TPC 36: The Importance of Whistleblowers

A recent scandal involving the military intelligence service in Denmark once again clearly demonstrates how important whistleblowers are to the general public.

Jonathan M. H., who happens to live in Denmark, made me aware of the story of the head of the Danish Defence Intelligence Service (Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste, FE) getting suspended. I think this story has several aspects that make it worth spending an episode of The Private Citizen on. Let’s investigate!

The Danish Intelligence Scandal

In a press release , the independent regulator for the Danish Defence Intelligence Service (Tilsynet med Efterretningstjenesterne, TET) announced that it has suspended the head of the FE, Lars Findsen, and two other senior officials. This comes after a whistleblower report that has been likened to the Snowden revelations in the US.

Denmark’s top foreign intelligence chief has been suspended for spying on Danish citizens illegally for up to six years after a whistleblower released a trove of documents to government regulators.

In a press release yesterday, the independent regulator of the Danish security services (Tilsynet med Efterretningstjenesterne or TET) said it had received information from a whistleblower in November that revealed the country’s foreign intelligence service “had withheld key and crucial information,” and given “incorrect information on matters relating to the collection of the service and disclosure of information.” The Danish government announced that head of the Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste (FE) service, Lars Findsen, as well as two senior officials that focused on military intelligence – and who were not named – had been “relieved of duty for the time being.”

The TET states that the FE service has carried out “operational activities in violation of Danish law, including obtaining and passing on a significant amount of information about Danish citizens.” It also notes that “central parts of FE’s acquisition capacities” contain “risks that unjustifiably can be obtained against Danish citizens” – suggesting some kind of mass surveillance capability or illegal data gathering. It also noted that “FE’s management has failed to follow up on or further investigate indications of espionage within the area of ​​the Ministry of Defense.”

It looks like someone told the TET that something untoward was going on, but Findsen and the FE lied to cover it up. The whole thing then came to light when one or more whistleblowers gave documents showing the illegal activity to the TET.

Faced with requests for information on the illegal activity, it appears that the FE and Findsen decided to brazen it out and claim they had no relevant documents. But then “one or more” whistleblowers provided the oversight body with some kind of proof of what was going on.

As a result, the TET has decided things need to change and that it needs to be empowered to provide more effective oversight of the FE.

The TET clearly decided its authority and ability to oversee the intelligence services was at stake and notes that it sought, and received, repeat support from the Defense Minister in its investigation. The final report was delivered to Defense Minister Trine Bramsen on Friday, the TET notes, and stretched to four volumes, with conclusions and recommendations.

In its report, TET asks for the law that provides it with its oversight powers be reviewed and revised – presumably to make it harder for the intelligence agencies to hide such information in future. And it argues for an expanded and strengthened whistleblower scheme. “Such a scheme should aim to improve the ability of current and former FE employees to comment on criticisable matters in the authority without fear of negative retaliation, including employment or criminal law consequences,” it argued. It wants the ability for whistleblowers to be able to share classified information and additional resources to be given to such a scheme to make sure it is viable.

We still don’t really know what happened in the first place, though. Maybe this calls for a whistleblower to release these documents to the press and/or the public, like Snowden did?

Despite the enormity of the claims – that the intelligence service illegally spied on Danish citizens, then passed the information onto others and then lied about it to an independent oversight board – the TET warns that due to the “extremely sensitive” nature of the information, the public may never learn exactly what happened. Despite arguing that “it is essential that the public gets as complete an insight into this as at all possible,” it then immediately notes that given the “classified content thereof, the Authority may not provide further information to the public.”

Reactions in Denmark

The BBC makes it sound like this might have wider repercussions within the Danish government. And maybe the Danish public?

Kasper Wester from Danish news site OLFI told the BBC: “The supervisory agency suggests that Lars Findsen has played an active part in withholding information or even deliberately misinforming the supervisory agency. The fact that the head of the Danish Military Intelligence Service is a willing participant in circumventing the agency tasked with holding his own intelligence service legally accountable is mind-blowing and must be deeply concerning to the minister.”

And apparently this isn’t the only scandal within the Danish military lately.

The Danish military has been at the centre of recent scandals, with some high-profile officers accused of favouring relatives.

It also doesn’t seem to be the first time FE has been spying on Danish citizens.

FE’s primary tasks are foreign intelligence, military security and national IT security. They are a not the same organisation as PET (Politiets Efterretningstjeneste), which is responsible for domestic intelligence and security in Denmark.

Before TET was established in 2014, FE launched operational activities that were in breach of Danish law, including obtaining and passing on a significant amount of information about Danish citizens. It also accuses FE of “improper management of information regarding an employee of (TET)”, which has been interpreted as an accusation of FE espionage against TET.

Sounds like they were trying to figure out who the whistleblower is.

The Danish don’t seem to be amused:

The developing scandal has already been called “highly unusual” by commentators in Denmark. “FE has been left somewhat groggy by this. It has lost its top manager and two other senior staff. This has the shape and form of something that can be a very big scandal,” Trine Maria Ilsøe (legal correspondent for Danish broadcaster DR) said on Monday. The strength of the watchdog’s criticism of one of Denmark’s intelligence services sets Monday’s developments out from past cases, she said. “It’s highly unusual. We know that FE has received criticism in previous reports, but it has always looked like something that could be worked on. But this time the watchdog is of a different opinion. They are virtually accusing them of lying,” she added.

The Case for the Importance of Whistleblowers

This story, once again, shows the importance of whistleblowers to the public. It also shows the difference of a disclosure to the “proper authorities” via a Snowden-like disclosure to the press or a Wikileaks-style dissemination of information.

If you are considering to become a whistleblower yourself, I have a way to send me sensitive information anonymously. But there are important things you should consider first.

Producer Feedback

Fadi Mansour comments:

I got your message apologizing for delaying an episode. Thank you for your commitment, but for me personally, I hope you are doing the shows because you are enjoying them, and not as an “obligation”.

He also wrote some things in relation to child abuse, investigating those crimes and the conflict with people’s privacy and recommends a podcast episode on this topic. I will listen to it and consider it for a future episode of this podcast.

Steve says:

I just finished listening to your break down of socialism, communism, and social democracy. I have not studied political science at all and found your discussion on it to be clear and informative. I thoroughly enjoyed the breakdown on this. I too used to be more central on the political spectrum in my younger days, but have found myself moving further to the right with age, I think. The reason that I am not sure if I am moving my political alignment is that I feel it might be the spectrum shifting in respect to my alignment. In Canada, we have 3 major parties. New Democrat Party (left), Liberal Party (center), and Conservative Party (right). At least, those where the parties and their alignments in years past. These days it feels like the Conservative party has slid slightly towards the middle, and the Liberal Party has slid all the way over to the left. The Liberal Party is currently in power, although as a minority, but has the full backing of the New Democrat Party, so they essentially function as one. But it could just be old age catching up to me. Thanks for your continued great work, and here’s hoping for a smooth bike trip to Norway.

If you also have thoughts on the topics discussed in this or previous episodes, please feel free to contact me.

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