NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s military intelligence agency known as E-tjenesten has reportedly been rebuked by the Parliamentary commission (EOS) that oversees its activities. The government is intent on keeping EOS’ latest report on the agency’s spying activity secret, though, leading many to wonder what the agency, the military and the government have to hide.
EOS’ long-awaited report has examined E-tjenesten‘s botched recruitment of a retired border inspector in Kirkenes, Frode Berg, to carry out intelligence gathering activity in Russia. Berg has already claimed he felt pressured by E-tjenesten’s recruiting agent into agreeing to travel in and out of Russia serving mostly as a courier. He was famously arrested in Moscow in December 2017, later convicted of espionage and spent two years in a Russian prison before finally being released in a spy swap with the help of Lithuanian officials.
Berg testified all along that he felt misused, and his family in Kirkenes claimed he was “cast to the wolves” by the Norwegian intelligence agency. It was all eventually dubbed “a scandal of huge proportions.” Parliament wanted an investigation by EOS and it ended up examining the Frode Berg case at its own initiative, the results of which have been kept under wraps since the report was completed in late February.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), whose Moscow correspondent at the time of Berg’s arrest followed the case closely, reported this week that EOS is “extremely” critical of how E-tjenesten handled the Berg case. Norway’s military intelligence agency is also suspected of having carried it all out in cooperation with US, NATO or individual allies’ intelligence agencies. The major reason for keeping EOS’ report classified, according to Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen of the Conservative Party, is “national security” but he may not want to reveal NATO allies’ involvement. Berg has told NRK that he’s not surprised his missions into Russia “were part of a bigger operation. I understood that early, while under arrest in Moscow. There was steadily talk about another country also.” Asked whether it was the US, said “yes, it was, but I didn’t know anything about that.”
Bakke-Jensen wrote in a letter to Parliament last month that the decision to classify EOS’ report was made in consideration of “international intelligence cooperation.” Bakke-Jensen and Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, Bakke-Jensen’s prececessor as defense minister, both claim that EOS’ report could damage national security if its contents were revealed.
EOS itself disagrees, as does the opposition in Parliament and Norwegian media outlets, which keep calling for openness. Newspaper Dagsavisen has branded the “classified” stamp on the Berg report as “absurd:” Everyone now knows, the paper argued, that Berg was recruited by E-tjenesten, that the Norwegian government paid for his defense during his trial in Russia, arranged for his pardon and release through the spy swap and even paid out cash compensation to Berg after he was finally back home in Norway. Aftenposten’s commentator Harald Stanghelle has also repeatedly questioned the basis for the secrecy. “Is it more important to cover up the defense ministry’s stupidity (it has political responsibility for the military intelligence agency) than to secure openness and EOS’ authority?” Stanghelle questioned in a commentary last week.
NRK reveals report’s criticism
EOS informed Parliament on February 25 that its report was finished but that it had been stamped the equivalent of “Top Secret” by the Defense Ministry, setting off all the complaints. NRK reported Wednesday, meanwhile, that the report strongly criticizes how E-tjenesten opted to recruit Berg to such a potentially dangerous courier operation with virtually no information about what it involved.
Berg wasn’t informed about the risks of traveling into Russia and putting cash, memory sticks and messages into the Russian postal system to someone whom Norway’s intelligence agency thought was a good contact at a shipyard in Severodvinsk. EOS also believes E-tjenesten pressured Berg into working for it. Berg himself has claimed the Norwegian man in Northern Norway who first recruited him claimed Berg wouldn’t be a “good Norwegian” if he declined the job.
NRK reports that EOS has concluded that its criticism of E-tjenesten must be characterized as serious and that E-tjenesten itself behaved in a manner that could harm Norwegian society. That, NRK reported, is among the strongest criticism EOS can issue against an agency that’s already been humiliated.
Defense minister protects embarrassed intelligence agency
Bakke-Jensen, who’s also been under fire over a series of other defense blunders recently including the sinking of the frigate Helge Ingstad, continues to claim that “national security comes first.” He still won’t declassify EOS’ report, claiming E-tjenesten must be able to protect its sources, capacity and methods. That’s also why, according to Bakke-Jensen, the defense establishment will never confirm or deny who’s working for it or what their assignments are.
The defense minister admitted in a commentary published in Aftenposten last month that it’s difficult to balance the needs for openness and security: “We must keep the (intelligence service’s) operations confidential, at the same time the public must have confidence that they’re operating within the framework they’ve been given, and that there’s democratic control over the operations.”
It’s that “confidence” that’s now wearing very thin. There’s little doubt that E-tjenesten messed up badly in the Frode Berg case. Berg has received cash compensation for his ordeal and was granted a meeting last week with Bakke-Jensen, but not even he or his lawyer have been allowed to see EOS’ report. Only after Parliament demanded to see the report were members of a special committee formed to deal with the issue allowed to read it. A closed hearing with both Bakke-Jensen and Foreign Minister Søreide was held last week.
Berg himself thus hasn’t been allowed to read for himself what EOS thought about E-tjenesten’s recruitment that led to his imprisonment in Russia. He wasn’t “cleared” for such information, claims the ministry.
Progress Party backs government’s secrecy
NRK reported that EOS thinks responsibility for the Frode Berg scandal lies first and foremost with those who led E-tjenesten at the time, but that his type of assignment must have been anchored all the way up to the political leadership of the ministry, implicating both Bakke-Jensen and Søreide. It’s ultimately up to a majority in Parliament to decide whether EOS’ report should be made public, and now Bakke-Jensen and the rest of the government seem likely to win support from their former partner, the conservative Progress Party.
“We have discussed this … and we’ll vote against release of the report,” Solveig Horne, the Progress Party’s representative on the Parliament’s disciplinary committee told NRK this week. She claimed it would, in principle, be “unfortunate” for Parliament to overrule both E-tjenesten and the defense ministry.
That has left Frode Berg’s attorney, Brynjulf Risnes, wondering what the government is trying to hide. “It suddenly looks as though all the government parties plus the Progress Party are in favour of the secrecy,” Risnes wrote on social media this week. “Who or what are they hiding here?”