Holding Undercover Cops Accountable at Home and Abroad: Examples from the UK; Lessons for Norway

by Reidar Visser

To the left, Eirik Jensen and Tom Østreng of the SO department of the Oslo police in 2007. What were their units up to in the first half of 2011?

Across the democratic world, a new accountability problem relating to the police is evolving: How can one best rein in the myriad of new police units that perform “undercover” operations, often of an illegal nature, in the name of a shadowy fight against a vague category of evil referred to as  “organised crime”?

Unlike the traditional secret police – which in most democratic countries is recognised as a serious  threat to democracy that should be monitored by independent institutions – supposedly “non-political” secret police has mushroomed in recent decades with references to the need to combat “organised crime” but with zero democratic oversight. Since these new police units are not spies in the traditional sense, they are not covered by traditional oversight mechanisms relating to the secret services. For their part, traditional “independent” police commissions appear to have very little knowledge about how the organised crime unit units work and what exactly they are doing, for example when they use “disruption” as an alternative to prosecution. Such independent police commissions can perhaps deal with things like deaths in custody or injuries when someone is apprehended by the police. But they appear almost paralysed in the face of the challenge of “untraditional” police methods such as conspicuous surveillance and police stalking.

New police methods frequently used for “disruption” involve systematic violations of basic human rights like habeas corpus, the presumption of innocence and the principle of legality. In countries that adhere to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Punishment or Treatment (1984), many aspects of these police methods are deeply illegal according to anti-torture legislation in force. In fact, in terms of potential jail sentences, police officers who engage in harassment operations that constitute degrading punishment are in many jurisdictions in exactly the same category as murderers  of the worst sort. And yet, these criminal police officers often continue to operate and go unpunished; in some countries they even make careers in the state bureaucracy.

In a post-communist process of globalisation that combines the worst of two worlds – NYPD repression techniques meet those of  Eastern Germany’s Stasi – these shadowy “organised crime” outfits continue to grow in monstrosity as sophisticated technological developments enable ever more invasive illegal operations against innocent citizens. There is, in other words, a serious and acute accountability gap relating to modern policing in the Western world. Thankfully though, at least in some democratic countries, the free press, activists or individual politicians have the courage to ask questions about police criminality on the rise. In Canada, the Star newspaper has brought attention to the widespread practice of undercover police lying in court, prompting a change in the ways courts deal with these cases. In New Zealand, the controversy around the Dotcom case has given rise to increased focus on at least some of the illegalities of undercover police more generally, including the agency for fighting organised crime (OFCANZ). And in the UK, a Green representative in the London city council, Jenny Jones, has recently presented an elaborate list of queries regarding the Metropolitan police’s undercover operations, with particular emphasis on their conduct abroad.

The efforts of Jenny Jones in London are particularly interesting because they constitute a possible paradigm of action that brave parliamentarians in other countries could emulate. Here is what Jones asked:

Similar questions should be asked in relation to Norway. In Norway, the organised crime section of the Oslo police has  some of Europe’s worst state-sponsored human rights criminals on its payroll, and a budget half the size of the entire Norwegian secret police. But there is zero oversight. With impunity, these  fascist thugs commit human rights crimes at home and abroad, give presentations in academic forums such as the University of Oslo, and even publicly rub shoulders with high-ranking Labour politicians and government ministers. I have myself experienced more than 600 days of persecution, harassment and torture at the hands of these criminal types. My case, in turn, is connected to the wider failure of Norwegian police intelligence in the months immediately before the Oslo and Utøya terror attacks on 22 July 2011, which killed almost 100 Norwegians. In a well-working police system, the intelligence branch within the Oslo organised crime section headed by Hege Naustdal would have detected Anders Behring Breivik for his radical internet writings and then alerted the special undercover branch, Spesielle Operasjoner headed by Eirik Jensen. This never happened. Instead, resources and manpower from these units were diverted to the illegal operation against me in the UK, US, Canada, Qatar, Jordan, Italy, France and the Netherlands during the months between March and July 2011 – exactly when they should have been keeping tabs on the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik.

In Norway, there is no local-level parallel to the powerful London council with an ability to supervise the police. Instead, the Oslo police receives its funding directly from the Norwegian parliament, and it is parliamentarians (or the free press) that must ask critical questions regarding the Oslo police.

Here are the questions related to the Oslo police that the Norwegian director of the police and the Norwegian minister of justice should be asked as a matter of urgency:

What was the undercover intelligence branch within the organised crime section headed by Hege Naustdal doing in the period August 2010-May 2011, and why did it fail to detect Breivik when it had a specific duty to keep tabs on political extremism?

How many hours were spent by the SO unit headed by Eirik Jensen and Tom Østreng in disruption/conspicuous surveillance operations around Bislett and CJ Hambros Plass in the period between February and March 2011?

Were personnel in the Stop unit headed by Harald Bøhler at any point involved in operations unrelated to prostitution during the course of 2011?

What where personnel of the SO unit doing abroad in the period March-May 2011?

How many Norwegian police officers in total arrived at Newark airport in the afternoon on 25 March 2011?

What were those same officers doing in the small town of Princeton, NJ in the period 26-30 March 2011?

Why was a high-ranking officer of the Oslo police inside the Library of Congress special collections of newspapers in Washington, DC on 1 April 2011?

What was a Norwegian police officer doing aboard flight UA 917 from Washington Dulles to Seattle on 26 April 2011?

How many Norwegian police officers in total were in Seattle, WA between 26 April and 3 May 2011?

How many Norwegian police officers were aboard flight QR 52 from Washington DC to Doha, Qatar on 7 May 2011?

What were Norwegian police officers doing inside the guarded conference area of “Enriching the Middle East’s Economic Future” at the Sheraton hotel in Doha, Qatar between 8 and 10 May 2011?

How many Norwegian police officers visited the small Dutch coastal town of Noordwijk during the course of 2011?

Why did not the official police evaluation after the 22 July terror attacks address the complete intelligence failure of the organised crime section of the Oslo police?

What did the Oslo police chief, the director of Norwegian police, the chief of Kripos, the head of the police section at the ministry of justice, and the minister of justice know about the above travel activity during the course of 2011?

How many million Norwegian kroner in total were spent on these travel activities in 2011?

Why was there Norwegian police in the business class cabin on flight KL 807 from Amsterdam to Taipei (Taiwan) on 15 July 2012, travelling on tickets that came at a price of EUR 3,000 a piece?

I have in my previous writings put forward very serious charges against the Norwegian police. I am basically contending that Norway does not deserve its excellent human rights reputation and that the unchecked influence of the organised crime section of the Oslo police in particular gives the country certain semi-authoritarian and police-state characteristics. Wouldn’t it have been great if Norwegian police could provide clear and public answers to the above questions instead of having to whisper and cast slurs on my mental health and sexual orientation? Is the silence of the Oslo police, the police directorate and the minister of justice simply caused by the fact that they cannot provide those answers without lying in public?

If brave Norwegians parliamentarians could emulate the example of Jenny Jones in London, perhaps also the Norwegian rule of law system can be rescued from new and totalitarian forms of policing.