Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg became the first prime minister in Norwegian history to submit to questioning by the parliament’s disciplinary committee at an historic hearing on Monday. He took ultimate responsibility for what went wrong during and after last year’s terrorist attacks, but still seemed firmly in charge when the grilling was over.
Much of the hearing, the last of five that followed up on the government-appointed July 22 Commission’s report, re-hashed old issues as it analyzed the poor emergency response to the attacks. The goal was to evaluate leadership and responsibility, in an effort to prevent the mistakes that were made last year from being made again in any future crises.
Stoltenberg, relatively relaxed and speaking clearly despite some apparent nasal congestion, was in full control during the one-hour and 45-minute session. He never wavered in his main message that even though he’s assuming ultimate responsibility for the mistakes, he has no intention of stepping down as prime minister. He remains adamant that being responsible entails ordering the commission’s report, learning from it and taking action to improve emergency preparedness.
Stoltenberg also responded to repeated challenges to his leadership by claiming that good leadership involves admitting mistakes and correcting them: “Get the facts, learn from them and make improvements,” he told the committee. The best thing he can do now, he figures, is to carry on.
Earlier hearings have resulted in some allegations that many top officials in government and emergency services thought someone else had been responsible, not themselves, for everything from the failure to close the main street running through the government complex (used by the bomber to drive right up to the prime minister’s office building) to the failure by police and helicopters to stop a massacre at a Labout Party summer camp. That’s led to accusations that politicians were shirking their own responsibility and blaming others, and that overall responsibility was “pulverized.” Stoltenberg, however, described a Norwegian system of shared responsibility, and that led to many reasons for the failure to prevent and then stop the attacks. He denied any pulverization
Stoltenberg did offer some new insight into his own personal despair when the commission’s report revealed such widespread deficiencies. He said he was frustrated that helicopters weren’t immediately dispatched, that various agencies didn’t use the resources they had, that the street known as Grubbegata “could have and should have been closed,” that police “could have and should have responded to the massacre on Utøya much more quickly.” He said he thought there would have been a natural”reflex” on the part of the police to order a massive response to something as serious as a bombing in the heart of Oslo and a massacre at a summer camp, and was upset that there was no such reflex.
Stoltenberg’s appearance followed those by top-ranking bureaucrats in the justice ministry, former Justice Minister Knut Storberget and current Justice and Preparedness Minister Grete Faremo. They also took responsibility for weaknesses in their ministry’s response, which is ultimately in charge of the police, with Storberget especially challenged since he’d been in charge in the years leading up to the attacks.
At times, it seemed like the top politicians were all eager to claim responsibility, but Stoltenberg stressed “there were many reasons” for the failures of the emergency response.
Opposition politicians listened to his responses, with some even thanking Stoltenberg for the leadership he showed during the crisis itself last year. Anders Anundsen, chairman of the committee from the arch-rival Progress Party commented at the end of day that “there was a lot that went well” in the reaction to the crisis. “It was the system that failed,” Anunudsen said. The committee he leads will now decide whether to express a lack of confidence in Stoltenberg’s government, but some commentators said they thought that was unlikely.
Stoltenberg earlier had also commented on his various roles during the crisis, as someone with friends and colleagues who were killed, as a friend of parents who lost children in the massacre, as leader of the Labour Party that was the terrorist’s prime target, and as prime minister for a country in mourning. It was an “unusually tough” situation to be in, he allowed, and “it would have been so much easier if we could all blame one thing” for what went wrong, he said. Instead there were many things, and that made it all the more complicated.
Stoltenberg nonetheless said he feels that Norway remains “a safe country,” and he feels confident preparedness has already been strengthened. “There will be new crises,” he said. “We will be better prepared.”
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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