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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Spy scandal soils Parliament’s leader

UPDATED: The president of the Norwegian Parliament, Tone Wilhelmsen Trøen, has been subject to scathing criticism after she made sure that an embarrassing report on Norway’s military intelligence agency was kept secret. She’s supposed to champion openness, but her double vote against declassifying the report helped keep the results of a probe into the agency’s role in the Frode Berg spying scandal under wraps.

As president of the Norwegian Parliament, Tone Wilhelmsen Trøen ranks seond only to the monarch. She’s supposed to ensure openness, but opted to protect her Conservative Party’s government and its defense minister, Frank Bakke-Jensen. PHOTO: Stortinget/Benjamin A. Ward

“That’s how she defended her own (Conservative) government and Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen from more public embarrassment,” editorialized newspaper Dagsavisen last week.

In what the paper called “an undemocratic belly-flop,” Trøen’s multi-partisan leadership group at Parliament rejected a recommendation from the Parliament’s own control organ for intelligence, surveillance and security (the EOS-utvalg) that it declassify the report. When it came up for a vote in Parliament this week, her leadership group’s decision was upheld by a slim majority.

The Parliament’s own special committee on intelligence issues had also claimed the report could safely be declassified without damaging national security. It centered on how Frode Berg, a retired border inspector in the far northern town of Kirkenes, had been recruited to be a courier on espionage missions in Russia. Berg was ultimately arrested in Moscow and later sentenced to 14 years in prison before he finally was released as part of a spy swap. He later has been paid compensation for his ordeal by the Norwegian government, but to this day neither it nor Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen (responsible for military intelligence agency E-tjenesten) has admitted he’d even been recruited.

Frode Berg was literally caged, like most all other defendants in Russia, when he appeared in court in Moscow. He spent nearly two years in a Russian prison after being arrested on espionage charges. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

‘Unparalled fiasco’
The entire Frode Berg saga has been called an “unparalleled fiasco” in Norwegian history, and a huge scandal. Now commentators claim Trøen has made it worse by essentially covering up the report on it by her own Parliament. There’s no doubt its contents would further shame her political colleague, Bakke-Jensen, and Norwegian intelligence over how they handled Berg.

It’s also widely believed that release of the report  would compromise Norwegian allies, most likely the US. They’re believed to have been most keen about gaining information about Russian nuclear submarines that Berg was caught carrying during what he initially claimed was a holiday weekend in Moscow.

Dagsavisen claimed it was “absurd” that those who since have been subject to harsh criticism (Bakke-Jensen and his ministry’s intelligence agency) should be allowed to decide over that criticism should be made public.

Harald Stanghelle, commentator in newspaper Aftenposten, went so far as to accuse Trøen of “bowing to the demand for secrecy from a ministry that wants to keep the criticism about it secret.” Even though responsibility for the Frode Berg spy scandal lies first and foremost with the military intelligence chiefs themselves (who have since retired or been moved), Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) has reported that such operations on Russian territory must be anchored in the defense ministry’s political leaership, in this case Bakke-Jensen.

Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen has been in quite a bit of trouble lately, not least over the Frode Berg spy scandal. He’s also been caught up in the collision and sinking of a Norwegian frigate, of failing to sound alarms over the sale of defense contractor Bergen Engines to Russian interests, and for allowing US nuclear submarines to dock not far from Tromsø. He has also controversially secured a lucrative post as head of Norway’s fisheries directorate when his term as defense minister ends. PHOTO: Forsvaret

“The parliament’s president (second only to the monarch in Norway) has chosen not to rely on the parliament’s own control commission’s evaluation,” wrote Stanghelle. That, he added, “brings the national assembly to its knees” when up against the government power it’s supposed to be controlling. “That’s a sorry sight,” Stanghelle wrote.

Not even Berg himself has been allowed to read even a summary of the report on his own ordeal. NRK has reported that military intelligence was criticized mostly for using him in its Russian spying activity, and never telling him what he was getting himself involved in. It’s also believed that the military intelligence agents operating in the Kirkenes area pressured him into carrying envelopes full of cash into Russia, and sending money and documents through the Russian postal system. Questions have already arisen over whether the botched Berg operation is why Norwegian defense leaders are so eager to please the Americans now, letting them set up their own operations at Norwegian bases and allowing American nuclear submarines to controversially dock near Tromsø.

The Reds Party leader Bjørnar Moxnes has already warned that if, as expected, left-center parties win government power this fall, he will launch a new effort to declassify the report on the Frode Berg scandal. “All the parties to the left of the government support declassifying it, and there are all indications they’ll win a majority in Parliament this fall,” Moxnes told NRK on Thursday.

Trøen herself initially stayed mum and didn’t responded to the criticism of her in Norwegian media. She later confirmed that a group meeting in her Conservative party had proposed an exception in a new civil ombud law that gives the government an opportunity to deny insight into “government memos or documents” tied to a certain case. The Progress Party backed that. When questioned by newspaper Klassekampen, she wouldn’t say whether she was pressured by her own party’s government to limit insight in the Frode Berg case.

Her term as president of the Parliament is likely to end after the September election, which the Conservatives-led government looks likely to lose, given a string of public opinion polls so far this year. Berglund



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