REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Iceland has joined other Nordic countries in launching an investigation into a controversial U.S. Embassy surveillance program.
Iceland’s Ministry of Justice and Human Rights will try to determine whether the U.S. embassy’s program of monitoring some citizens violates the civil rights of residents living near the embassy, which sits in a residential area in Reykjavik’s old city centre.
The inquiry was spurred by media reports in Norway and Sweden that linked U.S. embassies there to possible espionage against citizens of those countries, including allegedly taking pictures of street demonstrations and of people deemed security risks, sparking a wave of anti-American sentiments that has spread throughout the region.
Halla Gunnarsdottir, assistant to Iceland’s Minister of Justice and Human Rights, said the police commissioner will now “investigate whether the U.S. Embassy in Reykjavik had been involved in comparable activities.”
Reports of alleged abuses are swirling throughout Iceland. A former security guard who would not release his name told Icelandic media website Visir on Thursday that the U.S. Embassy’s surveillance activities went far beyond the embassy neighbourhood, contradicting U.S. Ambassador Luis Arreaga’s assertion that it was limited to the immediate area.
Arreaga told the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service that no espionage is involved.
“I want to assure the Icelandic public that we respect Icelandic law,” he said. “We’re very sorry that these press reports have caused unease and concern and have diverted attention from important issues.”
He said the program allows U.S. officials to alert Icelandic authorities to suspicious behaviour near 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.”
In Washington, State Department officials said the Nordic countries are apparently objecting about a longstanding program to help embassies and consulates detect “suspicious activities” near U.S. facilities.
“We regret that some of the press about this program has caused unease and concern among some of our friends,” said spokesman Mark Toner.
He said the programs started after the lethal 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Before those attacks, he said, U.S. embassies came under “hostile surveillance” by terrorists that was not picked up by U.S. officials, allowing the mass slaughter of innocent civilians.
He said the embassy counter-surveillance programs are carried out “in full compliance” with local laws in host countries.
U.S. officials seem surprised by the fierce Nordic reaction to the protection program.
Norway and Sweden have launched investigations to determine the extent of the surveillance activities and whether they violated domestic laws. The governments of both countries say they weren’t aware of the program, and have asked U.S. embassy officials for more information.
Denmark asked its intelligence service to check with the U.S. Embassy and make sure that the surveillance activities are within the boundaries of Danish law, but stopped short of a criminal probe.
Prosecutor Joern Maurud in Oslo said the Norwegian investigation is limited to Norwegian nationals who worked for the U.S. Embassy.
“The investigation is not going to be directed toward personnel with diplomatic immunity,” he said.
The outcry started after Norway’s TV2 reported that the U.S. Embassy recruited former Norwegian police and intelligence officials for a surveillance unit operating from an office outside the embassy.
TV2 said the unit took pictures of Norwegian citizens deemed security risks, identified them and passed the information to the embassy. Members of the unit took pictures of street demonstrations in Oslo, including one outside Parliament, the report said.
It sparked a discussion in Norway that later spread to the other Nordic countries about whether the U.S. surveillance detection program bordered on illegal intelligence gathering.
Maurud said there was no immediate indication that any laws had been violated but that the investigation was started to get to the bottom of the matter.
The U.S. denies that the surveillance amounts to a intelligence program and claims it has informed local authorities about it, but many residents seem angered by the program.
“I think such surveillance is necessary, but Norwegian authorities should know about it,” said Fabian Storm, a 19-year-old law student in Oslo. “I am mostly afraid that the United States will do whatever it wants and violate Norwegian principles and opinions.”
Bia Hammer, a 65-year-old librarian, agreed.
“I think it is scary that we are being monitored,” she said. “It seems like the U.S. is doing whatever it wants, while Norwegian authorities are not aware of it.”