Scandinavia hit by US spying claims

Controversial US Embassy surveillance programme

Scandinavians are reacting with outrage at revelations that United States embassies across the region have been carrying out covert surveillance against them for more than ten years.

It has emerged that surveillance teams based not in the embassies themselves, but in properties adjacent to or overlooking the embassies, have photographed protestors and individuals deemed to be suspicious and, after identification, information on some of these individuals has at times been forwarded to local authorities.

The United States has not sought to deny the existence of the programme. It claims that any such surveillance is normal, acceptable and within the law. It also insists it has been conducted with the knowledge of local authorities.

But in Sweden, Prosecutor Tomas Lindstrand has launched an investigation into the claims that the US embassy in Stockholm has carried out surveillance against Swedish citizens without the knowledge of the government, with Swedish Justice Minister Beatrice Ask describing the issue as "very serious".

In Iceland too, the government has launched a full-scale inquiry to determine whether the programme went so far as to violate the civil rights of residents who live in the vicinity of the embassy, and the Danish government has also said it will investigate the matter if evidence emerges that the US embassy in Copenhagen has illegally taken photos of "suspicious" people outside its premises.

But reaction to the news has been strongest in Norway, where the existence of the so called Surveillance Detection Unit (SDU) was first brought to light two weeks ago during an investigation by television channel TV2.

Perhaps most troubling of all for the Norwegian government, however, is that it has since emerged that the Norwegian Police Security Service and the National Police Directorate both appear to have been aware of the program, while the government itself was not.

Norwegian Justice Minister Knut Storberget was forced to admit to parliament yesterday that during the programme's operation in Norway, the United States embassy had also recruited former Norwegian police and intelligence officers into a team comprising more than ten people.

When challenged yesterday about the extent of the programme, the American Ambassador in Norway made no attempt to avoid the issue. "We need that kind of security because a simple fence isn't enough," he said on the evening news. The embassy further insists that, "The Surveillance Detection Unit is not a secret program, nor is it an intelligence unit," and it points to the official State Department line that the programme, "emerged from the lessons of such tragic incidents as the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy bombings in 1998."

All of the United States' embassies in the region have put forward the same argument.

But the comments of a security guard in Iceland contradict their version of the story. The security guard, who declined to be named, told Icelandic media website Visir that such surveillance activity went far beyond the immediate area.

If that is so, and in the other countries too, then it may well be Oslo Police Authorities and the Norwegian Justice Minister himself who will take the most heat for the United States' activities. Opposition claims of "system failure" and of the Justice Minister "losing control" are already beginning to drown out the outcry over civil liberties intrusions.

Others argue that the Norwegian government is too soft on the USA to properly investigate the matter.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.