A political storm continued to swirl around Fisheries Minister Per Sandberg through the weekend. Now he admits that he took his government-issued mobile phone with him not only on his highly controversial summer holiday trip to Iran, but also to China this past spring. Several of his conservative Progress Party colleagues are as angry with him as opposition politicians in Parliament.
“Yes, I have made a mistake,” Sandberg wrote in a text message to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), which reported on Saturday that his security breach in Iran wasn’t his first. Prime Minister Erna Solberg has already stated that Sandberg violated government rules when he failed to inform his ministry and her office that he was going to Iran before he left. The phone he took with him has been seized by Norwegian security officials who fear it’s been hacked, putting his passwords and sensitive government files at risk.
Sandberg also admitted to DN that he took his work telephone with him to China in late May, when he made another trip to promote Norwegian seafood exports. Norway’s police intelligence service PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste) has earlier characterized both Iran and China as countries with active intelligence services of their own. It’s highly risky to use any smart phones or other computers in either country because of the likelihood they’ll be hacked.
Government rules, based on PST’s security warnings, thus demand that all devices be cleared by the government’s information technology specialists. In most cases, ministers and others are given a new PC, battery chargers, tablets and phone with a new SIM card and new number. All must be returned to the IT department upon return.
Kristian Gjøsteen, a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, told DN it was “clumsy” of Sandberg to take his work phone with him on his controversial holiday trip to Iran that Sandberg insists was strictly personal. “There are many clever technical experts in Iran so if Iranian authorities really wanted to hack Sandberg’s mobile phone, they could have done it with no problem,” Gjøsteen told DN.
Both the former head of Norway’s military intelligence unit, Kjell Grandhagen, and security expert Per Thorsheim, who works as a consultant to the government on travel security, believe it’s likely Sandberg’s phone was compromised. “I view it as quite probable that Iranian authorities have registered and listened in on conversations, monitored text messages and other traffic on Sandberg’s phone,” Thorsheim told DN.
Anniken Huitfeldt of the Labour Party, who leads the Parliament’s foreign policy and defense committee, claimed live on national radio Monday morning that Sandberg’s offenses could or should lead to revocation of his own security clearance as a government minister. Huitfeldt said on NRK’s popular political talkshow Politisk kvarter that she thinks Solberg is being much too lenient with Sandberg, with others also suggesting he should lose his job.
Not only are opposition politicians all but outraged over Sandberg’s decision to travel “spontaneously” with his new Iranian-Norwegian girlfriend to Iran with his government-issued phone, so are several of his own Progress Party fellows. They include the party’s spokespersons on both foreign policy and immigration issues.
“I have in this case expressed myself as the party’s foreign policy spokesperson, and it’s on that basis that I think Sandberg’s trip breaks with everything the Progress Party stands for,” declared Christian Tybring-Gjedde in a text message to newspaper Aftenposten just before the weekend. The party’s immigration spoksman, Mazyar Keshvari, went so far as to ask Sandberg “to re-evaluate his future in the Progress Party.”
Keshvari’s own family fled Iran when he was a child, and he agrees with many other critics (including Amnesty International in Norway) who claim Sandberg’s holiday trip and positive remarks about the country “whitewash” all the repression of its authoritarian regime. Keshvari softened his stance after Sandberg claimed his positive impression was based on the country and its people, and that he remained critical of the country’s political regime. Others, however, still think Sandberg should resign as minister, or that Solberg should fire him.
Odd Eilert Persen, leader of the party’s chapter for Troms and Finnmark, called Sandberg’s trip “very unwise” and “damaging” for the party itself. “A government minister isn’t just a private person, the job and the position come with instructions and a special demand for being responsible,” Persen told Aftenposten. “This case shows he (Sandberg) doesn’t understand that.” He added that his confidence in Sandberg, who also hails from Northern Norway, was weakened.
Many Progress Party officials declined comment, saying the trouble Sandberg has created should be dealt with internally and not in the media. Others were more open. “Iran is not an idyllic holiday destination, but a terror regime,” claimed Åshild Bruun-Gundersen, a Member of Parliament for the Progress Party from Aust-Agder. “Women are severely punished if they show their hair, or go swimming. The Progress Party opposes all totalitarian dictatorships, whether it’s Iran or North Korea. Per Sandberg should have been much more clear about that.”
Sandberg’s girlfriend broke her silence
Questions were also flying over how Sandberg’s girlfriend and traveling companion in Iran, Bahareh Letnes, could be photographed without wearing a head scarf and covering her hair. She broke her silence Friday evening, telling NRK that she simply let her hijab “fall off” when no police were around. The couple did go swimming together, but she wore a special swimsuit that wasn’t revealing, according to Sandberg. They managed to travel around the country without being married (another violation of local law and custom) by avoiding hotels, according to Sandberg, and staying in private accommodation.
Letnes, who appeared with Sandberg on the evening news talkshow Dagsnytt 18, stirred more criticism when she also said live on the air that Norwegians must not confuse Iranian law with Islamic sharia law. She claimed “only around 20- to 30 percent” of Iranian law is based on sharia law, and that “only one or two women” are whipped each day for various violations like drinking alcohol or refusing to wear a hijab, “in a country of 89 million.” Amnesty International Norge blasted her comments as “a blatant and serious distortion of reality.”
Many Iranian refugees now living in Norway have also reacted angrily to Letnes’ comments. “Iranians are jailed and tortured every day for doing exactly what Per and Bahareh have done this summer,” stated Mina Ghavel Lunde, for example.
While admitting to his rules violations, Sandberg continued to defend his holiday trip with Letnes. “Even though I think there are beautiful places in Iran and that I have met many wonderful people, that doesn’t mean I support the Iranian regime,” he stated on Friday. “I, the Progress Party and the government are critical of the human rights situation in Iran, especially the widespread use of the death penalty. We are also criticial about Iran’s role in several of the conflicts in the Middle East. Iranian authorities are aware of that.
“My holiday trip won’t change Iran, the Progress Party or anyone’s policies towards the regime,” he added. “But in the long term, increased trade, technology and visits will force the worst despot onto his knees.” Sandberg declined further comment during the weekend.