Political debate looms over surveillance

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Politicians on both the right and the left were urging renewed debate over the scope of surveillance in Norway, after reports emerged this week that the defense ministry’s intelligence agency (E-tjenesten) maintains files on more than 400 Norwegian officials and their families. The debate comes over how such archives can and should be controlled.

Newpaper Dagbladet, freelance journalist Kjetil Stormark and Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) gave major coverage on Thursday of their information that a secret archive with information about prominent Norwegians has existed for many years. It’s housed anonymously in the building on Oslo’s waterfront known as Havnelageret, ironically where Dagbladet and news bureau NTB have their own offices.

Watchdogs unhappy
Dagbladet, Stormark and NRK were on hand earlier this week then concerned members of the watchdog commission appointed by the parliament that’s supposed to control the activities of the defense  ministry’s agency, EOS utvalget, turned up at the building and wanted to see the archive. They weren’t happy that defense officials have tried to limit their access.

The archive, called Fagarkivet, contains information on persons who have served as sources for E-tjenesten or whom E-tjenesten wants to recruit. It also is said to include “sensitive” information about their families, but defense officials were quick to downplay its existence and denied it violates Norwegian laws governing surveillance.

“The information we have on current and former sources only amounts to information they have given us themselves,” Kjell Grandhagen, chief of the usually hush-hush E-tjenesten, told reporters at a rare press conference with Defense Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen. He claimed that there’s no more information in the archive than what any ordinary citizen looking for someone’s telephone number could get from directory assistance.

Grandhagen was confident the archive does not violate Norway’s surveillance laws. Strøm-Erichsen wouldn’t say how long she’s been aware of the archive, but also expressed confidence that defense officials weren’t violating any laws.

Lack of insight
Concerns remain that even those responsible for monitoring surveillance activity lack insight into E-tjenesten’s activities. They were unaware of the archive, as was former Defense Minister Bjørn Tore Godal, who, like Strøm-Erichsen, hails from the Labour Party. He told NRK on Friday that he had no memory of the archive from his term in government in 2000 and 2001, although it’s believed to have existed then.

Eldbjørg Løwer, leader of the commission monitoring E-tjenesten and a former government minister for the Liberal Party (Venstre), didn’t know about it either. While she was mum about her commission’s sudden inspection earlier this week, she made it clear that she and her colleagues weren’t satisfied with their ability to control E-tjenesten. They can’t freely search E-tjenesten’s data systems and archives, for example, and feel they have less access to E-tjenesten’s systems than over the other intelligence-gathering services they’re charged with monitoring.

“We want, in principle, for it to be us who decides what we need to see,” Løwer said, not the military conducting the survillance.

Calls for debate
Politicians from both the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) on the right and the Socialist Left party (SV) on the left are calling for a new debate to ensure the rights of the commission. “It’s important that (the commission) has the possibility to carry out its own controls effectively,” said Anders Anundsen of Frp, leader of the parliament’s disciplinary committee. SV leader Audun Lysbakken, in a rare case of agreeing with Frp, said there’s a need for more debate over surveillance of Norwegian citizens, and that the commission must get the access it needs.

Lysbakken’s own government colleague, Strøm-Erichsen, didn’t support such calls. “For one thing, it’s very important to stress that E-tjenesten doesn’t have Norwegian citizens under surveillance,” she said, seeing no need for reforms of current law. “I’m most keen on seeing that the (existing) laws are followed.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund