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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

‘A scandal of huge proportions’

“I’ve been convicted of espionage, but I’m no spy,” declared Frode Berg at the outset of his lengthy press conference in Oslo Tuesday evening. The retired border inspector from Kirkenes who’s at the center of one of the biggest intelligence-gathering scandals in Norwegian history made it clear that he thinks Norway’s major intelligence agencies have made a fool of themselves in what he called “a scandal of huge proportions.”

Frode Berg (left) and his lawyer Brynjulf Risnes met Norwegian reporters for the first time since being released after two years in a Moscow prison on espionage charges. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Berg, age 64, was released from nearly two years in a Moscow jail last week as part of a spy swap involving Russia, Norway and Lithuania. He spoke clearly and firmly about how he’d first been asked “to do a favour for a friend” in Kirkenes whom he’d known for years, and then realizing “they weren’t just favours for a friend” but feeling bound by them.

“I can’t say anything other than that I’m deeply shaken,” Berge said, over how he was “misused” by an agent for Norway’s military intelligence service known as E-tjenesten and pressed into duty as an unwitting courier of large amounts of cash and secret documents on Russian soil. He admitted to being both “disappointed and bitter,” and also naive.

“I am not happy to have been part of something like this,” Berg said at the press conference held at a hotel near Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen. Norway’s intelligence agencies “have really made a mess of things.” He stressed that he received no orientation or preparation of any kind before making what eventually became five “assignments” in Russia.

‘Pressured’ as ‘a good Norwegian’
Asked to explain why he agreed to carry envelopes for a man whom he knew was “attached” to E-tjenesten, Berg seemed to search for an answer. “What should I say?” he responded. He wasn’t “clear” over what the consequences could be, much less how dangerous the “favours” he did for his “friend” might be. It seemed natural in the beginning to offer “a form of help.”

Asked whether he felt pressured, Berg said “yes, I began to realize what was going on,” and in March of 2017 he refused to make another trip on behalf of the man who also was a local businessman, politician and active in the community. But then he said he faced comments like, “‘Frode, you’re a good Norwegian … Frode, you know Russia so well … this is important,’ and it was difficult to say no.”

A tense Frode Berg (right) and his Norwegian attorney Brynjulf Risnes just before their lengthy press conference began. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Berg insists that he never received any kind of compensation for his courier services but admitted that by that time, he was turning over receipts for his travel expenses to the “friend’ in Kirkenes and they were reimbursed by the defense department. He says he never met anyone during his trips to Russia, other than old friends, and he still insists that when he left for his last fateful trip to Moscow in early December 2017, he still planned to be a tourist and do some Christmas shopping.

He told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) in a live interview just after the press conference about his dramatic arrest in broad daylight just outside his hotel, when he was caught red-handed carrying cash and documents. “They (the Russian officers arresting him) were very well prepared,” Berg said, and after being driven in a police car with flashing lights and taken into a basement where he was “ransacked” and questioned, he thought “this could take a few days.” He had walked right into a trap that Russian intelligence had set up through the use of a double agent, and of which Norwegian intelligence was clearly unaware. The “few days” in custody turned into more than 700 until he was released in the spy swap involving Russia, Norway and Lithuania last week.

‘It was tough’
He was held in a 9.5-square-meter cell that he had to share with another prisoner, with “two small beds, a sink with cold water, a toilet and a cupboard.” Prisoners were offered porridge for breakfast and a form of cabbage soup for lunch and dinner. He insists he was not badly treated by his Russian captors, and felt he was treated with more respect than other prisoners, but he admits it all amounted to “a form of psychic terror” to be left alone for hours on end and only an hour a day to be “aired” outside the cell. He was grateful for visits every other Thursday from a representative from the Norwegian Embassy in Moscow, who could bring some fruit and vegetables, and then he was allowed a phone call to his wife Anita in Kirkenes, or to send an email.

“It was tough,” he said, when there was plenty of time “to think about your whole life.” At the advice of his Russian defense attorney Ilja Novikov, he started keeping a diary every day that he eventually plans to turn into a book about his ordeal.

Berg admits he’s “not happy” he got involved in a botched spying operation. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

He also described in detail his release, which seemed right out of a spy movie. He was told by his attorney Novikov last Wednesday that “now it’s serious” and a release loomed. On Thursday he was moved out of his cell and his personal belongings seized at his arrest were returned. At around 3am on Friday he was driven to the airport, flown to Kaliningrad and then driven to the border, where his official pardon from Russian President Vladimir Putin was read aloud to him. He was escorted to the border to Lithuania and told he was a free man.

