Defense rises to its own defense

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Frustrated officials at the Defense Ministry division responsible for ensuring secure military communications are trying to fend off charges that they have subjected other government ministries and even the Royal Palace to illegal surveillance. They’re hindered, though, by an ongoing police investigation into their activities.

Reports have filled Norwegian media for the past week about the investigation, which was called for by the Defense Minister herself. Police have since found cause to raid the Lillehammer base of theDefense Ministry intelligence agency FOST (Forsvarets sikkerhetstjeneste), which is responsible for data security on military lines, and another high-tech military communications hub at Kolsås west of Oslo.

The investigation is hindering military officials from commenting while the probe is underway, but they nonetheless flatly deny they have opened or read any e-mail communications. They also opened the doors of FOST’s base in Lillehammer and gave newspaper Aftenposten background information about how they operate.

“Our job is to reduce the risks for Norwegian women and men in Afghanistan and other places,” said Major Roger Johnsen. That involves monitoring data communication lines at all times and reporting any suspicious activity that could threaten so-called “network-based defense.”

Now they feel that their very job of following the streams of information over military lines of communication has resulted in a tidal wave of negative publicity. FOST officials repeatedly claimed that they serve at the request of other government agencies, always report irregularities, don’t monitor lines without the users being aware of it and don’t engage in surveillance of individuals. Nor, they claim, do they use equipment that can monitor mobile telephone conversations even though such equipment is available.There’s some reported speculation in both military and government circles now that the entire “surveillance scandal,” as it’s been called, is a result of rivalry between various communications security and intelligence agencies in Norway. There reportedly have been conflicts between FOST and the national data security agency NSM (Nasjonal sikkerhetsmyndighet) , reports Aftenposten , and FOST chief Geir Gade warned Defense Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen that clearer rules were needed to define the bounds of surveillance authority between the two.

No such clarity has been forthcoming, and now Gade and his colleagues at FOST are under investigation on suspicion of conducting illegal surveillance. NSM has earlier warned that FOST has been operating with outdated rules.

Strøm-Erichsen, meanwhile, faces questioning in Parliament over the entire issue, also that she called for more computer surveillance because she feared hackers and computer virus attacks.

It’s unclear when the police will finish their investigation. Both King Harald and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who initially were suspected of being under illegal surveillance themselves, have declined comment until the probe is concluded.