UPDATED: A new report that the US’ controversial National Security Agency (NSA) monitored 33 million mobile phone conversations in Norway in the space of just 30 days was prompting both outrage, careful diplomatic response and, later, a rebuttal in Oslo on Tuesday. Norwegian authorities, meanwhile, are calling such reported US surveillance “unacceptable” and a possible violation of human rights.
Norwegian media outlets were quickly following up Tuesday morning on newspaper Dagbladet’s report that was based on classified documents from Edward Snowden, the American fugitive who’s both seen as a whistle-blowing hero and a traitor. He fled the US after gaining access to documents that reveal the stunning extent of US surveillance and which continue to leak out, angering both US allies and enemies around the world.
By the end of the day, however, questions were arising about what the documents leaked to Dagbladet actually represented, with Norwegian military intelligence officials denying on behalf of the Americans that they’d collected all the phone data themselves in Norway.
‘Not listening, just registering’
The Americans reportedly weren’t listening in on the conversations that Dagbladet claimed they’d monitored in Norway, but instead registered who called who, the length of the conversation and where the actual telephones were geographically located at the time.
It’s long been taken for granted that the US has conducted surveillance against Norway and many other citizens and governments viewed as friend and foe, some of it possibly from Norwegian soil via major radar and military installations in places like Vardø. When news broke last summer that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone had been monitored, along with those of millions of government officials and ordinary citizens all over Europe, there was immediate speculation that Norwegians also were under US surveillance. The US Embassy in Oslo was at the center of a local surveillance scandal just a few years ago.
Norway has long been seen as important to the US because of its vast oil industry and wealth, its shared border and generally friendly relations with Russia, its unique status outside the European Union (EU) and its maritime strength, among other things. Suddenly it appeared the US has been conducting surveillance on Norwegians that far exceeds its surveillance elsewhere, in relative terms.
Norway ranked highest
Dagbladet revealed, for example, that just between December 10, 2012 and January 8, 2013, the NSA registered a total of 33,186,042 conversations on Norwegian soil. Surveillance was likely conducted both before and after those dates as well. The sheer volume of phone conversations registered ranks Norway as the European nation showing the most registered phone conversations in relation to its population (currently just over 5 million).
“It is unacceptable if the US has conducted surveillance of roughly 10 percent of the entire Norwegian population,” Bjørn Erik Thon, director of Datatilsynet, the state authority charged with trying to ensure Norwegians’ privacy, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He suggested that the US has thus violated basic human rights to privacy.
Hans Kristian Amundsen, a former state secretary working in the Office of the Prime Minister during the time period involved when Jens Stoltenberg was premier, told NRK that “we didn’t know anything about this,” and that the extent of the surveillance “comes as just as big a surprise to me as to everyone else.”
Stoltenberg himself, now a Member of Parliament and still head of Norway’s Labour Party, seemed to take it for granted that his phones have been among those under surveillance but was predictably diplomatic in his response. He and other former government officials said it was most important for the new government to gather the facts regarding what has actually occurred.
Rebuttal and ‘No comment’
By late afternoon, confusion was running high after the head of Norway’s military intelligence unit E-tjenesten claimed Dagbladet’s documents showed surveillance conducted by Norwegian “intelligence gatherers” overseas and shared with the US. But while Dagbladet’s editor-in-chief conceded his newspaper “may have misunderstood” the documents, a journalist for The Guardian who broke the Snowden case stood by Dagbladet’s story and told wire service AFP that the documents do reveal surveillance against Norway.
One document revealed by Dagbladet, entitled “Norway – Last 30 days,” was said to be the same as those leaked regarding US surveillance in Germany, France, Spain, Brazil and India in recent months. Norway became thus the sixth country to get some limited information about how its citizens were being monitored.
US Embassy officials claimed they couldn’t comment on individual cases of “intelligence-gathering activity,” telling news bureau NTB that the US “gathers intelligence overseas just like all countries do.”