US hindered surveillance probe

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Police have confirmed that the US Embassy in Oslo hindered a Norwegian government-ordered investigation into its surveillance practices in the capital. Police involved in the investigation have admitted to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that their lack of access to information collected by the Americans made their probe difficult to complete.

The US Embassy quickly dissolved its Surveillance Detection Unit that operated from the building at the far right of this picture. Surveillance has, however, resumed. PHOTO: Views and News

State prosecutor Jørn Maurud announced last week that the state was dropping its investigation and that no charges would be filed against the embassy. Investigators, Maurud said, couldn’t find evidence that the embassy had done anything illegal in what was widely called a scandal when the surveillance activities became known last autumn.

Maurud’s announcement was made when both government officials and local media were largely pre-occupied last week with the July 22 terrorist attacks in Oslo, and it received little media attention. That was likely a relief for both US and Norwegian officials, allies who had faced an uncomfortable diplomatic conflict over the surveillance that involved the highest levels of government.

Embassy officials released a statement after Maurud’s announcement that they were “glad” the state was dropping the case after the investigation of the activities of the embassy’s so-called Surveillance Detection Unit. “We are satisfied with the confirmation that there is no basis for suspicion of anything criminal,” read the statement released on Thursday afternoon.

Justice Minister Knut Storberget addressed a special session of parliament last fall that was carried live on NRK after the US' surveillance became known, and he ordered the investigation into it. When news came that the investigation has ended with the case being dropped, he was preoccupied with recent attacks in Oslo and on the island of Utøya. PHOTO: NRK/Views and News

The embassy referred to the state probe carried out by the Østfold Police District as grundig (comprehensive), noting that the embassy had contributed to it. The embassy, according to the statement, also had “close cooperation” with the Norwegian government in its investigation of the surveillance that no government minister was made aware of nor had approved in advance.

“We will continue our close cooperation with Norwegian authorities to secure a safe and well-functioning embassy for our employees and visitors,” the statement concluded.

Denied access to information
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has since reported, however, that police involved in the probe admit it was far from “comprehensive” because investigators weren’t allowed access to the information collected by those carrying out the controversial surveillance for the embassy. “If we had received access to the systems and gotten an overview of what was lying there, it would have been better for the investigation,” inspector Espen Jamissen of the Østfold Police District told DN. “The decision made (to drop the case) has come through questioning of witness and the suspects.”

Jamissen said the police asked for insight into the US’ Simas database, where surveillance information is grouped and compared, but the request was denied. He noted, however, that the US has that privilege under terms of international diplomatic cooperation.

‘Considerable weakness’
Maurud said police could determine that those hired by the embassy to carry out surveillance took photos of people participating in a Tamil demonstration in Oslo, but they were told by those involved that the photos were deleted. He admitted that the Norwegian investigators had to simply believe that’s true, noting that “we don’t have access to the American authorities’ archives, and that is a considerable weakness with this investigation.

“But we have no basis that they have done anything beyond making observations,” Maurud said, adding that investigators were told that “acquisition of personal information hasn’t been a goal.”

Harald Stabell, an Oslo attorney long active in handling surveillance cases in Norway, where surveillance is a particularly sensitive issue, told DN he wasn’t surprised the case was dropped, but called it “unsatisfactory” because the American authorities hindered access to information.

“It would have been interesting to see what sort of information was gathered, how it was stored and how has the information now,” Stabell told DN. “Now we don’t know what kind of information was collected on Norwegian citizens on Norwegian soil. Then the investigation is incomplete and not very satisfactory.”

‘No reason for worry’
US Embassy officials have failed to respond to questions submitted last week by Views and News, but embassy spokesman Tim Moore told DN that it was “not problematic” that police were denied access to information gathered.

“Police have spoken to the people who gathered it, so they have gone to the source,” Moore told DN. “Therefore there’s no reason for worry.”

He confirmed that surveillance activity continues.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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