Norway and Sweden.

It also brings Snowden back onto center stage.

While the episode may be seen as water under the bridge in Washington, it isn’t even close to that in Europe.

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.” 

Butting heads in Europe 
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 chancellor learned of the subject matter of this current investigation through the journalists' inquiry,” he said.

The European Commission said Vestager did not oversee intelligence services in her former role as interior minister in the Danish government, but did not say whether she was aware of the spying activities detailed in the report.

“She’s here as executive vice president in charge of digital and also competition policy. These are the subjects on which we are here to comment on her behalf. Not events related to functions that she may have had when she was in the government in Denmark,” said a Commission spokesperson.

It’s not the first time European intelligence agencies were found spying on each other.

The Snowden files detailed similar spying activities by the U.K.’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. 

Despite mounting evidence that allied countries spy on each other, there's no international law against this kind of spying for intelligence purposes, some lawmakers pointed out. 

"Political espionage isn't prohibited by international law. That's the reality. It's not nice, it's not always decent — but there's no problem with it when you consider international law,” said Bart Groothuis, a Dutch MEP in charge of shepherding the Commission's new cybersecurity bill through Parliament.

Calling it a "bomb" undermining European cooperation, Groothuis said he'd "favor a clause in national intelligence legislation saying that, in principle, we don't spy on partner countries inside the EU."

How to stop the US being the US
The scandal comes at a time when the European Union is reviewing its data sharing relationship with the United States. 

The European Commission is currently negotiating a new agreement to allow companies to transfer data from the EU to the U.S., while protecting privacy standards. The EU has tried to put pressure on the U.S. to review domestic intelligence legislation, including key instruments at the heart of Washington's surveillance activities in Europe, but it is unclear what the U.S. will do to assuage European concerns, if anything at all.

The Commission said the discussions on a data transfer deal were “very important” and that the EU has “intensified the negotiations with our U.S. partners.”

It also comes as the EU is revamping rules to better protect its infrastructure, government IT and essential public services from cyberattacks and intrusion campaigns.

That bill is largely written to counteract state-backed hacking groups in Russia and China. But the media reports’ revelations again show the U.S. is engaged in snooping activities that go to the heart of EU politics too. 

"This is also a lesson to politicians: 'This happens,'” said Groothuis, the MEP. “The best way to protect your communication is to use secure tools that secure calls with proper encryption and hardware and endpoint security.”

Nicholas Vinocur, Rym Momtaz and Mark Scott contributed reporting.

via politico.eu

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