Spy versus Spy

Back in May of 2021, I wrote a post (“Spies without Masters“) about the revelation that Danish intelligence services had been cooperating with America’s National Security Administration (NSA) by allowing it to tap into internet trunk lines on Danish soil.

Europe was shocked, shocked to learn of this.

The peoples of Europe were so shocked, shocked that the story made headlines for a whole couple of days before going down the memory hole, where it surely would have been left to rot in obscurity had it not been for some interesting events in December.

The most interesting of those December events was the one nobody even knew about until yesterday. And the most interesting thing about it was the fact that nobody knew about it.

Lars Findsen is the only man in Danish history to have been the head of both its domestic and its international intelligence agencies: respectively, they are Politiets Efterretningstjeneste (PET) and Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste (FE). You could translate them as the Police’s Intelligence Service and the Defense Intelligence Service, but even English speakers in Denmark just call them PET and FE.

Lars Findsen, as I’ve already mentioned, has been at the head of them both: PET from 2002 to 2007, and FE from 2015 to 2020.

He was relieved of his duties at FE in August 2020, along with a couple of other colleagues, on accusations of having withheld information from another government agency: Tilsynet med Efterretningstjenesterne, or TET, which is the agency responsible for monitoring the intelligence services—they’re the ones watching the watchers.

Despite that, or for all I know because of it, Findsen remained (and remains) a solidly respected member of the Danish intelligence community, even after the thing that happened in December that we learned about yesterday.

Here’s the synopsis from Berlingske:

On 8 December 2021, Lars Findsen was arrested at Copenhagen Airport on his way home from a trip abroad. The next day, he was remanded in custody and charged under section 109 of the Criminal Code on leakage of state secrets, which carries a penalty of up to 12 years in prison.

The FE chief thus had to spend both Christmas and New Year in custody in Hillerød.

On Monday morning (January 10), at 10 am, he crossed courtroom 39 in Copenhagen City Court with long strides and sat in the accused’s chair in the middle. At the court hearing, a judge had to decide whether Lars Findsen should continue to be held in custody.

But first, the ban on mentioning the FE chief’s name in connection with the case was lifted, at the request of Lars Findsen’s lawyer.

The judge then adjourned the court so that everyone, with the exception of the journalists present, could continue in another room behind closed doors.

And then Lars Findsen did something quite unexpected.

As the judge disappeared through the back door, Findsen got up, straightened his jacket, and turned with a quick motion toward the journalists in the rows behind him:

“I want the charges brought and I plead not guilty. This is completely insane, and you can quote me on that.”

The charges against the FE boss have not come to light because the judge agreed to keep them confidential. It is therefore only publicly known so far that it’s about section 109 on the leakage of state secrets.

“Section 109” is found in Chapter 12 of the penal code—a chapter headlined “Treason and other crimes against the state’s autonomy and security.”

The only man in Danish history to have headed both its domestic and foreign intelligence services is behind bars, charged with treason or something like it.

It’s a hell of a story, whatever it is and whatever it means.

Unfortunately, no one who knows what’s going on is willing (or legally permitted) to talk about it, so the whole thing is just a massive Rorschach Test right now. The coverage we’re seeing and hearing tells us very little about the case but a whole lot about the people providing the coverage.

Is it a political hit job on the nation’s top spook?

Did Denmark’s spymaster actually go rogue?

Is it an intra-agency turf war gone nuclear?

Is the whole thing just a nutty misunderstanding, like an episode of Three’s Company?

We’ll see.

But in watching all this unfold I can’t help wondering how this sort of episode would have played out in America.

Can you imagine someone who had been both Director of the CIA and Director of the FBI being arrested at an airport and locked up on charges of treason (or something like it)?

Without any Americans knowing it had happened for a full month after the fact?

I don’t mean can you imagine a John Clancy novel or Hollywood blockbuster with that plotline: I mean can you imagine such a thing actually happening in real life? Today? Right now?

I have to admit I cannot, and I find that troubling.

I don’t think this case bodes well for Denmark—I’m sure the “Something is rotten…” headlines will start appearing in the international press momentarily—but I think the singular fact of what we know right now, that someone as deeply entrenched in the nation’s shadow power structure as Lars Findsen is not above arrest or incarceration, is in fact a sign of a healthy polity. (Either that or a very corrupt polity, but that doesn’t seem likely in Denmark.)

The man wasn’t simply compelled to take an early retirement to spend more time with his family while ghostwriters tapped out his inevitably bestselling memoirs. No, he was collared at an airport, tossed in the hoosegow, and put on ice for a month. Because charges had been filed against him, a judge found them credible, and that’s how the justice system works. For everyone.

In Denmark.

(As far as we can tell.)

And that’s actually kind of charming.

I’d rather live in a country where even the nation’s top spymaster knows that if he breaks the law he risks imprisonment than in a country whose highest officials know they have nothing to fear—and act accordingly.