Two of the Norwegian government’s top ministers are caught in what one member of the Parliament’s disciplinary committee is calling a “scandal.” It involves the sales of defense department assets, including two phased-out fighter jets, that have wound up in the hands of highly questionable buyers.
“The word ‘scandal’ is used much too often, but this really is a scandal,” Member of Parliament Bård Vegar Solhjell of the Socialist Left Party (SV), a former government minister himself, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Monday. He said he is “shaken” by information emerging about the defense sales, mostly through a series of stories published by Oslo-based newspaper Dagbladet.
Now a new major hearing on the questionable sales of equipment, some of which has wound up in war-torn areas, is due to take place in the Parliament later this fall. It’s been scheduled after Dagbladet has reported the sales of military vessels that wound up in Nigeria, trucks that wound up in Eritrea and tanks that wound up in Sudan.
Mysterious buyers and low prices
In other cases, reported Dagbladet, tanks have been sold to Swedish buyers and two old F-5 fighter jets were sold to buyers in the US, through a mysterious company called NGL. They’ve reportedly been at the disposition of American billionaire Ross Perot Jr for seven years, without anyone in Norway demanding answers about what the jets, called “Freedom Fighters,” would be used for.
The fighter jets were also sold for a fraction of their market price and, reported Dagbladet, retain their so-called “Norwegian uniform,” including grey colouring and other insignia used when they were part of Norway’s air force. A total of 108 F-5 jets were delivered to Norway by US contractor Northrop between 1966 and 1971. They were taken out of service in 1990 apart from those used in the 336th squadron at Rygge Air Station near Moss, which kept flying them until 2000.
Newspaper VG reported in 2006 that those jets, a total of 15, would be sold to Perot for use at an aviation school, but newspaper Aftenposten later reported the sale was stopped because it wasn’t approved by either Norwegian or US authorities. The jets remained at Rygge at least until 2011, reported Aftenposten, but now questions are swirling around how it apparently was possible to export two of the F-5s after all.
Caught in the crossfire of those questions are Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide and Foreign Minister Børge Brende, whose ministries are charged with controlling sales and exports of military material. Dagsavisen reported on Monday that an internal audit by defense officials couldn’t document that the buyer of the jets represented American authorities. That’s an absolute demand in the regulations, and now Søreide reportedly has turned the case over to the Norwegian police’s economic crimes unit Økokrim. Søreide herself has declined comment until she’s questioned at the hearing in Parliament next month.
Brende, as foreign minister, also faces questions over how such military equipment could be exported. Both Brende and Søreide of the Conservative Party are considered among the “superstars” of Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s conservative coalition government. Now they at the very least have a lot to answer for at the hearing, as will their predecessors and other officials in both the current and former left-center government of which Solhjell was a member himself.
State Auditor General also interested
Solhjell, meanwhile, is surprised the case hasn’t received more publicity in other Norwegian media, claiming it can be more explosive than several other issues during recent years. “I worked a lot on the case of the asylum children (who were questionably sent out of the country) and I believe this case is just as serious,” Solhjell said. “I’ve often thought the media work too often under a pack mentality, but here they should all be working on this. It seems like there’s been a major failure in the system.”
Solhjell raises the question of whether the export regime regulating Norway’s military material works at all. He also suspects a lack of political and administrative follow-up, along with a lack of openness.
State auditor general Per-Kristian Foss, a former leader of Eriksen’s and Brende’s Conservative Party, is also raising questions and may probe the defense sales as well. “Whether there’s a regulatory framework that doesn’t work, or just poor political judgment, is difficult to say,” Foss told Dagsavisen. “I can’t rule out that this case will awaken interest within the auditor general’s office.”
He noted that it’s also a case where the defense and foreign ministries are supposed to work together. “Experience shows that it doesn’t always function well, when responsibility is divided between two ministries,” Foss said.