Frigate loss didn’t hurt Navy chief

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He led Norway’s naval defense when naval officers on board one of the country’s five frigates collided with a tanker in 2018 and later had to be scrapped. The frigate disaster hasn’t seemed to hurt the career of Vice-Admiral Nils Andreas Stensønes, though, after he was promoted and appointed as the new chief of Norway’s military intelligence unit.

Rear admiral Nils Andreas Stensønes has been promoted to vice admiral and appointed as the new chief of Norway’s military intelligence unit E-tjenesten, just two years after the loss of one of the Navy’s five frigates on his watch. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Jakob Østheim

The surprise appointment was announced last Friday, a day often used by government and business officials to release potentially controversial news. Stensønes’ appointment didn’t get much media coverage, but it did raise eyebrows and sparked some questions.

Stensønes himself told news bureau NTB that he gladly would have been without the collision on his watch, which was an embarrassment for the Navy, a major loss for Norway’s and NATO’s naval defense, and hugely expensive for Norwegian taxpayers. The 56-year-old naval officer, however, claims he “learned a lot” from the frigate drama.

“When an accident happens, I’m most concerned about taking care of our people first,” Stensønes, who was among military brass shielding those on board the frigate, told NTB. “Then it’s to learn as much as possible from such an accident, and keep doing your job even though you also have to handle the aftermath.”

While some frustrated Norwegian military and ex-military officials blasted how the frigate’s crew was “taken care of” and cited a lack of strong leadership and consequences for those directly involved, there are indications that the frigate disaster boosted Stensønes’ career instead of ruining it. New Defense Chief Eirik Kristoffersen told NTB that Stensønes’ handling of the frigate disaster was “a plus” precisely because he “focused on taking care of those involved” and avoided “falling into the trap of beginning to speculate on the cause of the accident. In addition he was very open about everything he could be open about.”

Defense Minister Frank Bakke Jensen announced Stensønes’ appointment, calling him good at crisis management. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Defense Minister Frank Bakke Jensen also thinks Stensønes “did a very good job as leader of the Navy during the crisis with the (frigate) Helge Ingstad.” Bakke Jensen, who grew frustrated himself over all the questions raised after the frigate accident, told NTB that the frigate drama also highlighted Stensønes’ crisis management ability.

That may be a good thing to have in his new job as head of the military intelligence agency Etterretningstjenesten, popularly known as E-tjenesten. It’s also had more than its share of embarrassment in the past few years, after a retired border patrol agent who’d been recruited to be a courier in Russia was arrested and jailed in Moscow. The spying snafu led to a crisis that finally was resolved in late 2018 with a spy swap. E-tjenesten’s boss at the time, Morten Haga Lunde, is now retiring.

Asked how Stensønes plans to restore confidence in what’s widely viewed as Norway’s spying agency abroad, Stensønes said he intended to be as “open” as he can and make sure “we deliver good evaluations and facts.” He’ll also need to implement a controversial new intelligence law approved by Parliament last spring that gives E-tjenesten the power to gather and store metadata about Norwegians’ internet traffic over the country’s borders.

Stensønes is a navy veteran who has worked his way up the ranks within Norwegian defense since 1983. He’s also been chief of operations at the military’s operative headquarters. His career has given him broad experience and he was deemed best qualified of all candidates.

“Nils Andreas Stensønes is the right person for this important job,” claims Kristoffersen, who just took over his own new top job after the summer holidays. “Good intelligence is a needed for very much of what we do in the defense department.”

Stensønes grew up in Sandefjord and now lives with his family in Bergen, where the Navy is based. NTB reported that he doesn’t intend to move to Oslo, even though that’s where his new job will be based, at E-tjenesten’s headquarters at Lutvann, on the border to the capital’s eastern forest of Østmarka.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund