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Posted at 11:55 AM ET, 11/17/2010

Scandinavian protests over U.S. embassy security just politics, ex-counterterrorism official says

By Jeff Stein

Fred Burton, a former top State Department security official, has suggested that the recent howls of outrage from Norwegian and other Scandinavian officials about U.S. embassy security measures were misdirected.

“It’s been my experience when you see these kinds of media flaps over events such as this, there’s probably a high degree of politics behind-the-scenes or turf issues, meaning the national [security] services know what the U.S. embassy is doing but perhaps a local prosecutor doesn’t."

Thus "the root cause" of the furor, said Burton, a former deputy chief of the Diplomatic Security Service's counterterrorism division, was likely "turf or politics."

Norwegian officials have reacted with claims of “shock” and “scandal” following an Oslo television report that the American embassy had conducted “secret surveillance of hundreds of Norwegians over the past 10 years.”

TV-2, the country's largest commercial station, alleged on Nov. 4 that the embassy's “Surveillance Detection Unit” had as many as 20 persons, "including retired Norwegian police and former military and intelligence experts," working for it.

The surveillance allegedly included “taking pictures of street demonstrations and of people deemed security risks,” according to the Associated Press.

A Conservative Party member of the Norwegian parliament’s justice committee called the report “frightening.” The government announced it was opening an investigation.

Similar reports and expressions of outrage have arisen in Sweden and Iceland, which also announced they were opening probes of U.S. embassy security measures.

Denmark stopped short of launching its own investigation, saying it was making inquiries with the U.S. government first.

According to Burton, American embassies began taking more proactive surveillance measures after the 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

“[T]he mission became one of looking for the pre-operational terrorist behavior before the terrorists were allowed to strike,” he said in a videotape presentation for Stratfor, the global intelligence firm where he is vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security.

“The surveillance detection teams take place with the full knowledge and consent of the host government,” he maintained. In fact, he added, U.S. embassies work in tandem with local security officials.

“Remember, it is the host government’s responsibility to protect that resident diplomatic official or building, in this case the U.S. Embassy,” he said.

“The embassy surveillance detection teams are placed in and around the U.S. embassy looking for suspicious behavior with a laser-like focus on terrorist, pre-operational surveillance. And their whole desire is to look at that behavior early enough in the attack cycle so the local authorities can be brought into the loop to investigate what the surveillance detection teams see.”

But the Nordic furor shows little sign of fading anytime soon, prompting some U.S. officials to try to calm local citizens personally.

The American ambassador to Iceland, Luis Arreaga, told Iceland’s National Broadcasting Service that no espionage is involved in protecting the embassy.

"If an employee of ours sees that there is a person who goes back and forth two or four times, that looks pretty suspicious to us," he said. "If we see that and we think it is significant, we immediately call the local authorities and say, 'Look, we have observed the following, would you please follow up?' And that's it. We don't follow people. We don't do anything that would not be respectful of Icelandic citizens."

By Jeff Stein  | November 17, 2010; 11:55 AM ET
Categories:  Foreign policy, Intelligence  | Tags:  Fred Burton, Strafor  
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Comments

My belief! Expell all Americans from all countries before it is too late! America is Fascist in all but name, the only thing missing is Benito or Adolf!

Posted by: CHAOTICIAN101 | November 17, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

bush and cheney really f-d up the world... their paranoia overwhelmed any commonsense approach to what is really police work not intelligence work.

the notion that an alarm will go off the instant some intelligence asset or system "detects" a threat is something of fiction developed in the minds of highly paranoid maybe even schizophrenic people.

i say put humpty-dumpty back together again pre-9/11 and dismiss all these "counter-terrorism" experts, because there are really none

at best catching terrorism as it is unfolding is at best NP-complete

Posted by: FranknErnest | November 17, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

The US spies on Sweden because the operatives it hires provide nice pictures of Ursula Andress types who might merit "further investigation" culminating in some properly shaken gin and woohoo. That is so much more congenial and less lethal than appointment to the Afghan-Pak border. After all, who can prove that Sweden isn't harboring something dangerous. No doubt, the Stockholm DSS writes up lengthy reports of each event or sighting that (if you try hard enough) might be made to seem suspicious. They'll write up UFO reports, too, if they lead to bonus and promotion. Anything, puleez, other than to be sent to work in the nasty places where the terrorists really operate.

Posted by: jkoch2 | November 17, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

There is far more to this issue than what this article eludes to. Yes, the RSO did probably notify local authorities of the SDUs intentions, even if he cannot himself remember doing so, the paper does exist and internal memos of the local police authority does reference it. This is not turf wars, this is not politics, this is not necissarily host country squabbles. The RSO failed to inform the justice department or the political leadership as a whole about deploying an intelligence team outside the fences of the embassy. They did however notify the police authorities which, to their mistake, did not notify their political masters. They kept it internal. It was never revealed to relevant justice officials, and ultimately the justice minister. This is what happened.

Now, the mistake on the part of the embassy is simple enough to understand. They should have gone through proper, diplomatic channels to seek approval for the deployment of a intelligence gathering team outside of the embassy' perimiter. This I believe is a given. What they do inside their own walls is mostly their own business, but once they go outside and manage entire intelligence operations from an off-site location, that is not right.

Furthermore, the SDU did not just document strange behaving people around the embassy, they went out of their way to photograph people and events, as they did during a few different political demonstrations in the capitol.

Time and time again did local law enforcement make notes about SDU activities, and more than once did they find them on the very edge of what the police was comfortable with. Their indecisiveness to do anything about it is down to no single event being in violation of the law but of course their inability to do anything about it is critique worthy.

Posted by: Aleksandros | November 18, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

As usual, much ado about nothing, caused in part misappropriate vocabulary choices. "Surveillance Detection" is a spy business word that does not accurately describe what the RSO is doing. which is basically pushing potential problem detection beyond the embassy's gates. As a former FSO, whose embassy office was destroyed by an RPG fired from a hotel across the street, and whose personal vehicle was destroyed by a car bomb that exploded in the street that runs by the emnbassy parking lot, I can appreciate what the RSO is doing.
Getting to know your outer perimiter is a basic part of security. If you do not know what is normal, you cannot tell what is abnormal. We all do it around our own houses -- its called Neiborhood Watch.
That people in public places are subject to having their picture taken is well established law everywhere. There is no right to privacy on a public street. And while it really would be paranoia for the RSO to think that an American tourist taking a distant panoramic shot of his own county's embassy needs to be investigated, the person taking multiple telephoto shots of the hinges on the security gate might have an interest other than documenting fine blacksmithing.
As the saying goes, it is not paranoia when someone really is trying to kill you. I seriously doubt that any Scandinavian would want to harm the USA, in spite of may policy disagreements starting off with Viet-nam, but Scandinavia has also been a welcoming host to quite a lot of people who do seem to have a grudge against things American -- many of them are there as refugees from American invasions of their country.
Lest I be considerred an apologist for every RSO action, I do have a bone to pick with RSOs everywhere, which is protection of the American ambassador. In every country in which I have served, the ambassador is given double, sometimes triple, the protection given to that country's own most senior government officials, and in some cases even more than is given to the US president. If anything would make me anti-American, it would be being pushed aside by a six car caravan flying the US flag during rush hour in an urban center -- especially when the ambassador's residence is within walking distance of the embassy. As targeting ambassadors by terrorists was a thing of the 1960s, the taxpayers are footing the bill for something ridiculous on its face combatting a problem that has not existed fior 50 years.

Posted by: DCNative41 | November 18, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

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