Legal Action Taken to Expose Denmark’s Role in US Targeted Killing Program

As reported in today’s Just Security Roundup, news this morning out of Denmark is that the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) is pursuing a potential suite of legal actions to try to obtain information and accountability for Denmark’s alleged participation in US operations to kill U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. The “first step” is a series of freedom of information requests with multiple Danish agencies under provisions of Denmark’s Public Records Act and Public Administration Act.

As a result, the story of Denmark’s collaboration in US operations has returned to the front pages of Danish national newspapers (Jyllands-Posten & Copenhagen Post) — where it first mushroomed in late 2012 before spreading to international outlets back then (e.g., CNN and New York Times). The story initially broke in October 2012 when Morten Storm, a double agent who worked with the CIA and Danish intelligence agency PET, went public on his involvement in three attempts to target and kill Awlaki, whom Storm had befriended. CNN reported in 2012 that Storm’s revelations of Denmark’s involvement “backed up extensive corroborating evidence.”

Storm’s motivation for going public? He reportedly felt betrayed after a CIA agent claimed to him that a different stream of intelligence had resulted in killing Awlaki. He also said that he refused a lucrative offer from PET to stay silent because the agency had broken multiple promises to him, including obtaining permanent residence status for his wife in Denmark.

After exhausting domestic remedies, the OSJI will have multiple legal options to pursue including the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations Human Rights Committee (Denmark is party to a Protocol that provides for individual complaints).  Storm has told a Danish newspaper that he is “glad” OSJI is pursuing the legal case “and I want to help.”

Other posts at Just Security have tracked and analyzed similar legal actions against foreign intelligence agencies for their alleged involvement in US targeted killings (United Kingdom), extraordinary rendition and torture (Djibouti, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, United Kingdom), and surveillance programs (United Kingdom).

As a result of these efforts, foreign intelligence agencies and their political leaders now have to contemplate whether the benefits of participation in US covert actions is worth the legal and political costs that come with possible exposure later in time. And the US administration may have to contemplate the weaknesses in a system that relies on foreign partners who are subject to oversight by international bodies and whose public will often be less sympathetic (to put it mildly) to US efforts. Denmark may be one of the weakest links in that chain, and the most opportune for human rights groups to succeed in their efforts. 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.