Justice Minister Knut Storberget shared what he’s learned so far about a controversial US Embassy surveillance program in Oslo with members of the Norwegian Parliament on Wednesday. There was broad consensus afterwards that officials within the embassy and the local police should have informed high-level government politicians about it long ago.
Storberget made it clear at the outset that “no permission has ever been given for the establishment of the embassy’s own surveillance unit.” He noted that there’s no demand for such permission, but there are limits to what such a unit “can legally conduct on Norwegian territory.”
Storberget, from the Labour Party, won generally good reviews from representatives of all of Norway’s political parties for delivering what they called an “open, thorough and detailed” account of what he’s found out about the troublesome embassy surveillance program since it first made headlines earlier this month. He also won support for a list of seven proposed measures to help fend off such trouble in the future.
He repeated that neither he nor Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre nor other government ministers nor their predecessors were aware of the US’ so-called Surveillance Detection Unit (SDU) in Oslo.
Storberget confirmed, though, that officials within both the Oslo Police District and the special police intelligence unit PST knew about it, and even had concerns about it. They simply failed to report those concerns to higher levels or political leaders, for reasons that are unclear.
Storberget stressed that an investigation by Norway’s highest prosecuting authority is still going on into the US Embassy’s surveillance program, and he couldn’t say whether the program’s activities were indeed illegal. He shared widespread concerns, however, that the program operated at the very least on the fringe of Norwegian law, that its “systematic filming and registering of civilians” is not acceptable, and that many questions remain unanswered.
He noted, however, that US officials have provided detailed and chronological records of their meetings with Norwegian police since the surveillance began 10 years ago, and he commended them for that. Spokesmen for both the US State Department in Washington and the embassy in Oslo have claimed they operated in cooperation with local officials and apparently thought they had permission for their surveillance. Storberget made it clear they did not.
The justice minister and several other Norwegian politicians conceded that embassy staff can’t be held responsible for a lack of internal communication within the hierarchy of Norwegian authorities. It’s not clear why police aware of and concerned about the surveillance didn’t take up the issue at the political level, prompting criticism from some politicians that the justice ministry lacks control over the police and PST. There’s been speculation that the police didn’t think the surveillance was so serious, that they overstepped their own authority and that embassy staff was happy to keep the matter at what the leader of the Christian Democrats party called “the constable level,” perhaps fearing their surveillance would not be approved by Norwegian politicians.
But as Foreign Minister Støre said at a televised press conference after Storberget’s nationally broadcast address to Parliament, embassy officials probably should have informed government ministers directly. He suggested that if Norway had wanted to mount such a surveillance program of US citizens in the US, Norwegian officials would have sought permission first.
The surveillance program has landed both the Norwegian and US governments in an awkward position, since both sides are keen to avoid a diplomatic incident. There’s been much talk about what good “friends” the two countries are, and the importance of good relations. Støre noted that it’s “not unnatural” that there was direct contact between the embassy and the police, since the Oslo Police District is charged with embassy security, and all politicians speaking in Parliament on Wednesday said they understood US officials’ need to protect their embassies, both in Norway and elsewhere. Støre and Storberget were careful not to accuse the Americans of illegal activity on Norwegian soil, and the embassy staff has diplomatic immunity anyway, but both stressed that “even embassies” must follow Norwegian law.
As much as both the Norwegians and the Americans would like to bury what’s being called the “surveillance scandal,” it will now be forwarded to parliamentary committees for further examination while investigations continue.
One nagging question remains: Has the embassy shut down its Surveillance Detection Unit, given all the local outrage about it? Even though embassy officials must be acutely aware of how controversial their surveillance has been, Støre couldn’t confirm whether they’ve followed through on promises to halt their surveillance activity. “That’s difficult to answer,” he said. “I haven’t heard anything new.”
The US Embassy, meanwhile, sent out a brief statement late Wednesday afternoon in which it still referred to what it claims was “close cooperation with our friends in Norway.”
The embassy stated that it has “welcomed the opportunity to consult intensively with the Government of Norway on our Surveillance Detection program, and we appreciate the Norwegian government’s efforts to illuminate the matter. We noted with interest the Minister of Justice’s account today. We sincerely hope his account has clarified the speculation and misinformation about this program and the Embassy’s security measures.”
Given Storberget’s concerns and statements that confirm many reports the embassy has dismissed as “inaccurate and inflammatory,” it’s unlikely the embassy’s hopes were fulfilled.
The embassy went on to state that it “would not be appropriate for the Embassy to comment further on the Minister of Justice’s statement or on the Norwegian Government’s internal discussions on this matter. We look forward to continued close cooperation with our friends in Norway, in this and many other areas.”
The embassy has not responded to media questions about the status of its surveillance program.