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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Government grilled on security issues

NEWS ANALYSIS: Seven years after a right-wing extremist’s bomb destroyed Norway’s government headquarters in Oslo, film crews were recreating the grim scene over the weekend for yet another drama about the deadly terrorist attack. It provided an eerie backdrop for a parliamentary hearing on Monday, at which Prime Minister Erna Solberg and other government officials faced tough questions over why they haven’t sufficiently followed up on measures to improve security and preparedness.

This was a conference room at the Justice Ministry, which was among the government buildings heavily damaged in the terrorist attacks of July 22, 2011. Seven years later, the current government is under fire over an alleged lack of improvements in security and preparedness for any new attacks. PHOTO: Justisdepartementet

Political drama has followed the drama of July 22, 2011, when eight people were killed in the bombing of government headquarters and 69 more in the right-wing extremist’s massacre on the island of Utøya. The Labour Party-led left-center government at the time was the target of the attack and later was also hit with strong criticism of its failure to secure buildings and citizens. Former Labour Party leader and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg faced parliamentary questioning himself in 2012.

Solberg promised during the election campaign in 2013 that a government led by her would do a much better job of improving preparedness and securing “objects” like public buildings, oil and gas installations and critical infrastructure such as data, water and electricity systems. Norway’s state auditor general’s office, however, led by a veteran of Solberg’s own Conservative Party, has twice determined that her government has not only fallen short, but that the current lack of adequate “object securing” is “extremely serious.” That’s the strongest language the auditor general’s office can use.

The allegations of deficient security and preparedness led to the parliament’s disciplinary committee decision to call in Solberg, several of her ministers and leaders of police and defense departments for questioning on Monday. It’s set off a political confrontation that could topple Solberg’s government if she fails to fend off the criticism from the opposition.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party and her current justice minister, Tor Mikkel Wara of the Progress Party (far left), were front and center at a ceremony last week where Solberg laid the cornerstone for the state’s new preparedness center south of Oslo. Critics claim she and her ministers have glossed over security deficiences. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Solberg undoubtedly prepared well for the tough questions she’d need to answer at Monday’s hearing, which started off with the head of the national security authority NSM (Nasjonal sikkerhets-myndighet) claiming that it had found “several deviations” within the work carried out so far within the Justice- and Defense ministries. NSM chief Kjetil Nilsen said the deviations had been followed up, however, and that while “things take time,” improvements were being made.

That was good news for Solberg, who can face a lack of confidence vote in Parliament if she fails to sufficiently satisfy the opposition and centrist Members of Parliament grilling her. The NSM chief, however, also testified that more buildings and other “objects” need better security than those selected by the government so far.

By mid-morning, Norway’s defense chief Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen was testifying that “more than half” of defense-related objects are not adequately secured. “There have been weaknesses,” Bruun-Hanssen said, in the defense ministry’s follow up.

That was not good news for Solberg, but then the head of Norway’s Home Guard (Heimevernet), Eirik Johan Kristoffersen, said that the defense department now has an electronic overview of the status of security for key installations. It was completed this summer, just after the auditor general delivered its latest criticism of the government’s prepardeness, and thus addresses what had been pointed out as a weakness.

Odd Reidar Humlegård (left), director of Norway’s state police, was among those testifying at Monday’s all-day hearing on the state of security and preparedeness in Norway. At right, Knut Smedsrud, divisional director of police preparedness and crisis management. PHOTO: Stortinget

Bruun-Hanssen, meanwhile, denied that the defense and state police departments still aren’t communicating well, an issue said to be a major problem during the response to the attacks in 2011. That’s good news for Solberg and seemed to catch the opposition off guard. MP Torgeir Knag Fylkesnes of the Socialist Left party claimed that he found the defense officials’ answers “confusing,” adding that “what you’re saying here is totally at odds with the auditor general’s (critical) report.” Bruun-Hanssen and others responded that preparedness and security have improved since the first audit was delivered and even since the second one came in June.

Solberg ‘misunderstood’
Odd Reidar Humlegård, director of Norway’s state police, also refuted the state auditor general’s findings, agreeing with Bruun-Hanssen that the police and defense establishment have a much better dialogue now than they did in the past. “I am not aware that we and the defense department have different understandings of our current instructions,” Humlegård testified. “There is no lack of clarity around our views.”

Humlegård also claimed that it has been impossible to meet the deadlines for improvements that had been set several years ago. “It’s a huge job to make sure that all the objects in need of security satisfy the law,” he said. “It wasn’t possible to secure all the objects by January 1, 2015.”

He raised a stir when he claimed that he thinks Solberg “misunderstood” the police department’s status reports, though, and thus reported in turn to the Parliament that improvements were on track. The Socialist Left party (SV) wasn’t buying a simple “misunderstanding,” and claimed Solberg had instead “misinformed” the Parliament.

Political commentators have been busy analyzing the situation for Solberg, with newspaper Aftenposten editorializing on Monday that it was time for Solberg “to show humility” when it came her turn to testify at Monday’s hearing. Many think she should acknowledge that her government could have done a better job in addressing security issues. There’s been speculation that perhaps her government’s zeal for reform and reorganization of various state operations have also distracted the state police’s ability to follow up on specific security improvement programs.

Solberg has also had no less than four justice ministers during the five years she’s headed the government, all of them from the conservative Progress Party. In Norway, the justice ministry is ultimately responsible for the state police, and questions have also arisen over whether the Progress Party’s justice ministers have put more emphasis on immigration and asylum issues at the expense of concrete security improvements.

‘Do as we say, not as we did…’
Opposition politicians, meanwhile, are eager to criticize Solberg’s minority government coalition at any opportunity. They’ve seized on the security issue even though the Labour, Center and Socialist Left parties were also heavily criticized by independent commissions over their own lack of attention to security and preparedness when they held government power.

There’s no question that it’s been difficult and demanding to follow up on all the aspects that came out of the first Gjørv Commission’s report on security in 2012. A lot has been done since then, noted Aftenposten, but clearly not enough to satisfy the auditor general or the opposition in Parliament. The question now is whether Solberg’s government has been too slow to grasp the complexity of securing buildings, objects and people, and whether her government has painted a more positive picture of the security situation than it deserves. Solberg was due to be the last to testify, on Monday evening. Berglund



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