In Denial: Norwegian Police Fails to Respond to Barrage of Criticism in 22 July Report

by Reidar Visser

The independent commission report on government failures related to the 22 July terror attacks in Norway turned out to be more outspoken and thorough than many had expected.

Alas, the problem is that one of the main targets of criticism in the report, the Norwegian police, shows every sign of perpetuating its state of denial even several days after the hard facts were published. So far, the director of the police, Øystein Mæland, keeps coming back to a sentence that seems to be something of a mantra for him, namely that everyone in the Norwegian police “did their best” on 22 July. And that, apparently, is considered sufficient to dismiss any suggestion that he and other leading figures in the Norwegian police should start looking for new jobs.

This remarkably naïve stance by the director of the police is worrying for several reasons. Above all, it indicates a failure on the part of Mæland to realise that much of the incompetence of the police in the 22 July case relates to structural problems rather than to split-second decisions on the day of the disaster (when indeed many foot soldiers may have done ”their best” under adverse circumstances). Structural problems go deeper and further back in time, which is why it would be such a tragic end to this saga if the casualties during the organisational clean­-up were limited to the local police chief of Northern Buskerud (where the Utøya atrocity took place and where most of the nuts and bolts problems arose on the day of the attacks).

Far more important than the actions taken on the day of the attacks is the role of the former director of police, Ingelin Killengreen, who served as Norway’s first police directorate head during eleven years from 2000 until 1 April 2011. During that period, she basically designed a national police system completely unfit to detect and deal with a case of extreme right-wing terrorism. Just 4 months before the 22 July attacks, Killengreen left the police directorate for a top job at the ministry of renewal, administration and church affairs. The 22 July independent report should form a very suitable occasion for permanently removing her from high public office – action that would in fact be considered long overdue in the eyes of many. Killengreen’s incompetence was on prominent display as early as in 1996 when she was police chief in Oslo and infamously allowed a Chinese visiting delegation to essentially decide the rules for how to handle peaceful demonstrators protesting the visit.

As for Mæland himself, he may well escape censure for his actions on the day of the attack given the fact that he had barely taken up his position in the police directorate when all hell broke loose. However, his narrow-minded approach in defending the actions of the police even in the face of massive evidence of widespread incompetence is now in itself becoming a liability for the police. What Mæland has done in terms of unhelpful cover-up attempts during the year that has passed since 22 July 2011 increasingly constitutes an independent rationale for getting rid of him as well alongside Killengreen. Add to that the fact that Mæland remains nominally responsible for a scandal that is even bigger than what the 22 July commission revealed: The fact that the Oslo police, who is supposed to support the secret service with Oslo-related surveillance and undercover activity, was unable to offer much assistance during the months leading up to the 22 July attacks because several leading officers were busy travelling the world in an illegal and extra-judicial punishment operation targeting a chronically ill academic and photographer. The operation still goes on overseas today.

Only by juxtaposing the paralysis of the Norwegian secret services with the unsupervised and often criminal antics of the organised crime unit of the Oslo police, is it possible to appreciate the real depth of structural crisis in the Norwegian police today. In a tragicomic reflection of this case, it seems the Norwegian secret services were so hamstrung after the Lund commission had dealt with its Cold War surveillance techniques in 1996 that by late 2010 they hardly dared take note of a terror suspect in fear of violating privacy and due process requirements. Conversely, the organised crime unit of the Oslo police has been given carte blanche by Killengreen and Labour politicians to break every law in their extra-legal harassment of perceived enemies in and around Oslo, often to the point where they get so involved in their illegal activities that they are unable to offer the secret services the assistance they are supposed to provide. Jail rather than dismissals is probably the solution here: Instead of sacking operational staff who at least tried to do their job in a legal way on 22 July, prosecuting officers in the organised crime unit who systematically engage in human rights violations and thereby destroy the work of honest police officers may be the best way to rectify problems in the Norwegian police that came to the fore on 22 July. Until these people are safely behind bars, they will continue to constitute a grave threat to the rule of law and democracy in Norway.

Unfortunately, comments yesterday by Johnny Nauste, a leading police union figure, encapsulate the haplessness of the Norwegian police in dealing with the latest flurry of criticism. In Nauste’s view, apparently the current police director should not be dismissed because he had just been on the jobs for a few weeks, whereas the former director should not be dismissed because she was not on the job the day of the attacks!