The head of Norway’s state agency charged with protecting Norwegians’ right to privacy fears that innocent citizens who’ve taken part in “perfectly legal demonstrations” may have landed in a register of persons the US suspects of terrorist activity. He’s urging them to call the US Embassy to inquire about their status.
“Anyone who has demonstrated outside the US Embassy must now realize that they may have landed in this register,” Bjørn Erik Thon of Datatilsynet (Norway’s Data Inspectorate) told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday.
Thon said there’s all reason to believe that they may have been photographed and identified as part of a secret surveillance program conducted by the US Embassy in Oslo. The program was revealed by TV2 this week and has set off massive protests from Norwegian officials who claim it’s illegal.
Thon is among those who believe the US Embassy and US State Department officials have operated “completely outside the framework of Norwegian law.” He told Aftenposten that the embassy’s so-called Surveillance Detection Unit “has carried out police work on Norwegian soil and not taken account of the rights that individuals have under the law.”
The state police intelligence unit PST has exclusive rights to conduct any such surveillance in Norway, and has claimed it was unaware of the embassy’s program. PST’s alleged ignorance has itself sparked criticism from politicians who believe PST should have known about it. Thon notes that even if PST had been behind the embassy operation, “they couldn’t have carried it out like this, in secrecy. That would have violated a long list of legal guarantees.”
Moreover, adds Thon, “the information in this case was sent to a database in the US. We don’t know how it’s stored or who is storing it,” thereby avoiding control by Norwegian authorities.
He suggests anyone who suspects they might have been registered through the US surveillance program should “call the embassy and ask. It would be interesting to see what kind of answer they get.”
The surveillance and possible registration in the database has shaken politicians, government ministers, bureaucrats and those who may have landed in the database. “They (the Americans) will quickly find out that I’m not a terrorist,” said former anchor for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Petter Nome, who has led several demonstrations in Oslo, not least the large one held in 2003 to protest the US-led invasion of Iraq. “And I won’t become a terrorist, so I’m not worried for myself.
“But others less visible or known than I am can risk trouble if they’ve landed in the register.”
Ingrid Balterzersen, a member of Oslo’s city council, stressed that “normal political activity shouldn’t lead to landing in such a register.”
More legal probes
Law professor Ståle Eskeland claims the US Embassy must follow Norwegian law, even though those working within the embassy may have diplomatic immunity. The parliament’s special investigative unit for intelligence matters, the EOS-Utvalget, is expected to take up the surveillance scandal.
“If the US has acted on its own like this on Norwegian soil, it’s very serious,” EOS leader Helga Hernes told reporters on Thursday.
Norwegians hired by the embassy to carry out the surveillance may face criminal charges. Erling Folkevord, a former Member of Parliament for the Reds party (Rødt) in Norway, wants them arrested, claiming they’ve been “spies for a foreign state” and should be treated as such.
TV2 has reported that as many as 20 Norwegians, mostly former police or military personnel, have conducted the surveillance for the US Embassy, working shifts that provided 24-hour coverage since the spring of 2000. Two have been identified and are likely to be called in for questioning. Their activities have been condemned by a wide range of politicians who have called them “freelancers” who may feel they, too, are above the law in Norway.