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July 22 Commission blasts Norway’s lack of terror preparedness

Norwegian anguish over last year’s terrorist attacks reached a climax on Monday, when the government-appointed commission probing the emergency response on July 22, 2011 unleashed a barrage of criticism against the police, politicians and the government itself. They all failed, according to the commission, to implement better communication and security measures that might have warded off the attacks or improved reaction to them.

Alexandra Bech Gjørv, leader of the July 22 Commission, handed over the commission's massive report to Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg on Monday. Members of the commission, in the background, spent the past year probing the emergency response to the terrorist attacks on July 22, 2011, and are highly critical over the state's lack of preparedness. PHOTO: SMK/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Officials in charge of the commission’s work, along with attack survivors seeking answers to what went wrong last summer, have stressed they’re not looking for scapegoats. Only the terrorist himself, they’ve stressed, is ultimately responsible for the attacks that killed 77 persons.

The commission confirmed on Monday, however, that many lives could have been saved if, among other things, the police had communicated better, if the government complex in downtown Oslo had been better secured, if intelligence experts had paid more attention to tips, and if politicians had provided more resources to law enforcement in general. The police also need to vastly improve how they use the resources they do have, according to the commission’s 500-page report formally handed over to Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.

The report’s conclusions involved many “ifs” such as those cited above, but the commission boiled them down to six major points and 31 recommendations for improvements that it claims should be implemented quickly. Specific criticism directed against the police and politicians, meanwhile, was described as “completely crushing” and direct.

Commission leader Alexandra Bech Gjørv, an attorney appointed by Stoltenberg to lead the investigation into the emergency response to the attacks, went so far as to state that the bombing of Norway’s government headquarters could have been prevented if security measures already approved when the attacks occurred had been implemented. Instead, there had been years of delays, for example, in permanently closing the city street called Grubbegata, which runs through the complex, to vehicular traffic. Confessed terrorist Anders Behring Breivik could thus use the street to drive his bomb-laden van right up to the entrance of the high-rise building housing both the Office of the Prime Minister and the Justice Ministry.

‘Many weaknesses’
Gjørv called the commission’s massive report both “comprehensive” and rich in detail. “It addresses both the society’s systems and individuals’ roles and, not least, how they interact,” she said, noting that many of the systems broke down on July 22 last year, “and the commission points out many weaknesses.”

In addition to the failure to close Grubbegata and at least hindering the bombing, the commission’s report concluded that police could have stopped the bomber from making his way to the island of Utøya, and then should have responded much more quickly to the subsequent massacre he carried out there. “Faster police action was fully possible,” the report claimed. “The attacker could have been stopped earlier on July 22.”

Several more security and preparedness measures should also have been implemented before July 22, while better routines and a “broader focus” could have alerted police intelligence unit PST to the threat Breivik posed prior to his attacks. The commission, however, said it had no basis for stating that PST could or should have warded off the attacks.

Some praise as well
The commission had some praise along with its harsh criticism. The government’s communication with the Norwegian people during and after the attacks “was good,” according to the commission, while government ministries managed to keep working despite the severe damage they incurred.

Norway’s health care and rescue workers also took care of the injured and their families “in a good manner” during the initial, acute phase of the attack aftermath, concluded the commission.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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