Former Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik has joined the chorus of those wanting answers from US officials about their controversial surveillance program. A US Embassy spokesman claimed over the weekend that “the US stands ready to answer any questions the Government of Norway might ask” on the operation of its “Surveillance Detection Unit” in Oslo, but Norwegian officials say they haven’t received the answers they seek.
Current and former government officials still maintain the Americans never informed them of the surveillance operations, which are suspected of being illegal.
“Norwegian authorities continue to wait for clarification,” says a spokesperson for Norway’s Foreign Ministry. Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre had said last week, when news of the surveillance program broke, that he wasn’t satisfied with the Americans’ initial response to his questions.
Støre, Justice Minister Knut Storberget, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and a host of other government officials have all claimed they were unaware of the surveillance program, which has deeply shaken the government and ordinary citizens. Surveillance is an especially touchy subject in Norway, because of its reminders of the Cold War and earlier surveillance scandals in the country, and great efforts have been taken to limit surveillance and preserve individual rights to privacy.
That’s why the US Embassy’s Surveillance Detection Unit (SDU) is creating such waves and stirring up so much anger among Norwegians. It’s almost unthinkable that any government in Norway would have approved such a program. In short, the US Embassy has a lot of explaining to do.
Embassy spokesman Tim Moore has promised an explanation will be forthcoming. In a brief statement released Saturday, he claimed the embassy’s surveillance program was neither “secret” nor part of an “intelligence unit,” but rather “a program designed to detect surveillance against US posts overseas.”
He called it an “important” program that “emerged from the lessons of such tragic incidents as the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy bombings in 1998, in which our missions had been under hostile surveillance by the terrorists for some time before the attacks. Unfortunately, this surveillance was not detected. Hundreds of innocent civilians were murdered in those tragic events. As we have learned from recent events throughout Europe, including Norway, no nation is immune from terrorist threats.”
Moore said the SDU “does not target (the) host country or host country citizens. It is merely a way of detecting suspicious activities near embassy facilities and personnel in cooperation with host authorities responsible for embassy security.”
Controversy over alleged cooperation
Moore and officials at the US State Department in Washington have claimed they set up their SDU in Oslo with the cooperation of Norwegian authorities. That’s where the main problem arises: Norwegian government officials, both past and present, say they never extended their cooperation. It’s unlikely any politician in Norway would have, since surveillance by any entity other than the police intelligence unit PST is illegal in Norway.
Stoltenberg was also prime minister in 2000, when the SDU reportedly was established. He says he was never aware of the SDU, then or now. His government lost power in 2001 and Kjell Magne Bondevik of the Christian Democrats took over as prime minister until Stoltenberg resumed power in 2005. Bondevik had also been prime minister from 1997 to 2000, when the embassy first started boosting its security after the bombings in Africa.
Bondevik told reporters over the weekend that the US Embassy’s surveillance was also “completely unknown” to him. Nor was his foreign minister, Jan Petersen of the Conservative Party, or his justice minister Odd Einar Dørum of the Liberal Party, made aware of the embassy’s surveillance.
“I haven’t managed to talk with any others,” Bondevik told newspaper Dagsavisen. “But if Norwegian authorities are supposed to have been informed, one of us three must have known about it.”
Bondevik said that if reports about the surveillance are true, “it’s completely unacceptable.” He also made it clear that he resented some statements made by current politicians, including Member of Parliament Marit Nybakk from the Labour Party, implying that his government had especially close ties with the US from 2001 to 2005. Bondevik noted that his government formally opposed the US invasion of Iraq, “and that wasn’t particularly well-received by the USA.”
Stoltenberg, meanwhile, has called reports of the surveillance “very serious” and that “I’ve reacted like everyone else.” He said he needs “to get to the bottom” of what’s gone on, who knew what and when. He said the Americans have a right to secure their embassy, “but they must respect Norwegian law.”
Moore at the embassy insists they have, although neither he nor State Department officials have identified who gave them permission to conduct their surveillance. There’s speculation that embassy staff years ago may have interpreted assistance from former and current police as tacit permission, and that the SDU’s activities simply expanded over the years.
The statement Moore sent out was labelled “press guidance” and noted that “we regret that an inflammatory and inaccurate report about a US State Department security program has led to unease and concern among some of our friends.” He earlier claimed the initial TV2 report on the surveillance contained “insinuations and allegations.”