He was met by diplomats from the Norwegian Embassy in Lithuania and other Norwegian officials and taken to Vilnius and the ambassador’s residence. He and his Norwegian defense attorney Brynjulf Risnes, who met him in Lithuania, were flown back to Norway in a private jet Saturday night.

Meetings with E-tjenesten and PST
On Monday he met with E-tjenesten boss Morten Haga Lunde and with officials at Norway’s domestic police intelligence agency PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste). He received no apologies but the defense department is covering all his expenses at present including his lawyers, a doctor and psychologist on call to help. Berg said he had agreed not to reveal the contents of his conversations with E-tjenesten or PST but neither had made any demands or put any limits on what he can say publicly. There was no talk yet of compensation for Berg’s ordeal after he was sent into Russian territory with no training or preparation, but compensation claims are expected.

Berg was tight-lipped about his Russian trial, which was carried out behind closed doors, because it involved “so much classified information and I want to respect that.” He said he’s had no contact with the E-tjenesten agent in Kirkenes who sought his services, but knows that “he is not doing well right now.” He said he was unaware of others who may have been pressured to serve E-tjenesten as well,  but was “quite sure” E-tjenesten had stopped any efforts to recruit others in Kirkenes and pulled anyone else they had in Russia out of the country.

Berg described both Prime Minister Erna Solberg (right) and Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide as “quite humble” when they called to speak with him on Friday. They’re shown here at their own press conference Friday evening after his release. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Berg received no direct apologies from either Prime Minister Erna Solberg or Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, both of whom called him on Friday while he was still in Lithuania. He described both, though, as “quite humble” on the phone, and had the impression they were well aware of what he’s been through over the past two years after agreeing “to help” E-tjenesten.

He in turn made it clear that he was acutely aware of the “enormous” effort that went into securing his pardon and release. “I want to thank all involved, I know it was an enormous amount of work,” Berg said. “The waiting time was tough, but it’s fantastic to be here.” He said he had no doubts that Norwegian officials “did everything they could” to help him, and continue to help him now at state expense.

He said he would have flown home to Kirkenes “yesterday” if he could, but he’s still under medical observation and faces more possible “debriefings” and meetings with the Parliamentary commission investigating the intelligence agencies’ botched operation. He looks forward to go home, even though he’s aware that some residents of Finnmark question how he could have allowed himself to get hooked into E-tjenesten. Berg was active for years in promoting friendly relations with Russia and cross-border partnerships.

“I really hope this hasn’t damaged all that,” Berg said. He wants to get right back to work on “people to people” projects across Norway’s border to Russia.

‘We’ll of course welcome him home’
Øystein Hansen, who has led a support group for Berg and his family in Kirkenes, told NRK Tuesday night that “we don’t support his actions but we support Frode Berg and we support his family.” Hansen acknowledged that Berg “is not entirely innocent” but “we’ll of course welcome him home.”

Local Mayor Rune Rafaelsen of the Labour Party seemed downright furious on live TV over how E-tjenesten operated, accusing the intelligence service of “undermining Norwegian policy” by putting border relations at such risk. “Norway is not well-served with an intelligence service like this,” Rafaelsen told NRK. “They have consciously sabotaged what we’re trying to do here.” Rafaelsen has earlier suggested that the head of E-tjenesten “should perhaps find something else to do.”

Others tend to agree and an internal shake-up is expected, although unlikely to be revealed publicly. Commentators like Harald Stanghelle, meanwhile, have expressed sympathy for Berg, suggesting that many others might have fallen for the same sense of duty that E-tjenesten reportedly pressured Berg into. The very fact that Berg is allowed to speak freely and even encouraged by Prime Minister Solberg to “tell his own story” may be the worst punishment of all for an embarrassed E-tjenesten that was clearly outwitted by the Russians.

No one expects E-tjenesten to ever tell its version of events. It has repeatedly refused to confirm or deny any involvement with Berg at all.

“I have a good conscience,” Berg said when his press conference was over. Asked if he had any regrets, Berg replied: “I should have been more concrete about saying ‘no’ (to E-tjenesten) in March 2017.” Berglund



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