In his unusual but typically candid manner, Lt General Kjell Grandhagen told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) last December that he didn’t know how long he’d live after New Year. Terminally ill with bone marrow cancer, the highly decorated career officer and former chief of Norway’s military intelligence agency made it all through the winter, remaining open, engaged and critical until his death last last week at the age of 64.
The mourning is genuine among military brass, many government officials and media alike. Grandhagen was a grand master at making the military less mysterious and officious, and he made a difference for which he’ll be remembered. He rarely missed a chance to state his opinions, seizing the opportunity engage himself in Norway’s ongoing defense debate right up until he died.
“I have always seen it as my duty to share my experience with politicians,” Grandhagen told DN. “We have to get a grip on our national security, and we need to do that in peacetime, not the day before all hell breaks loose.” He was critical of the government despite major increases in the defense budget, claiming that “they say one thing and do something else. They’re letting down voters and playing with our national security. I think it should be evaluated as more important than that. This is a about life and death.”
There may well be some politicians who’ll be secretly glad Grandhagen’s voice is now silenced, but he commanded respect within the military and the international community abroad. “It’s with sorrow that we received word of Kjell Grandhagen’s death,” stated Norway’s defense chief, Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen. “He was one of our most marked and respected leaders. I want to especially point to his ability to balance openness with the need to shield sensitive information. We have lost one of our most respected voices in society … for how important it is to have a credible defense.”
Benedicte Bjørnland, who headed Norway’s police intelligence agency PST when Grandhagen headed the military equivalent known as Etterretningstjeneste (E-tjeneste), agreed. “He talked openly about the challenges he saw and those Norway was part of,”said Bjørnland, who now heads Norway’s national police. She was also impressed by the respect Grandhagen commanded internationally when they traveled on official business. “It was wonderful to see, and those of us traveling with him were proud to be with him,” Bjørnland said.
Recognized the importance of openness
It’s Grandhagen’s openness that left the most lasting impression, and which perhaps has been sorely missed in the months since E-tjenesten has come under severe criticism. It’s been accused of irresponsibly recruiting retired border inspector Frode Berg as a courier and then “casting him to the wolves” when he was arrested and jailed in Moscow. Berg was recently sentenced to 14 years in a Russian prison and E-tjenesten has delivered firm “no comments” throughout Berg’s ordeal.
That’s probably not how Grandhagen would have handled things: “The effect of saying ‘no comment’ every time someone asks you a question is that over time it will damage your reputation,” he once told national news bureau NTB. “When we have the opportunity to talk about things, we must try to be as open as possible.” He chose to talk about how also Norwegian agents operate under false identities and violate regulations in other countries, and why that could be important. He preferred the term “intelligence gathering” to “spying” and viewed it as a legitimate part of national defense
NTB headlined its obituary on Grandhagen: “Hush-hush chief who opened up the armed forces.” Even after becoming head of E-tjeneste) in 2010, Grandhagen made it a point of making the then-hermitically sealed agency more open and accessible. Perhaps it was because he’d once wanted to be a journalist himself, and understood the media’s role in a democracy. He delivered annual, upgraded threat evaluations and actually answered reporters’ questions.
Open about illness, too
It was only a year after becoming what his own grandchildren called “spy chief” that he received the shocking diagnosis that he was suffering from terminal bone marrow cancer. He was open about that, too: “I was in the car, on my way home in uniform, when the doctor called,” he told DN in December. “It was October, seven years ago, and the doctor apologized for having to give me the news over the phone but it was so serious he had to get hold of me quickly. I remember I cried, and I cried when I told my wife in our kitchen. But I didn’t cry more after that.”
Instead he decided to make the most of the years he had left, which doctors first said would only be three, but became nearly seven. He kept his top position at E-tjenesten and his rank second only to the king and defense chief Bruun-Hanssen’s. He came from a military family and had a strong sense of duty. After his retirement upon reaching the military’s age limit in 2016, he started working in the private sector, as a top security adviser to Norway’s biggest bank, DNB, and later as a board member and “strategic consultant” for one of Norway’s wealthiest men, Stein Erik Hagen.
Critical of Trump and Snowden
And he really started speaking out, on the need for defense and national security, and on politics, both domestic and foreign. The man who’s been honoured with Norway’s highest decorations, by the French Foreign Legion and its counterparts in Germany and the US, was nonetheless highly critical about “what’s happening in the USA and with the USA. The country did controversial things earlier too,” he told DN, “but then there was a certain degree of consistency and predictability that’s now gone. The USA is led by a president who thinks it’s just fine to lie, time and time again, and who throws out unworthy characteristics of his opponents. And 40 percent of the population supports him. This is the world’s largest economy and the world’s largest military power. This is extremely serious.”
He also spoke out against Edward Snowden, fully admitting that “my view of him is a product of my background. Around the world he was viewed as a hero and a whistle-blower. For me he’s neither.” Grandhagen claims Snowden “revealed the way several countries conducted their intelligence gathering, and I experienced concrete damage as a result of his actions. I believe they were irresponsible.”
Grandhagen said he wasn’t afraid of dying. His family was as candid as he was when it finally happened, at 2:35am last Friday, May 3 at the Akershus University Hospital in Lørenskog. They wrote on his own Facebook page that he’d been in good humour, played the piano for fellow patients for fellow patients three days before he died and started his days by checking the weather at the family’s hytte (holiday cabin) in Indre Troms before doing some final work for DNB.
When he grew worse on Wednesday, he received medical help to sleep. “When the time came he left us quickly and without pain,” the family wrote. He is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Bodil, three grown children and four grandchildren.