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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.