Defense ministry on the defensive
December 6, 2010
Labour Party politician Espen Barth Eide has suddenly emerged as a powerful dealmaker in Norway’s decision to buy new fighter jets from the US, instead of from its neighbours in Sweden. Defense Minister Grete Faremo firmly denies the deal was tipped in favor of the US, although WikiLeaks documents suggest otherwise.
Barth Eide has since transferred from the Defense Ministry to the Foreign Ministry, where he holds the same title as “state secretary.” Some US diplomats, however, viewed him as more powerful and knowledgeable than former Defense Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen when the jet negotiations were at their height.
Former US Ambassador to Norway Benson K Whitney characterized Strøm-Erichsen as “weak” and lacking political experience on defense issues in one document released by WikiLeaks. Barth Eide, meanwhile, was called “one of the most powerful politicians in today’s Norwegian government, even though he’s only a state secretary.”
Whitney also had reason to believe Barth Eide was “pro-American” and that he warded off a Norwegian veto of NATO’s planned missile shield. According to documents obtained through WikiLeaks by Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, the US ambassador noted that Barth Eide could be indecisive at times, and that other Norwegian politicians and bureaucrats characterized him as “fawning.”
The fighter jet deal in which Barth Eide was involved is huge, a multi-billion-dollar sale by US defense contractor Lockheed-Martin that the Americans did not want to lose. The WikiLeaks documents suggest it was even more important for the Americans than the Norwegians realized, because the Norwegian decision could set a precedent and influence other customers. It could have jeopardized other sales for the Americans if Norway didn’t buy their jet.
Aftonbladet reported that the Americans feared at one point they might lose the deal to Sweden’s JAS Gripen jet, so they put heavy pressure on the Norwegians, and ultimately received “private signals” from Barth Eide that they would win the order, before the government announced its selection.
The state secretary, according to another cable from Whitney, thanked the Americans for their sales campaign and allegedly said it would be impossible to choose the Swedish jet given the difference in qualities between the two rivals. Barth Eide also reportedly told Whitney that newspaper Aftenposten had campaigned against the selection of the US’ jet known then as Joint Strike Fighter. It’s now called the F-35 Lightning II, and Norway may buy as many as 48 of them for a price still to be negotiated.
Military officials and current Defense Minister Faremo have since tried to clear Barth Eide. Faremo issued a statement saying that the government’s choice of fighter jets was made public right after it was decided. “There weren’t given any promises to any of the candidates beforehand,” Faremo claimed. She called the process around the choice of jets “solid.”
Swedish media reported that Swedish politicians and defense officials are furious with Norway after the US ambassador’s reports were made public, but they’re publicly trying to swallow their anger. “I don’t feel cheated,” Swedish Defense Minister Sten Tolfgors claimed, adding that he didn’t plan to pursue the information about Barth Eide’s role in the fighter jet deal any further.