Harald Stabell, the lawyer who represented the convicted Norwegian Cold War spy Arne Treholt, was tipped off in May 2012 that his office had been bugged. A computer security expert found clear traces of monitoring devices, but police dropped the investigation last year citing insufficient evidence to find those responsible.
“I got a tip from a person in PST (Norway’s police intelligence unit, Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste) that my office had been bugged during the last processing of the Treholt case in the commission, which was in 2010 and 2012,” Stabell told newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday. “The source in PST also stated that the bugging could still be ongoing.”
Together with Treholt (who in 2011 was found to be the victim of illegal surveillance), Stabell engaged data security expert Stein AJ Møllerhaug to sweep his office. Møllerhaug found no bugging devices and so could not categorically state if surveillance had taken place. However, he did find marks “consistent with monitoring equipment” behind thick, dusty legal tomes on Stabell’s bookshelves, and a swatch of tape with a hole in it “suitable for drawing an antenna wire through.” Møllerhaug said such audio and filming equipment could work with full remote control on a single battery for six to 12 months.
Stabell said there were clear equipment imprints behind his books, where he hadn’t dusted since 1998. He said he’s the only one who uses the office, so the only conclusion he could draw was that his office had been bugged. “With the tip-off I got from someone in PST, and that it’s connected to the bugging in the Treholt case, combined with the findings made, Møllerhaug’s report and the police’s conclusion about a culprit, it’s difficult to see any other explanation,” he said.
Stabell was concerned that clients, family and colleagues may all have been exposed to a serious violation of their privacy. “Most of my conversations with Treholt took place right here, in this office,” he told Aftenposten. “As a rule via this phone. Or he sat in the chair opposite me.”
In June 2012, Stabell reported a burglary and illegal covert surveillance to the police. He said it took five months of repeated follow-ups before the police came to his Oslo office to examine the scene and collect evidence. The piece of tape was sent for forensic analysis and police investigated fingerprints found, but no matches turned up. Police dismissed the case three months later in February 2013, because they had “not obtained sufficient information to identify the perpetrator.”
Stabell was convinced the suspected monitoring was related to the Treholt case, “where we demanded a reopening on the basis of evidence cheating. It is tempting to think that some may have feared reopening and disclosure of evidence cheating.”
However, he was unsure exactly who could be responsible. “I am quite sure that it cannot be people who work in PST today,” Stabell said. “The risk of conducting such monitoring is very large. The Treholt case is also an old case which few in PST today have such great prestige attached to that they would risk so much.” He said anyone willing to break into his office must have been desperate because the risk of being caught was so high.
The tip came from PST, the organization which stood to benefit most from the information. Stabell believed PST may have realized it had illegally obtained information, and said while some in the organization had a vested interest in the case remaining closed, they hardly would have taken the risk of criminal eavesdropping. Stabell told Aftenposten there were however several occasions when both he and Treholt had wondered how the commission had known certain information during the case.
Authorities refused to comment
“This sounds strange,” said Martin Bernsen from PST’s information department, about both the matter and the allegations of a PST informant. “It’s difficult to say much more than that.” A former police surveillance employee told Aftenposten the case was “just nonsense” and refused to comment further, as did another former POT (PST’s earlier title) staffer.
Prosecutor Lasse Qvigstad worked on the case. “I’ve been presented a draft article from Aftenposten where lawyer Harald Stabell allegedly presents a mixture of innuendo and double communication,” he responded. “The undersigned is completely unaware that Stabell at any point in time was monitored.” Stabell said he could not say with certainty if the prosecution received any illegally obtained information or not, and there was no reason to suspect the prosecution of wrongdoing.
Stabell categorically denied he’d rigged the to keep the Treholt case alive. While he said he was still working on the case, he was not preparing any submissions to have the conviction re-examined.