Norway’s police intelligence unit PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste) has determined that there’s a high probability that the government-issued mobile phone that former minister Per Sandberg took with him to both China and Iran was indeed compromised. Iranian and Chinese agents have likely gained access to Sandberg’s voice and data communication, according to PST, also after Sandberg returned home to Norway.
PST’s evaluation of the “high” security risk to which Sandberg exposed both himself and the goverment was made public over the weekend. That’s when Norwegian media gained access to written answers to questions posed by Members of Parliament after Sandberg’s controversial summer holiday in Iran. The answers to their questions about what’s now widely viewed as Sandberg’s negligent use of his mobile phone came from both Prime Minister Erna Solberg and PST itself.
Solberg wrote that PST views a Norwegian government minister as a “high-value target for intelligence gathering” by both China and Iran. Sandberg’s violation of Norwegian government security procedures thus made it “probable,” Solberg wrote, “that information has been made available to unauthorized players.”
PST itself wrote that government officials’ mobile phones are also vulnerable at home in Norway, but once abroad and hooked into a foreign mobile network, “all communication to and from the device can be tapped, without the user of the mobile phone being able to discover that.”
Information ‘has been accessible’
PST stressed that the phone can continue to be compromised, vulnerable to tapping of information and used to activate the phone’s microphone or camera. “It must be assumed that all communication, both voice and data, has been accessible for Iranian and Chinese authorities as long as the telephone was connected to these countries’ mobile networks and/or Internet,” PST wrote.
Sandberg continued to downplay the risk he took, and that he ignored the advice and security rules imposed on government ministers. He stressed to state broadcaster NRK over the weekend that PST hasn’t been able to prove his phone was compromised, only that it “could” have been. The phone has reportedly since been destroyed.
Prime Minister Solberg repeated in her written answers to Parliament’s questions that she deemed it necessary that Sandberg resign as minister, which he did. Fully 83 percent of the Norwegian population agrees, according to a survey conducted by research firm Respons Analyse for newspaper VG.
Sandberg isn’t the only government minister who has traveled to high-risk countries like China and Iran with his or her work telephone. Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre did the same when he was foreign minister, for example, as did Labour’s Hanne Bjurstrøm and the Center Party’s Liv Signe Navarsete during the former left-center government. Those incidents occured six to seven years ago, however, and security regulations were not as strict then as they are now.
New plans for the future
Sandberg and his new Iranian-born live-in partner Bahareh Letnes, meanwhile, now plan to write books about how they felt they became victims of a media campaign against them. Newspaper Aftenposten has reported that they recently told a meeting of journalism students that they also intend to start selling studded winter tires to Iran, arrange an Iranian and Persian festival in Oslo and produce five documentaries and reports from Iran that they will sell.
The couple reportedly intends to travel back to Iran next month, despite alleged threats that have been made against Letnes. Sandberg reportedly told the students that the couple has been promised protection by Iranian autorities.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported last week that Sandberg intends to work for a company set up by Letnes earlier this year that will offer consulting services within the seafood business. Since Sandberg was fisheries minister, he may be subject to a quarantine period before he can work commercially within his government area.