UPDATED: Norwegian police and some local politicians have lost patience with US officials at both the embassy in Oslo and in Washington DC. The Norwegians believe the Americans are hindering a police investigation of the US Embassy’s suspected illegal surveillance of Norwegian citizens.
The police investigation of the highly controversial surveillance, revealed by TV2 last fall, was launched after the entire Norwegian Parliament met in special session to hear a preliminary account of the issue by Justice Minister Knut Storberget. He claimed that he never was informed of the surveillance, nor were other top politicians. Norway has strict laws regulating civilian surveillance, and all embassies in Oslo have since been warned that all surveillance must be cleared with local authorities.
US Embassy officials have argued that they thought they had permission. Those carrying out most of the surveillance were Norwegians themselves, many of them former Norwegian police officers or military personnel.
They have refused to answer questions from the special police unit in Østfold named to investigate the surveillance, claiming they’re bound by confidentiality clauses signed when they began their work. The embassy has not released them from their confidentiality statements, pending permission from Washington.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reports that police, after waiting for four months, have now lost patience. They’ve given the Americans a deadline of Wednesday March 9 to respond to whether employees of the US Embassy’s so-called Surveillance Detection Unit (SDU) will be released from the confidentiality statements.
The police, part of the Justice Ministry in Norway and frustrated by the lack of cooperation with their investigation, have sent a letter to the Americans through their Norwegian attorney demanding an answer. Not only do the police want to know what the SDU staff actually has done but there also have been issues of whether their income was properly reported to tax authorities in Norway. It also remains unclear whether surveillance has continued.
“We have told them (the US officials) that we now want a clear answer on whether they will release these persons from the confidentiality obligations they claim they have in regards to their employer,” prosecutor Jørn Maurud told NRK.
Will go to court
Asked what will happen if they’re not released, Maurud said the SDU employees will be called in for police questioning regardless. “Then they can tell the police whether they want to explain themselves or not,” Maurud said. “If not, we will take the issue into court.”
Maurud told NRK that police have had a “decent dialogue” with US Embassy staff, “but we are dependent on being able to clear up this case, and therefore feel we can’t wait any longer. That’s the background for the letter.”
The letter was sent to Norwegian lawyer Arne Gunnar Aas, who is representing the US government in the surveillance case. Aas told NRK the confidentiality clause raises several questions of principle and they’re still waiting for an answer from Washington. He said he couldn’t say why it was taking so long to get the answer.
The police and public prosecutor aren’t the only ones losing patience with US officials. Anders Werp, a spokesman for Norway’s Conservative Party on justice-related issues, told newspaper Dagsavisen that it’s “high time” the police be allowed to question those involved in the surveillance.
“The case has sparked a lot of attention and raised many questions,” Werp told Dagsavisen. “It’s therefore important that we get to the bottom of this. My advice to the US Embassy is that it contribute to finding a solution here soon.”