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.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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