NEWS ANALYSIS: The Norwegian government’s insistence on withholding a highly critical State Auditor General’s report on the status of national security has made it difficult if not impossible for police and defense officials to defend themselves from allegations of incompetence. Defense ministry officials claim they can’t comment on the contents of the report, because it’s classified as confidential.
Some may argue that simply gives the defense ministry an excuse to controversially keep the report hidden from public review. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported Friday how the ministry found the weaknesses and deficiencies reported by the State Auditor General so serious that if they became publicly known, that would further endanger national security.
The ministry responded in an email to DN that it had classified the auditor’s report as “confidential” because it contained “information that can lead to damage to the nation’s security and independence and other vital national security interests” if the information “became known to unauthorized persons.” Under the leadership of Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservative Party, ministry officials contend that such information must be classifed under the law and kept confidential.
Much of that confidentiality was challenged on Friday when DN published citations and excerpts from a summary of the State Auditor General’s report that was written with the intention it be made public. The ministry’s decision to classify it as confidential also, and withhold it from the public, has set off a conflict between the government on one side and the Parliament and State Auditor General’s office on the other. The latter two think the Norwegian population should be made aware of the sorry state of its national security.
Søreide, Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Justice Minister Per-Willy Amundsen, who is in charge of Norway’s state police, have claimed, meanwhile, that national security is “better” now than it was in 2015, when the state auditors conducted much of the research that’s included in their report. They’ve gagged themselves, however, regarding evidence to back up their assertions. Not even Norway’s defense chief, Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, can openly comment.
Defense chief ‘doesn’t necessarily agree’ with auditor’s report
Bruun-Hanssen himself, however, claimed as late as last year that Norway’s defense was “not good enough,” as questions continued to fly over the country’s preparedness and ability to fend off an attack. Now he’s mum as well, despite indications from the ministry, in its email to DN, that he also has seen some improvements.
“Even though the defense chief thinks that the State Auditor General’s criticism is important in bringing about improvements, that doesn’t mean he agrees with everything that’s in the auditors’ report,” the ministry wrote. It went on to claim that the defense forces “will be able to secure objects, even if not all the demands (for improvements) are met within set deadlines.”
The ministry also noted that the auditors based their report on the situation in 2015. “The fact that certain deficiencies were acknowledged in 2015 doesn’t mean that the situation has not improved in 2017,” the ministry wrote.
Justice Minister Amundsen wouldn’t comment on DN’s leak on Friday of the auditors’ still-classified summary of their report. At hearings held this week by the Parliament’s disciplinary committee, however, he stressed that his ministry has worked to comply with the findings of the auditors’ report. “From May 2016 and through to today, there’s been a considerable amount of work done within the police with an aim of meeting the demands and expectations outlined in the (auditors’) instructions,” Amundsen said.
July 22 commission under fire, too
Newspaper Aftenposten also reported last month that after six years of silence following the botched emergency response to the terrorist attacks of July 22, 2011, some of the police officers involved are striking back at all the criticism that followed. In a new book entitled På vår vakt (On our watch), author Malin Stensønes reveals the detailed accounts of 20 of the 26 police officers responding to the massacre on the island of Utøya, that ultimately ended with the arrest of the young, right-wing Norwegian extremist who killed 69 people and wounded many more.
Many of them are highly critical of the government commission headed by lawyer Alexandra Bech Gjørv that investigated the response and laid the foundation for this week’s concerns and controversy over the current state of security in an emergency. The police have cited factual errors and methodic deficiencies in the Gjørv Commission’s report that was released in August 2012 and set off an embarrassing torrent of complaints over Norway’s national security.
“They must have thought I lied to them,” claims one member of the special police unit (beredskapstroppen, literally, preparedness troop) sent to Utøya. The troop had no idea how many armed assailants were on the island, and were prepared to meet at least three to five, along with explosives. Instead there was just the one young man who immediately surrendered, but based on the information they had, the police spent time searching for more accomplices. The commission maintained there was no basis for the troop to expect more assailants.
Police now speaking out also claim the July 22 commission was driven by public and media expectations to find fault with the emergency response, and ended up savaging it. It declared that the police response was far too slow, that there was no coordination with the military, that equipment was unavailable and communication failed. A faster, more effective response would have been possible, but was badly botched and, worse, “the authorities’ ability to protect people on Utøya let them all down” on July 22, 2011.
The question now is whether there has been any improvement. While the police today at least have more functioning helicopters, some police officials still claim resources are lacking. Johan Fredriksen, who took charge of the July 22 aftermath, thinks the commission had the advantage of hindsight in its critical report. He agrees response could have been quicker, but only if there had been far more information about what was unfolding on Utøya and that everything functioned optimally.
As new criticism of her own critical commission emerges, Gjørv herself told Aftenposten that their job was to write a thorough report on the course of events on July 22, to stimulate reflection and learn. The reflection and learning continues six years later, albeit tarnished this week by political agendas and reluctance to admit mistakes. Calls continue for the government to concentrate on the much-daunted “openness” of Norwegian society instead of on secrecy, respond to the State Auditor General’s criticism and let Norwegians know if it’s now possible to rely on emergency services in a crisis.