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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder