For the past week, a debate has been raging over what seems like a very basic question: Is Denmark at war? On Tuesday, for the first time in 26 years, the government has officially answered that question. Denmark is not at war.
Why has this question suddenly been a hot topic? The short answer is Edward Snowden.
Documents provided by the American whistleblower revealed that the Danish Defence Intelligence Service (Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste - FE) collaborated with the American NSA to tap undersea internet cables. The Danish telecommunications companies that own some of those cables said that they could not be tapped unless article 17 of the Danish Defence Law (forsvarsloven) – the so-called ‘war rule’ – was in effect.
That article gives the defence ministry permission “during war or other extraordinary circumstances” to monitor citizens’ communications without a warrant. In light of the Snowden revelations, Defence Minister Nicolai Wammen insisted that FE’s cooperation with the NSA was lawful, but as recently as Friday he refused to comment on whether the war rule was in effect.
The refusal to answer that question was not uncommon. Since 2008, left-wing parties Socialist People’s Party (SF) and the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) have repeatedly tried to get a succession of defence ministers to answer whether Denmark’s involvement in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan constituted an activation of the war rule. No one was willing to answer.
But today, Wammen finally addressed it.
“It has been the practice for the last several years that various defence ministers have not given the public information regarding the potential use of [the war rule]. The reason for this, briefly, is that such information could undermine the purpose of the clause,” Wammen told Politiken. “However, I will say that the clause is not in use, not for the purpose of telephone surveillance or the interception of other private communications.”
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Wammen said he had decided to answer the question in order to “avoid any completely unnecessary myths”.
It was the first time since 1988 that a defence minister directly addressed the use of article 17 of the Danish Defence Law. Wammen’s decision to speak out about it will however likely do little to dampen the discussion, especially given the fact that he did answer whether the article had been in effect earlier nor address where in the law FE has the legal authority to tap undersea cables.
“Before we can have a debate on where to draw the line on surveillance in a modern society, we need more knowledge, Jacob Mchangama of the libertarian think tank Cepos told Politiken. “There should be a minimum requirement that parliament and we as citizens know the framework for surveillance and the extent to which citizens risk being monitored.”