Norway’s two intelligence-gathering agencies are back on the defense this week, this time in the Oslo County Court. Less than a month after the state paid out millions in compensation to a retired border inspector who got caught in a Russian spy trap, it’s now defending itself against more charges of allegedly clumsy recruiting that literally hurt a Norwegian company and its personnel.
“I was suddenly hand-cuffed and taken away by two body-builder types,” testified 67-year-old Kurt Stø, who worked for the Norwegian company Ølen Betong (Ølen Concrete) in Murmansk. News bureau NTB reported how he told the court on Tuesday what happened to him on a summer day in 2015 when he was heading into his apartment in the northern Russian city.
“The guy who was the boss crushed my computer and pulled out a pistol that they held to my head,” Stø testified. “They were trying the whole time to find out what kind of contact I’d had with PST (Norway’s police intelligence unit Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste). They threatened to throw me in jail.”
Agents from the Russian intelligence and security agency FSB also showed Stø photos of a PST agent who had repeatedly contacted him in Norway and photos of his apartment back home in the northern Norwegian town of Kirkenes. Stø thus concluded that Russian intelligence has its own operations in Kirkenes.
Stø’s boss Atle Berge, who owns Ølen Betong, also had a frightening encounter with Russian agents the next spring, in May 2016, who seized him in Murmansk, took him in for questioning and “opened a suitcase and took out a huge hypodermic needle and said they were going to inject me with truth serum.” Berge claimed he’d die because of the medicine he already was taking for diabetes. Then they “packed up,” but he wasn’t set free for another six-seven hours.
Blames it all on ‘unwanted, indiscreet’ intelligence agents
Berge described the incident as “a combination of an American action film and a nightmare.” Two months later, he testified, he was banned from Russia for 10 years, and in the summer of 2017 “we got the message” that Ølen would no longer be able to move forward with “strategic samarbeid” regarding a large contract. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has reported how the company at that point had been doing business in Murmansk since 2007, when Berge first established a concrete plant there.
All the sudden trouble, Berge contends, was tied to the Russians’ belief that Ølen and its employees had begun working with Norwegian intelligence, which Berge claims he instead had consistently resisted doing. Berge has long claimed that both PST and Norway’s military intelligence unit known as E-tjenesten took “repeated, unwanted and indiscreet” contact with him and with Stø, one of his key Norwegian employees.
That’s why Berge and his company are now suing the state and demanding compensation of as much as NOK 145 million for losses incurred after losing the contract and his own ability to work in Russia any longer. It’s a landmark case, and illustrates how business connections between Russia and Norway have suffered since political tensions between the two countries rose.
Former foreign minister called to testify
Among witnesses called to testify on Tuesday was Norway’s former foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre, who now leads Norway’s Labour Party and the opposition in the Norwegian Parliament. Støre was a major promoter of good relations, both business and political, between Russia and Norway when he was foreign minister in the current NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg’s Labour-led government from 2005 until 2012. DN reported how Støre boasted of how well Atle Berge and his company had done in what can be a difficult country in which to operate. He testified that had “no problem” understanding how difficult it now was for Berge to be banned from Russia.
“Russian authorities’ choices and reactions are meant to be interpreted in a much larger context, to send signals to the world outside,” Støre testified. “This is a Russian way of operating that’s not unknown.” He noted that similar cases have occurred when other people tied to business, academia and politics are banned from the country.
Støre stressed that he had no knowledge that would enable him to comment on plaintiff Berge’s version of events, but said it was “not abnormal that our secret services contact Norwegian businesses that are exposed in other countries, especially those with which we have no security agreements,” like Russia. Støre also claimed Norway is generally well-regarded for its competence regarding Russia, and that Norway’s knowledge of Russia is valued by its allies.
Intelligence agents ‘just doing their jobs’
Defense attorneys for the state have declined extensive comment on the case, claiming that national security was at stake. Lead state attorney Fredrik Sejersted, however, has claimed that agents for PST and E-tjenesten would merely have “been doing their jobs” if they had indeed contacted Berge and any of his employees.
Sejersted represents both Norway’s justice- and defense ministries in the case, and rather described “broad assistance” from Norwegian authorities on behalf of Berge and his business interests in Russia. He claimed in his opening remarks this week that it was difficult to understand Berge’s motivation for suing the state, calling his lawsuit “an unfounded attack on vital national services.”
Frode Berg, the former retired Norwegian border inspector who claims he was “duped” into being a courier for E-tjenesten during various trips to Russia, can understand Berge’s and Ølen’s claims much better. He was called to testify on behalf of Berge on Wednesday and, after spending nearly two years in a Moscow jail, said he also understands why “folks are now reluctant to help or speak with Norwegian intelligence agents.”
Berg, recently released in a spy swap, didn’t want to draw parallels between his own case and Ølen’s, but he told NRK on Wednesday that “this is about the Norwegian secret services and the way in which they operate, among other things how E-tjenesten will use people” in local communities like Kirkenes. “It’s amateurish,” Berg claimed. He has earlier linked his own experience to “a scandal of huge proportions.”
He was asked to testify based on his first-hand experience with intelligence services both in Norway and Russia. He testified on how he’d been recruited, how he’d operated and how he’d been arrested in Moscow. He claimed that Norwegian intelligence can gladly gather information about Russia, but they should use professionals, not amateurs or those working within “people-to-people” cross-border cooperation programs.
Berg, who recently received compensation from the state, also testified that he thinks both PST and E-tjenesten have learned from mistakes made regarding his own case. “They’ve taken the consequences of things that happened,” Berg said from the witness box. He also warned that Russian intelligence agents are aware of family relations and even license plate numbers of Norwegian intelligence agency workers in Kirkenes. “They’re following other people in the city as well,” Berg claimed.
Among them is Rune Rautio, a business consultant in Kirkenes who also testified for the prosecution on Wedneday. “I’ve been under continuous surveillance of Russian intelligence,” Rautio said from the witness box, noting that Norwegians doing business in Russia are most vulnerable. “If they (Russian officials) suspect you’re working for Norwegian intelligence, you’ll lose your visa. That can be very serious for many.”
The surveillance situation in Kirkenes is so extreme, Rautio believes, that he thinks most business owners and oeprators in the town expect they’re under surveillance by at least one Norwegian or Russian agency. Others testifying, including a former E-tjenesten officer, said few will people living and working in Norway’s far northern region of Sør-Varanger that borders Russia will speak with the intelligence agencies any longer.