Challenges pile up for new PST chief

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Hans Sverre Sjøvold took over as the new chief of Norway’s police intelligence agency PST just last spring. Since then he’s had to deal with another terrorist attack by a young white supremacist, more right-wing extremism and probes into questionable PST operations, while facing charges of illegal weapons possession himself.

New PST chief Hans Sverre Sjøvold faces “quite a few” challenges at present. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

Sjøvold insists, however, that “the biggest challenge” is to ward off threats to Norway’s civilian population “and there are quite a few of them.” PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste) has been criticized for not managing to prevent a young Norwegian from murdering his Chinese-born step-sister and attacking a mosque late last summer, even though PST had received tips about him.

The new PST chief stressed at a meeting with members of Norway’s Foreign Press Association on Monday that while PST ranked threats from Islamic terrorists and Russian and Chinese hackers as highest earlier this earlier, “there has been a change.” Right-wing extremism has moved much higher up in the threat rankings, with the goal of preventing attacks and the spread of white-supremacists’ ideology.

Speaking just before the mosque shooter was back in court on Monday, with orders that reporters not cite his professed motives for his attacks, Sjøvold noted how even those acting alone “are not alone on the Internet.” He said he thinks the right-wing extremists become radicalized in much the same way as Islamic terrorists, via online platforms and shared hatred. “They hate Jews, they hate homosexuals, they hate a lot,” Sjøvold said.

“They have not been very well-organized,” he added, but now they’re much more active on the Internet “and they’re communicating. He readily admits that another young Norwegian who killed 77 people in twin right-wing attacks in 2011 has inspired like-minded white supremacists with his manifesto “that’s still out there.”

More threats from the far right
PST was active in this weekend’s police action against what was supposed to be a secret gathering of white supremacists in Oslo. Police arrested an American man known for racist ideology who had traveled to Norway to speak to the group, and sent him out of the country on Monday before he could spread his message. PST has also been busy monitoring other anti-Islamic groups and those mounting counter demonstrations.

“We can’t track down all of them,” Sjøvold said, nor could he explain why the American was allowed entry into Norway. PST also faces political dilemmas of its own: “It’s critical that we find a good balance between freedom of speech and security,” the PST boss said.

The new PST chief was under the watchful eye of the intelligence agency’s communications boss Martin Bernsen (left) when the two met with members of the Foreign Press Association in Oslo on Monday. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

That’s not always successful, with PST facing probes into how it infiltrated Norwegian Air’s passenger booking system last spring, allegedly in an attempt to monitor people arriving and departing Norway. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has reported that the airline had alerted the Norwegian regulatory authority Datatilsynet about how a PST staffer used access codes held by the Norwegian customs agency to log into the booking system.

PST had not been issued access codes itself, prompting the Parliament’s commission that regulates Norway’s intelligence agencies to launch an investigation: “I can confirm that the commission (EOS-utvalget) is looking into the matter,” its leader Svein Grønnern told DN. Norway’s justice ministry, which is responsible for PST, now wants PST to have better access itself.

Sparks fly over the Wara case, too
PST has also been criticized over an investigation that led to charges against the live-in partner of former Justice Minister Tor Mikkel Wara from the conservative Progress Party. Laila Anita Bertheussen is accused of vandalizing their own home and car to make it look like the couple was under threat from immigrants or others accusing them of racism. The case has led to an awkward twist in the fight against threats from the far-right.

Wara’s partner, who’s been charged in the case, publicly complained last month that PST had leaked information to Norwegian media about her own prior criminal record. PST had called on prosecutors to indict her for fabricating a criminal act, but they recently sent the case back with a request for further investigation.

PST won’t comment on the complaints from Bertheussen. Sjøvold has inherited the case that his predecessor at PST, Benedicte Bjørnland, who described it as a “very special situation” for PST to investigate the partner of the justice minister who’d been their boss. Wara felt compelled to resign his post as justice minister, who is politically responsible for the police and courts in Norway, when the charges were filed.

Under investigation himself
Sjøvold, a lawyer and former prosecutor himself who most recently served as the chief of the Oslo Police District, has also come under investigation himself. Newspaper VG reported late last week Sjøvold had illegally stored two hand weapons for several years without having permission to do so.

Sjøvold told VG he had only done so as a favour to a friend who’d become a widow, but confirmed he’d never sought the permission needed from the police to possess the weapons. He described the investigation as being against himself personally, not PST, and otherwise declined further comment in Monday’s meeting with foreign correspondents.

There no doubt Sjøvold has a lot on his plate as PST chief. As for PST’s image among the public, he noted that PST is “authorized to use quite special methods” in its own investigations, all of which are aimed at protecting the public. PST’s communications chief Martin Bernsen said the agency has ranked “in the top 10” of public agencies regarding its standing.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund