Intelligence Failures and Police Incompetence in Norway’s 22 July 2011 Terror Attacks: The Independent Commission Report

by Reidar Visser

[Also available in Norwegian/norsk tekst her:]

It should be said at the outset that the government-appointed but theoretically “independent” commission looking into the 22 July atrocities in Norway last year in many ways has performed better than expected. Their report, published today, is not a whitewash as far as government agency responsibilities for mistakes during the run-up to the 22 July attacks and the aftermath are concerned. Even some friends of the Labour-led government in leading positions in police and intelligence apparatus face a degree of criticism for their actions, at least implicitly.

Most of the chapters in the report relate to split-second decisions on 22 July 2011 and the state of preparedness of various government agencies with respect to emergency and disaster management. While instances of human error are important to clarify, they are of limited significance to the bigger question of whether the attack could have been prevented in the first place. That question, in turn, is addressed in the report mainly in chapter 16, dealing with the secret service of the Norwegian police (PST).

Perhaps the most interesting aspect in this regard is the marked contrast between today’s independent report and the internal report of the PST published earlier this year – which generally exonerated the police with respect to the question of whether it could have detected the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik or not. Whereas the independent report is diplomatic in its language in the concluding chapter, the way it coolly describes the actions of the PST in dealing with tipoffs about Breivik’s purchases of chemicals from Poland in practice amounts to a rather scathing criticism.

What today’s report clarifies is that for months, the tipoff about Breivik in December 2010 was left to languish in a bureaucratic vacuum as secret service officials were unable to agree whose jurisdiction it belonged to. When the turf war finally ended in April 2011, the official who was handed the Breivik-related report from the customs authorities relating to purchases of chemicals lackadaisically declared it was time to go on holiday. By the time the bombs exploded on 22 July, he had yet to look at the report in greater detail.

Unlike the internal PST report, which tried to use counterfactual methods to suggest that even if Breivik had been followed up from the first tipoff in December 2010 he wouldn’t have been detected, the independent report goes far in arguing that by simply following the guidelines from the Global Shield project which produced the tipoff, PST could have identified Breivik as suspicious. Without spelling it out completely, the report hints at a secret service that is narrow-minded and unable to see the big picture.

While the independent commission should be commended for looking at the performance of the PST from a truly fresh perspective, the report at the same time leaves out a very big elephant, or rather mammoth, in its assessment of responsibilities and guilt in the sprawling house that is the Norwegian police. There is hardly any mention of the role of the big organised crime unit of the Oslo police – a shadowy entity that specialises in so-called “untraditional” police methods.

This omission is surprising, because the organised crime unit of the Oslo police is relevant to the work of the PST in two ways. Firstly, the organised crime unit is supposed to do intelligence work on political extremism on its own. Strangely, the independent commission report confirms the existence of an political extremism intelligence branch within the organised crime unit of the Oslo police in chapter 16, but without asking why it never took any interest in Anders Behring Breivik! Breivik, who lived in Oslo for most of 2010 and 2011, had in 2010 referred to former prime minister Gro Brundtland as “murderer of the nation” in an open internet discussion forum, which in itself should make alarm clocks go off in a fine-tuned intelligence branch.

Secondly, the PST relies on the organised crime unit of the Oslo police for some of its undercover work. To appreciate just how intertwined the PST and the Oslo police are, consider this Wikileaks cable from November 2009 concerning US concerns about Norway’s ability to effectively keep tabs on suspected Al-Qaida cells. In a report that encapsulates the problem, US officers describe how in the midst of an on-going operation against suspected al-Qaida surveillance is discontinued for 2 weeks because a unit involved from the Oslo police, almost certainly the organised crime unit, is pulled away from the project to work on a Serbian crime case instead. In plain English, the US assessment of the affair is that the Norwegian police is simply not up to it in terms of counter-terrorism policing.

During the spring of 2011, rather than assisting PST with tipoffs or offering undercover capacity that perhaps could have prompted a more proactive approach to the December 2010 tipoffs, the organised crime unit was busy harassing an academic and photographer abroad in a spending spree where Norwegian taxpayer money was wasted on business class air tickets, luxury hotels and expensive rental cars. It is fair to say that exactly like the situation in 2009 exposed by Wikileaks, the narrow priorities of the organised crime unit related to perceived problems at the very local level in the streets of Oslo had interfered with its ability to offer PST maximum support.

This underlying, structural problem in Norway’s national security architecture is not addressed in the commission report today. Nor does the commission make what would have been a very logical recommendation: To strip the hapless, myopic and sometimes incompetent Oslo police of intelligence tasks of national significance for which they are simply not intellectually and analytically equipped, and instead put those tasks in the hands of truly national units that are capable of rising above the narrow priorities of big-city policing of Oslo and focus on issues and problems that truly matter to Norway’s national security. The current dualism of the tasks of the Oslo police, part big-city policing, part national security tasks, does not work and probably cannot work. Of course, such a bold course would effectively imply criticism of the dangerous kind – a damning verdict on the 10 years in office of Norway’s first director of police, Ingelin Killengreen, who is well connected with the Labour party. It could have implied that the Labour party brought the 22 July disaster on itself by letting Killengreen build a police force structurally unfit for the challenges posed by modern terrorism. Maybe that would have been too much, even for an independent commission.