Norway’s police intelligence agency PST has been officially criticized for registering Members of Parliament (MPs) simply because they also were members of various parliamentary groups aimed at promoting friendship with specific countries. Now the MPs themselves are being urged to be more open about the friendship groups and their membership lists.
Newspaper VG reported this week about the criticism from the Parliament’s own Oversight Committee responsible for monitoring the country’s secret services, known as the EOS-utvalg. The committee claims PST had no business registering Members of Parliament (MPs) simply because they were members of various parliamentary groups aimed at promoting friendship with specific countries.
“The committe has concluded that the registrations were clearly unreasonable and that PST deserved a reprimand,” the EOS-committee wrote in its annual report to Parliament. “Being a member of a friendship group cannot on its own provide reason for registration by PST.” (EOS
The report from EOS, which stands for Etterretning- (Intelligence-), Overvåking- (Surveillance-) and Sikkerthetstjeneste (Security service), noted that MPs registered represent the entire political spectrum in Parliament and were not being kept track of because of their party politics. Nor were any of those registered subjected to any special surveillance by PST.
The Oversight Committee nonetheless reacted because of the “chilling effect” such registration, tied to political activity, can have on an independent democracy such as Norway’s. That in turn, according to the committee, “can have consequences for the entire society.”
‘Not formally organized’
Newspaper Aftenposten reported that the Parliament has 14 “friendship groups” to promote contact with other countries. They have included Germany, the US, Estonia, Romania, Vietnam, Palestine, Taiwan and Israel over the years, with MP Jørund Rytman of the Progress Party once noting that they’re “not formally organized” by the Parliament but important for promoting trade and good relations.
It was the Norwegian-Russian friendship group that seemed to most spark PST’s interest. Neither the Oversight Committee nor PST would identify which country was involved in the EOS criticism, but VG reported Wednesday that PST contacted the leader of the Norsk-Russisk Venneforening, MP Runar Sjåstad of the Labour Party, last fall.
Sjåstad told VG that PST offered to have a meeting with the group to explain how foreign intelligence agencies operate in Norway. “We invited all the MPs and employees of the Parliament,” Sjåstad said, “but the meeting had to be postponed and nothing has come of it.”
Asked what he thinks about PST’s practice of registering the group’s members, Sjåstad replied that “it could well be me who sent the membership list to PST, when we were preparing for the meeting.”
EOS’ report to Parliament notes that PST had initially defended its practice as being important to maintain, claiming that foreign intelligence agencies had special interest in the Parliament’s friendship groups. PST believed it was important to make members aware of that, and that registering them was part of PST’s “preventive work” to protect MPs from being targets of foreign intelligence gathering efforts.
The Oversight Committee disagreed, and wrote that PST has since deleted all its registrations and would “change practice” from now on. That satisfied the committee.
Not all MPs were equally satisfied, with MP Torgeir Knag Fylkesnes of the Socialist Left party (SV) demanding full insight into what information PST may have collected on him. “It’s completely ridiculous that PST has registered members of a friendship group,” Fylkenes told VG. “Are they out of control again?”
Fylkenes said he’s been a member of the Norwegian-Russian friendship group since its founding in early 2014. It wasn’t long after that, however, that Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, leading to tensions that in turn has left the group relatively inactive even though the Russian Embassy in Oslo reportedly had worked hard to set it up.
MP Ulf Lierstein, formerly of the Progress Party but now an independent MP since a sex scandal in 2018, told VG he was “completely shocked” to hear “what PST was up to,” and how they responded to “completely normal political contact activities.”
A PST spokesman sent a message to VG noting that PST “took the criticism from the Oversight Committee seriously,” and had “corrected” its operations in line with the committee’s report to Parliament.
Aftenposten noted, meanwhile, that the president of the Parliament, Tone Wilhelmsen Trøen, supported the Oversight Committee’s conclusion, adding that “casting suspicion over these (friendship) groups or their members in general is damaging for important people-to-people cooperation.”
The newspaper editorialized on Thursday, however, that the Parliament should also publish a list of all its friendship groups along with all their members. That would make the information easily accessible for both PST and the public at large.
“It shouldn’t be either secret or suspicious for an MP to be a friend,” Aftenposten wrote.