Caught up in WikiLeaks impact

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Norwegian government officials seem to be taking the contents of US Embassy documents leaked by WikiLeaks in stride, while some experts think the leaks will damage diplomacy. Meanwhile, a Norwegian finance firm is caught in the crossfire.

Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, shown here with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this fall. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has mostly remained mum on the contents of specific documents involving Norway and himself personally. He reacted, though, this week to editorial comments in newspaper Aftenposten that he had been “naive” in responding that leaked US diplomats’ comments weren’t reflected in his own dealings with US officials.

“Of course the diplomats’ personal characterizations of the country, politics or persons, myself included, are not confirmed or repeated during political meetings in Washington,” Støre wrote in Aftenposten himself. “We must read the reports as what they are: Personal evaluations of varying quality from American diplomats posted in Oslo. They are candid and written under the belief they’ll be confidential. Those of us who are the subject of their evaluations simply must live with them.”

Støre went on to stress, however, that what really matters is the official policy from Washington “and not the reports from the American Embassy in Oslo.” He referred to the documents as mere “raw material” that can be used in formulation of official policy. And that’s where Støre claims he hasn’t seen much of the derogatory characterizations and evaluations revealed in the documents.

Støre also downplayed the role of the US Embassy in Oslo, claiming that Norway’s relations with the US are mostly carried out with the US State Department through Norway’s own embassy in Washington. “The most important is direct contact with political colleagues in the US,” Støre wrote. “That’s where the real test of the relation between the US and Norway lies. My experience is that we have so much in common that we can live with disagreements.”

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who has left most of the WikiLeaks reaction to his foreign minister Støre, said at a pre-holiday press conference this week that he doesn’t think the US Embassy documents revealed through WikiLeaks have damaged Norway’s relations to other countries. “I wouldn’t say that what’s come out about Norway is serious,” Stoltenberg said. “It’s sad if leaks like this, though, lead to less-openness in diplomatic conversations.”

‘Paradox’
That’s exactly what several foreign policy researchers and diplomatic experts think will happen. “The paradox here is that the leaks will lead to more secrecy,” Jan Egeland, a former top diplomat and UN official, told newspaper Aftenposten. Egeland, who now heads foreign policy research institute NUPI in Oslo, said both diplomats and government bureaucrats may be less likely to gossip and more careful about they write from now on.

“There can also be more closed doors than there are now,” said Svein Melby of a local institute for defense studies, who claims he wasn’t surprised by the critical contents of the documents released through WikiLeaks.

Stein Tønnesson, a professor and former head of peace research center PRIO, said it can be a problem, though, if American diplomats lose their ability to conduct confidential discussions with foreign counterparts. “Meetings may not be held, and those that are held may not be held in confidence,” Tønnesson said, especially between the US and China.

Finance firm in a bind
Meanwhile, a Norwegian-Danish finance firm is caught in the controversy over credit card company VISA and MasterCard’s decision to block donations to WikiLeaks, a non-profit organization that has depended on financial contributions to “keep it strong.”

On December 7, VISA Europe suspended an Icelandic firm, Datacell, which has received donations on behalf of WikiLeaks. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported this week that the suspension was carried out through the Norwegian-Danish finance firm Teller, which handles credit card transactions for Visa, MasterCard and American Express, which until recently could be used to send donor payments to WikiLeaks. Both VISA and Teller are justifying the controversial suspension on a probe they’ve launched into whether Datacell or WikiLeaks have violated either terms of their agreement with VISA or Danish law.

It’s left Norwegian officials at Teller in an awkward position, and now a law professor at the University of Oslo claims Teller may be violating Norwegian law by effectively blocking financial payments to WikiLeaks. Professor Olav Torvund suggested Teller’s move amounts to abuse of power.

“No matter what you might think about WikiLeaks, this (Datacell’s suspension) is extremely problematic,” Torvund told DN. “WikiLeaks has neither been charged nor convicted for any illegalities. This is only a politically hot potato.”

Torvund criticized Teller’s involvement in blocking payments to WikiLeaks, and suggested it may violate finance agreements and EU directives. Datacell was already planning to file a lawsuit.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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