Questions fly over secret surveillance

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Members of Parliament were demanding answers on Friday after Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported on the existence of a top secret satellite base, set up in 2000 with US support over the years, at an old military camp outside Hønefoss. The base has been used for years as a listening post to track down terrorists, but it also reportedly has picked up communication among Norwegian civilians that can be in violation of Norwegian law.

Norway’s military intelligence service known as E-tjenesten posted this photo of its suddenly-controversial satellite station at Eggemoen in Ringerike, northwest of Oslo. PHOTO: Etterretningstjenesten/Forsvaret

The Parliament’s own commission that monitors intelligence gathering in Norway, the so-called EOS-utvalg led by former Defense Minister Eldbjørg Løwer, has itself been “uncertain” about whether the base has engaged in illegal surveillance of Norwegians in Norway. It’s located on the grounds of the old Eggemoen military camp between the towns of Hønefoss and Jevnaker about an hour’s drive northwest of Oslo.

“We have been uncertain about whether the manner in which E-tjenesten (Norway’s military intelligence service) has carried out its assignments has been adequately in line with today’s laws,” Løwer told NRK. “We’ve had a need for a clarification that what they’re doing is legal.”

She added that “the most important thing for us is to see that E-tjenesten isn’t conducting surveillance of Norwegians in Norway. That’s not their job, and it’s a very important control point for us.”

Eldbjørg Løwer is a former government minister from the Liberal Party who has led the Parliament’s intelligence monitoring commission since 2011. She served as Norway’s defense minister from 1999-2000. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Løwer’s uncertainty has set off alarms at the Parliament, also from the Liberal Party that’s now a member of Norway’s conservative government coalition. MP Abid Raja of the Liberals was thus demanding that his own government clarify whether the operations at Eggemoen have violated privacy laws in Norway. “I think this is very disturbing for the Parliament,” Raja, who’s also a lawyer, told NRK on Friday. He noted how Løwer’s EOS commission reports to the Parliament: “If they’re uncertain whether the law has been followed, then this is a serious situation.”

He said it’s important that Norway has an intelligence service that “can protect us” against terror and threats, “but if our confidence in E-tjenesten disappears because of illegal surveillance of Norwegians in Norway, it can threaten the entire system.”

His colleague Bjørnar Moxnes of the Reds Party claimed it was “unforgiveable” that Norwegian governments extending back to the early 2000s “have set up American spying and surveillance programs on Norwegian soil, and kept it secret from Norwegian citizens. That’s a betrayal, also against Norwegian self-governance.” He also demanded that any information collected about Norwegians must be deleted immediately.

It’s not the first time Norwegian officials have been accused of cooperating too closely with their American counterparts, and engaging in illegal surveillance. Sparks flew when the US Embassy in Oslo was found to have carried out surveillance, in cooperation with Norwegian citizens, from a building adjacent to its former chancellery. Concerns have also flown for years over US involvement and investment in the large and expanding radar station at Vardø in Norway’s northernmost county of Finnmark.

The military intelligence agency E-tjenesten has also faced questions over its “listening posts” here in Vardø and has acknowledged similar posts at nearby Vadsø and Viksjøfjell in Finnmark’s Varanger region and at Fauske. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

Jon Wessel-Aas, an Oslo attorney who specializes in constitutional and surveillance issues, said he had no doubt that Norway’s intelligence gathering activities with the Americans have violated both Norwegian law, the Norwegian Constitution and the international convention on human rights, and that “they know it.” He wrote in a commentary on NRK that Norwegian governments, including the two led by former Labour Party Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg who now leads NATO, must have known about it, too. “We others have only had cryptic hints through the EOS commission’s report in 2016. Now NRK has revealed (based on documents from the US’ National Security Agency and revealed by former NSA employee John Snowden) that E-tjenesten has for many years collected and stored information also on Norwegian citizens’ electronic communication in and out of Norway.” Wessel-Aas suggests that those gathering the intelligence have put themselves above the law, presumably in the interests of national security.

Torgeir Knag Fylkesnes, an MP and member of the Parliament’s disciplinary committee from the Socialist Left Party, said it was important that a new law be put in place that sets a framework to which technology can be adapted. He said it’s wrong if the opposite occurs, allowing “our principles and values to be adapted to the cheapest and simplest forms of surveillance.”

Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen claimed on Friday that Norwegian civilians are not under surveillance. PHOTO: Forsvarsdepartementet

Frank Bakke-Jensen of the Conservative Party, who recently took over as Norway’s new defense minister, went on the defensive himself and initially responded only briefly to NRK’s report. He wrote in an email to NRK that E-tjenesten was not conducting surveillance of Norwegians in Norway and that the government agreed current laws against civilian surveillance must be updated. He claimed that work on proposed changes to the law was underway.

He elaborated on that during an appearance on NRK’s morning radio debate program Politisk kvarter, and repeated his claims that Norwegians were not subjected to illegal surveillance. Bakke-Jensen further claimed in a press release Friday morning that the EOS monitoring commission had carried out a control exercise of E-tjeneste’s satellite station at Eggemoen “and had not criticized its operations.”

He confirmed that data had been continually collected “from satellites in outer space” at what he called “the station at Ringerike (the region where Eggemoen is located).” He claimed the station is “completely under Norwegian control” and used to carry out E-tjenesten‘s obligation “to reveal and warn about threats to national security.”

He added that it was important to the government that the Parliament “has no doubts about how E-tjenesten operates within its legal framework.” That’s why he agrees that current law formulated 20 years ago needs to be updated, since “both technology and the threat picture has changed considerably.” He said a proposal for an updated law was expected to be sent out to hearing later this year.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund