The US Embassy in Oslo was facing widespread condemnation in Norway on Friday as reaction continued over its secret surveillance of Norwegians over the past decade. The surveillance has been illegal, according to a long list of Norwegian experts, and reportedly has been suspended.
The embassy, located just across a busy boulevard from the Royal Palace and the Nobel Institute, has long been controversial over the security demands it’s imposed on the area. Now it’s become a target of outrage from the full spectrum of Norwegian politicians and ordinary citizens who feel they’ve been victims of the secret and illegal surveillance.
Some professors, foreign policy experts and newspaper commentators have claimed the illegal surveillance is a scandal that’s mounted perhaps the biggest crisis of confidence ever between Norway and the US, long considered close allies. The Norwegians feel betrayed, not just by the US officials who’ve been running the surveillance program, but also by the Norwegians who have worked for it. While the embassy officials likely can claim diplomatic immunity, their Norwegian employees can face charges.
Tore Bjørgo, a professor at Norway’s police academy who also works with the Norwegian foreign policy intitute NUPI, said it wasn’t surprising that the US was gathering intelligence in Norway. “But that they recruited former employees of Norwegian intelligence services to build up an alternative surveillance program outside the embassy’s own area is surprising and quite shocking,” Bjørgo told newspaper Aftenposten.
Embassy officials continue to insist that their Surveillance Detection Unit (SDU) was run in cooperation with Norwegian authorities, with embassy spokesman Tim Moore claiming “we work very closely with host country authorities to ensure the safety and security of US Embassies and all our visitors around the world.”
The embassy, in a short statement released late Thursday afternoon, otherwise dismissed TV2’s initial disclosure of the surveillance as containing “insinuations and allegations,” and said US officials would only “answer any concerns” posed by Norwegian government officials, not the media.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre is clearly not satisfied with the answers he’s received so far. Støre and his fellow government ministers have repeatedly stated they were not aware of the surveillance program, much less approved it.
Støre called embassy officials in for questioning as soon as the TV2 report broke, wanting to know how the Americans could have thought they had Norwegian cooperation for civilian spying that’s prohibited under Norwegian law. “They used the loose formulation that they have been in contact with Norwegian authorities,” Støre told reporters. “What that means, we have to find out.”
Newspaper VG reported on Friday that the American promised Støre that their illegal surveillance has been halted, at least temporarily.
Justice Minister Knut Storberget, meanwhile, is also deeply disturbed by the surveillance program, is demanding a full investigation into it and has asked to address Parliament (Stortinget) as soon as possible. He wants to uncover who if anyone in his ministry (which has responsibility for all police operations in Norway) “accepted irregular activities,” and to what extent.
Both Storberget’s director of police operations Ingelin Killengreen and the acting head of the police intelligence unit PST, Roger Berg, have said they were not aware of the embassy’s surveillance program. Berg told reporters that he was aware the US Embassy had its own security staff, but not that they were running their own group to spy on civilians outside the embassy compound.
Johan Frdriksen, chief of the Oslo Police District, had earlier told TV2 his department was aware of parts of the surveillance program and didn’t consider them illegal. He now says his staff will investigate the matter further, on orders from the Police Directorate and Storberget.
Storberget said he hopes for some results from the probe within the next few weeks.