As police launched their probe into surveillance by the US Embassy in Oslo, new reports emerged over the weekend that deepened what many Norwegians are calling a “scandal.” Among them: The embassy allegedly paid those conducting early surveillance under the table, and the Norwegian running the program is the same man suspected of fabricating evidence in another major spying case.
Justice Minister Knut Storberget, who has claimed he was unaware of the embassy’s surveillance program and is deeply concerned over it, has ordered a full investigation. Only the police intelligence agency PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste) is legally allowed to conduct surveillance in Norway.
Norway’s highest prosecuting authority, Riksadvokaten, launched its probe on Friday after an “overall evaluation of information that has flowed in to us,” according to prosecutor Jørn S Maurud. The left-wing political party Rødt had also filed police charges against the embassy’s surveillance program, but Maurud said the state prosecutor would have launched its probe regardless.
It’s being conducted by police from Østfold, not Oslo, because of personal ties that those running the embassy’s surveillance allegedly had to Oslo police. “We want to be sure that we avoid any personal connections, and then Østfold is hopefully far enough removed,” Maurud told reporters.
Former employees at the embassy have told newspaper Aftenposten, for example, that retired police and military officials working for the embassy would contact former colleagues to extract information from police files. One former embassy worker told Aftenposten that the embassy’s Regional Security Officer was “very pleased” that the embassy could avoid going through official channels to retrieve information on certain individuals from the police.
Such alleged irregularities may also be investigated by the state police’s internal affairs division, its leader Jan Egil Presthus told Aftenposten.
Meanwhile, the Norwegian who now admits to having had a key role in setting up the embassy’s surveillance program claims all information extracted from police files was obtained legally, at least until he retired around six years ago. Leif Karsten Hansen, who formerly worked for the Norwegian intelligence agency called POT at the time, told Aftenposten that the program started out as a “counter surveillance unit,” which should try to detect whether the embassy itself was under surveillance.
Hansen confirmed that the embassy obtained offices outside its own compound on Henrik Ibsens Gate from which the surveillance was conducted. He said initial staff included “only two” former police officers, with the rest coming from the military and private security firms.
Hansen also confirmed that the embassy used “various payment methods” to compensate staff. One former embassy worker told Aftenposten that he received his pay in the form of checks that he could simply cash in a local bank. No records of the payments were filed with Norwegian tax authorities in the early years of the embassy’s enhanced security efforts.
“Whether the payments were black or grey, I don’t know,” said Hansen, but he claimed payments were made directly to employees’ accounts after the embassy’s so-called “Surveillance Detection Unit” was formally set up, and he said he declared the income on his tax returns.
Ties to Treholt spying drama
Hansen, age 72, was facing more questions this week, for his involvement in Norway’s biggest spying case ever. He’s been called in by a state commission evaluating whether the spying case against former diplomat Arne Treholt should be re-opened, in part because of suspicions that Hansen and his colleagues fabricated evidence against Treholt.
Hansen, due to appear before the commission Monday afternoon, told Aftenposten he found it “striking” that his involvement in the embassy surveillance scandal hit the media just before the commission inquiry. He said he viewed it all as “a managed plot against me.”
Embassy: ‘Fully respect Norwegian law’
Embassy officials, meanwhile, remained on the defensive during the weekend and continued to claim they would only address Norwegian government concerns directly to Norwegian government officials.
In a press statement released Saturday, the embassy acknowledged that it had indeed conducted surveillance in Norway, but claimed it “fully respected” Norwegian law.
An embassy spokesman told Aftenposten he couldn’t comment on the claims that some of the embassy’s Norwegian security staff were paid under the table, because he didn’t know.