The disciplinary committee of the Norwegian Parliament looks set to call in for questioning both the head of Norway’s police intelligence unit PST and the country’s justice minister. They’re ultimately responsible for how PST illegally gathered huge quantities of information from airline passenger lists and then stored it, in what’s been dubbed the latest “scandal” to shake Norway this year.
“We must evaluate holding a hearing on this,” said Ulf Leirstein, a newly independent Member of Parliament who’s still in charge of matters involving the Parliament’s EOS Commission. It monitors Norway’s intelligence-gathering operations and is already trying to sort out a spying scandal that resulted in the Russian imprisonment of retired border inspector Frode Berg. Now the commission has concluded that PST greatly overstepped its bounds in tracking travelers in and out of Norway.
The commission issued a sharply worded report on allegations that PST had been snooping through the passenger lists of Norwegian Air. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported earlier this fall that Norwegian Air had filed a complaint that a PST employee had used the Norwegian customs agency’s access code to log into its systems and check who was flying in and out of the country.
It turns out that PST also had managed to get eight other airlines to routinely turn over their passengers lists as well, a practice the commission firmly branded as illegal. The passenger list data was also stored for several months, meaning that the movements of around a million people were illegally registered without their knowledge. They included both Norwegian and foreign citizens.
PST had been carrying on the practice even after the commission had criticized it in another concrete case n 2014. The commission also claimed that PST lacked adequate internal control and documentation of the practice.
“The commission is directing sharp criticism against Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste (PST) regarding its gathering of large amounts of information about citizens’ airline travel,” it stated in a press release on Thursday. “We believe the practice has been, and is, illegal.”
So do many Members of Parliament, with MP Freddy Øvstegård of the Socialist Left party (SV) calling it “a great scandal.” Øvstegård told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that “PST has, with open eyes, operated systematically in collecting massive amounts of personal information.” He sits on the committee that’s reacting to the EOS report, which he noted has issued unusually strong criticism.
Øvstegård and others also want to know whether Justice Minister Jøran Kallmyr of the conservative Progress Party was aware of PST’s illegal practice. “Why wasn’t this illegal activity stopped?” Øvstegård asked. He also finds PST’s response to the criticism against it both incorrect and inadequate.
‘Foundation’ for the criticism
Hans Sverre Sjøvold recently took over as PST’s new boss, while Kallmyr has only been justice minister since last spring. Kallmyr told NRK that he’s taking the commission’s report seriously and strives to ensure that PST operates legally. He said he couldn’t yet answer whether ministry staff was aware of PST’s practice.
The parliamentary committee will formally address the commission’s report right after New Year, with both Kallmyr and Sjøvold likely to be called in for questioning. Sjøvold wrote in his own press release that PST was taking the criticism against it seriously as well and acknowledged that there was “foundation” for it. He said there’d been disagreement between PST and the commission over legal aspects of their intelligence gathering efforts.
After now being told there were no legal grounds for the practice, Sjøvold added, “PST has as a consequence of the criticism immediately ended the practice that was criticized.”