New surveillance laws trump the NSA

In the wake of the Copenhagen terror attack, the government presented twelve new ideas to combat terrorism. Critics argue, however, that the proposal is a knee-jerk reaction that gives too much power to the intelligence agencies

A billion kroner.  This is the sum the Danish government has chosen to invest in anti-terror initiatives following the deaths of Finn Nørgaard and Dan Uzan at the hands of Omar El-Hussain.

The 22-year-old was a career criminal who set out on his homicidal mission after declaring his allegiance to the Islamic State. Despite the weapons at his disposal – an automatic rifle and pistols – Nørgaard and Uzan were the only people he managed to murder before police tracked him down and killed him in a shoot out near Nørrebro station.

“We want to protect our country and live safely,” declared PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt at the press conference she called to present twelve new proposals to strengthen Denmark’s anti-terror efforts.

Expected to cost 970 million kroner over four years, the proposals are based on recommendations from the security agencies that were solicited by the government following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January.

In the proposal outlining their 12-point plan, the government says that the nature of the terror threat against Denmark has changed over the past decade. The first threat they identify is posed by Danes who return to Denmark with weapons training after fighting alongside groups like the Islamic State.

The second is that terror groups are becoming increasingly adept at using online propaganda to radicalise vulnerable individuals, inciting them to carry out terrorist attacks in their home countries. These “lone wolf” terrorists leave few traces, making them difficult to anticipate.

Finally, terror groups are increasingly resorting to encrypted communication tools, making it difficult for security agencies to listen in.

The enormous proposed investment would address these issues, with 200 million kroner going to improving the surveillance and preparedness capabilities of PET, the domestic intelligence agency. An upgrade of PET’s IT analysis tools, costing 150 million kroner, will enable them to sift more efficiently through ever-larger quantities of data. This will enable them to better identify threats via social media and video surveillance, for example.

The military intelligence agency FE will receive 415 million kroner, primarily to improve their ability to determine threats of terror from abroad, but also to increase their capacity to intercept digital information and break encryption. Encryption is proving particularly problematic, and FE will invest in cultivating their human intelligence assets to ensure a stream of information.

Snoop without a warrant
Despite receiving wide political support, elements of the government’s plan were criticised for being too far-reaching. The government wants to let FE monitor the communications of Danes living abroad if they are suspected of involvement in terrorism, but without having to first apply for a warrant, as they do currently.

The warrants are designed to prevent the intelligence agencies from violating the civil liberties of Danes through arbitrary surveillance. But allowing FE to snoop without a warrant gives them more extensive power than their equivalents in the UK (GCHQ) and the US (NSA), according to a report from the think tank Justitia.

“When the criteria for suspicion are reduced without independent control, there is the risk of abuse,” warns Justitia director Jacob Mchangama in Politiken newspaper, adding that warrantless surveillance may also violate European human rights laws that guarantee an individual’s right to privacy.

Far-left party Enhedslisten is also concerned that FE’s new powers risk turning Denmark away from democracy and toward a police state.

“There is no evidence it will help prevent a new attack,” their legal spokesperson Pernille Skipper told Politiko. “What will be the next idea? Will we start allowing them to put Danes inside Denmark under surveillance without a warrant? Or keep people detained without a judge’s approval? Where do we draw the line?”

Defence minister Nicolai Wammen defended the proposal, pointing out that requests to monitor Danes abroad must be approved by the head of FE, as well as the intelligence agencies’ oversight committee, TET.

“This proposal will allow us at a much earlier stage to gain access to information that can protect Denmark against potential terror attacks,” Wammen told Politiko.

Prison radicalisation
In December, El-Hussain was given a two-year sentence for stabbing a man on a train in 2013. He appealed and was released on January 30, after spending more than a year in jail on remand. While he was in jail he was radicalised, and sixteen days after his release, he carried out the attacks.

One of the government’s twelve ideas is to tackle the type of radicalisation that El-Hussain experienced in jail. This builds on a 61 million kroner government initiative launched in January to tackle radicalisation and extremism.

In an editorial, the newspaper Information points out that there was nothing stopping the intelligence agencies from keeping El-Hussain under surveillance. The state prosecutor advised against his release in January, and the Prison Service warned that he had been radicalised.

“The government’s anti-terror plan is clearly designed to give the population a feeling of security,” they write. “We will get more control, registrations and surveillance. But in the process, we limit the same personal freedoms that the politicians are trying to protect.”

Politiken newspaper joined in the chorus, arguing that anti-radicalisation efforts need to start at a much younger age.

“The reflexive reaction that we can eradicate the terrorist threat by blindly throwing millions at the police and intelligence services is a typical mistake,” Politiken writes.

The funding for the government’s proposal will be secured during the next round of budget negotiations in the autumn. Most of the 970 million kroner will be found in future budgets, and so doesn’t amount to much of an additional investment in the state’s current budget.

The Konservative party argues that this is insufficient, and has proposed its own 3.4 billion kroner package that includes investing 500 million kroner per year in additional police officers. They also want to set aside funds for the permanent protection of the Jewish community, following the murder of Uzan outside the Copenhagen Synagogue.

“We have to accept that it appears that we have not adequately protected the Jewish community,” Konservative leader Søren Pape told Politiko.

In the proposal, the government argues that the twelve points will help the country meet the terror threat it faces, but buried in the text is a careful disclaimer. “In the war against terror, we can never protect ourselves 100 percent. It is not possible, regardless of what we do. There will always be a risk that a fanatic will succeed in their attack.” M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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