Pressured premier issues an apology

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Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg formally apologized Tuesday on the floor of the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) for Norway’s lack of preparedness when a home-grown terrorist struck last year and killed 77 persons. Stoltenberg was also on the offense, though, and no opposition politicians seemed eager to topple his government.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg addressed a special session of Parliament on Tuesday, to present his government's reaction to the critical July 22 Commission's report on how the state responded to last year's terrorist attacks. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) carried the three-hour session live on national TV and radio. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/Views and News

Stoltenberg, who leads the Labour Party that the terrorist attacked, had himself asked to address an extraordinary session of the Norwegian Parliament following the August 13 release of a highly critical, government-ordered report on the emergency response to the attacks. The July 22 Commission that delivered the lengthy and detailed report was scathing in its assessment, and Stoltenberg admitted the lack of preparedness was far more serious than he’d expected.

The most important thing now, he stressed repeatedly throughout the three-hour session on Tuesday, is not only to take concrete steps towards improving everything from police communications to the availability of helicopters, but to change long-held attitudes that led to slack security. As the commission’s report pointed out, Stoltenberg said, the very culture surrounding security measures must change.

It’s a culture of comfort, in a sense, characterized by notions both inside and outside the country that such gruesome attacks could never happen in Norway. They did, with leaders and ordinary folks alike lulled into a false sense of security that had never made tougher anti-terrorism and anti-crime measures a priority.

Grete Faremo, whose title is now Minister of Justice and Preparedness, admitted "we were not well-enough" prepared, and listed measures for improvement including a ban on semi-automatic weapons and a new "preparedness center" in northeast Oslo at Alna. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/Views and News

Norwegians pride themselves on maintaining an open society, in which leaders and especially government officials and politicians are easily accessible. Now they must learn, claimed not only Stoltenberg but also opposition politicians who challenged him, to find “a better balance” between openness and public safety.

“We must show we have the will to change some of our fundamental attitudes,” Stoltenberg told Members of Parliament. “We want more openness, but never naiveté.”

Many have accused Norwegians of being naive for not having a more security-minded outlook. Stoltenberg himself doesn’t want to lose Norway’s open and casual society, but he stressed that “we must boost consciousness of risk and danger, we must learn from our mistakes.”

He took full responsibility for not seeing to it that the main street running through the now-bombed-out government complex in downtown Oslo, Grubbegata, had been closed years ago. Also for the fact that the terrorist could thus drive his bomb-laden van right up to the high-rise housing Stoltenberg’s own office. “For that, I am sorry,” Stoltenberg said.

Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, one of Stoltenberg's most ardent critics, said she was glad he apologized. She noted, though, that other governments over the years also must share responsibility for the lack of preparedness for a crisis. Her party has never held government power. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/Views and News

He noted later, though, that “many were against the closure of Grubbegata,” which explains why it led to years of conflict between the state and the city. Both Stoltenberg and other politicians also noted that other security concerns had emerged more than a decade ago without being acted upon. Stoltenberg’s arch rival, Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, also said that governments over the past 12 years, not just the current government, need to share responsibility for delays on implementing anti-terror measures.

“The problem is not a lack of plans, but the inability to implement them,” Stoltenberg admitted. “It’s not a lack of funding, but the lack of will to use it.” The tragedy of July 22, 2011, he said, reveals a need for many changes because “of the weakness in our system.”

Stoltenberg and his justice minister, Grete Faremo, rattled off a long list of concrete measures they now hope to implement quickly including better coordination between the police and the military, making terror planning a crime along with one’s physical presence at any terror training camps, extending the duties of the Royal Guards, improving technical communications and holding regular anti-terror training programs and drills.

Erna Solberg, head of the Conservative Party, which is the biggest opposition party in Parliament, said after the special session that she wasn't satisfied with all of Stoltenberg's answers. She has no plans to unseat him, though, at least not until the next election. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/Views and News

A new “preparedness center” will be established in Groruddalen in Oslo on state-owned property at Alna. Faremo also said her ministry will propose a new law banning semi-automatic weapons. Other weapon-control measures are also likely. Police staffing schedules will be changed to ensure that “more police are on the job when we need them,” like during holidays, on the weekends and late at night, Faremo said. She claimed she’d be better herself at setting deadlines for proposals, and following them up.

Opposition politicians like Jensen and Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party all thanked Stoltenberg and Faremo for their presentations and, not least, for Stoltenberg’s formal apology. “That was absolutely necessary,” Jensen said. They then proceeded to call for more preparedness in others parts of the country, too, not just in Oslo and Jensen made it clear “we are impatient” for security improvements to be enacted.

First, though, the commission’s assessment of the lack of preparedness, and the government’s reaction to it, will be discussed in the Parliament’s disciplinary committee. No one expects any moves to unseat the government or Stoltenberg himself.

“Everyone knows this is all very sensitive,” said Knut Magnus Berge, a commentator for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). Everyone with political power shares some responsibility here, Solberg herself noted, with Berge adding that “everyone knows the terrorist’s primary goal was to destroy the Labour Party and the (Labour-led) government.” And no one wants the terrorist to succeed.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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