Norway drops US surveillance case

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Public outcry last fall over allegedly illegal surveillance of Norwegian citizens by the US Embassy in Oslo has ended with silent acceptance of the embassy’s activities by Norwegian authorities. They’ve decided against filing any charges against the US and its embassy personnel in Oslo, claiming they lacked evidence that any laws had in fact been broken.

The US Embassy got in trouble last fall when it emerged that it had hired Norwegians to carry out questionable surveillance, much of it from the building at the far right of the photo, with the "Scandic" sign on it. Now the embassy has been cleared. PHOTO: Views and News

In a decision revealed while the vast majority of Norwegians are preoccupied by last Friday’s attacks on their capital and a Labour Party summer camp, state prosecutor Jørn Maurud said that a police investigation indicated that embassy personnel conducting the surveillance hadn’t done anything illegal. It was widely referred to as a “scandal” last fall, but Maurud sees no need to pursue the case.

“This group has operated a more passive observation service,” Maurud told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “We don’t view it as punishable under law.”

The surveillance activities first reported by Norwegian TV2 last fall sparked widespread public concern, even outrage, at the time, both from top government officials, members of Parliament, various organizations and ordinary citizens. Surveillance is a particularly touchy subject in Norway, based on cases from the Cold War days, and Norwegians don’t like feeling like they’re being spied upon or having their names land in some unknown foreign registers.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) carried live coverage of the special session that was called in Parliament to discuss the surveillance activity by the US Embassy. It was diplomatically uncomfortable for both Norway and the US. PHOTO: NRK/Views and News

Maurud admitted the Norwegian officials still don’t know what became of the information collected by the embassy staff, many of whom had formerly worked for the Norwegian police, been hired by the embassy to conduct surveillance and bound by confidentiality clauses. An outlying Norwegian police district was called on to investigate the surveillance charges because of potential conflicts of interest or lack of impartiality within the Oslo Police District, where some of the embassy staffers had worked or had personal contacts.

They were hired to keep an eye on the area around the embassy, but they also observed demonstrations, for example, elsewhere in Oslo. Then they allegedly would deliver their findings and descriptions of participants to the embassy.

But the Oslo police couldn’t question embassy officials who could claim diplomatic immunity, nor could they obtain insight into their documentation. Maurud told NRK that investigators concluded nonetheless that the information collected wasn’t sensitive or searchable in a database. “We haven’t found any evidence that the (embassy) group has conducted systematic registration of folks, or attempts to identify persons walking outside the embassy,” he told NRK.

The surveillance case was uncomfortable for both Norwegian and US government officials, who prefer to portray themselves as great allies. Embassy staff in Oslo tried to downplay their activities, other than stressing that surveillance was important to their fight against terrorism. Norwegian officials weren’t keen on getting into a conflict with their American counterparts either.

Yet the case dominated the political agenda for weeks, attracted widespread media coverage and led to a special session of Parliament in which Justice Minister Knut Storberget and other ministers said they’d never been told about the surveillance activities or approved them. It also set off the police investigation that’s now been concluded with a decision not to press charges.

Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre also felt compelled to send out a notice to all embassies in Oslo that Norwegian law restricts their surveillance to the area immediately around their embassy property, and that Norway otherwise has strict laws regarding security arrangements.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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