FECL 57 (March 1999):

'TRUTH COMMISSION' TO ENQUIRE INTO ILLEGAL SECRET SERVICE ACTIVITIES

Giving in to mounting public pressure, the Swedish Government has decided, at last, to mandate an independent "Truth Commission" with conducting a thorough enquiry into the unlawful snooping activities of the country's secret services. The announcement was made to Parliament on 20 January by Social Democratic Prime Minister Göran Persson. According to preliminary estimates, the lives and careers of thousands of innocent Swedes may have been affected by the unlawful registration activities of the secret services. While public debate is focussing on past snooping, new laws are quietly being introduced which considerably extend police powers to register non-suspects.

The decision to set up a Truth Commission is the latest (but probably not last) move by a government aiming to put an end to an ever more incensed public debate on the role of the secret services, that many believe contributed to a record low vote for the Social Democratic Party in last year's parliamentary elections.

The controversy over the snooping activities of the secret services had long been smouldering but broke out anew in 1997 when evidence arose showing that, in 1979, a young carpenter, Torsten Leander, lost his job because he was registered on political grounds by the Swedish Security Police, Säpo (see FECL No.52: "Swedish security police accused of political policing: the Leander case").

The Leander case fuelled long-standing suspicion among the public that the secret services continued to spy on political dissidents (i.e. mainly Communists, leftists and their alleged "sympathisers"), even after a law was adopted in 1969 prohibiting any registration of people on the mere grounds of their political opinion.

Inspired by developments in Norway, where a 1996 report of a commission of enquiry cast light on Norwegian secret services' extensive snooping activities in the Cold War era (see FECL No.43: "Judicial inquiry into Norwegian surveillance police" and No.49: "Minister steps back after new snooping scandal"), a loose but broad coalition of Swedish opponents of political policing demanded that the government set up a similar commission in Sweden, with unlimited access to all relevant registers and with powers to question witnesses under oath. But the government, backed by the largest opposition party, the conservative "Moderate" party, long resisted such demands.

In the meantime, new revelations of cases of unlawful snooping continued to leak out. In August 1998, the Gothenburg newspaper, Göteborgs-Posten published a list containing the names of 30 persons (mainly doctors and nurses) who were working in Gothenburg's main hospital in the early seventies. The health workers had all been labelled as security threats by an informer working for the military intelligence service, IB.

The aim of the spying activities was to end the careers of suspected leftists in the public health sector.

 

Official report reveals: government lied to the public

In December last year, the Swedish Registration Board issued a report on personnel vetting between 1969 and 1996. The Registration Board found 1,001 suspected "Leander cases", but stopped short of inquiring into these cases. However, the Registration Board's report for the first time disclosed a string of secret government directives, long known to the Board. The secret directives issued by successive governments instructed Säpo to continue to register "subversive" elements, in blatant violation of a 1969 law (incorporated into the Swedish Constitution in 1977). The law bans registration and surveillance on the mere grounds of people's political opinions. The report confirms that, in application of the secret directives, nearly all "dissident" groups not represented in parliament, as well as presumed sympathisers, were kept under surveillance by the Security Police.

It must be assumed that successive governments, whether led by Social Democrats or Conservatives, were well aware of the ongoing breach of law. (The above-mentioned secret directives were all signed by successive Justice Ministers). The same is true for a plethora of supervising authorities and committees (including the Registration Board) tasked time and again with investigating and monitoring the activities of Säpo and the military intelligence service, IB. The report of the Registration Board amounts to a late official confirmation that both Ministers and supervisory bodies shamelessly and blatantly lied to the public.

For example, in 1990, the Chancellor of Justice (chief civil servant of the Justice department) firmly stated in a report that, based on his own checks of both government instructions to Säpo and an approximate 1,000 personal files, no unlawful political surveillance had ever happened. At the same time, the same Chancellor of Justice noted in a secret report to the Government that this kind of registration was not only common practice but also in full compliance with government instructions.

The groups and organisations to be kept under surveillance were expressly named in the secret directives. The last directive was issued as late as 21 December 1998, one day before the publication of the report of the Registration Board...

It is evident from the report that, in 1980, 4,156 persons (of which 3,998 were presumed leftists and anarchists and 158 far-right activists) were filed solely because of their membership in or "sympathies" with an organisation listed in a secret government directive. (People who were registered both because of their opinions and on the additional grounds of their being suspected of involvement in unlawful activities against State security are not included in this figure). In 1998, the corresponding number was 2,160 (2,062 presumed "leftists" and "anarchists" against 98 presumed far-right activists). In spite of official allegations of a "changed threat scenario" as a consequence of the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, the 1998 figures are strikingly similar to those of 1972.

 

Cleaning woman as "security risk"

The above information was gathered for the purpose of security vetting of personnel. In Sweden 410,000 posts and functions are classified as security sensitive. However, 400,000 of these jobs come under the lowest security category. Nonetheless, according to the report of the Registration Board, being filed on political grounds almost automatically meant that the persons concerned were denied the post they applied for. In one case in 1988, a woman applied for a cleaning job with the lowest security level classification. The vetting procedure established that the woman was filed because, in 1985, her name appeared at the bottom of the leftist (and politically completely insignificant) Socialist Party list of candidates for the Stockholm local council. This was enough for the Government to decide that the information was to be passed on to the employer. The woman was denied the job.

 

The secret internal branch of IB

The report of the Registration Board was preceded by a report by the Intelligence Board, published in early December. This body is made up of MPs of 4 parties and legal experts, and is responsible for controlling the military intelligence service, IB. The report enquired into the activities of IB until 1981. Officially, IB is a foreign intelligence service (comparable with the German BND or the British MI5). As opposed to Säpo, the Security Police, it had no mandate to deal with internal security. However, in 1973, two young investigative journalists, Peter Bratt and Jan Guillou, published a story casting some light on IB, whose very existence was barely known to the public. The story was the result of the two journalists' contacts with an IB agent who began telling tales before leaving the service in late 1972. It revealed that IB actually consisted of two branches: a quite ordinary foreign intelligence branch engaging in dirty trick operations and regularly breaching Sweden's official policy of neutrality; and, an officially nonexistent internal security branch, set up in 1957, that could best be described as a sort of a parallel secret political police. While the article by Bratt and Guillou cast some light on the activities of the "foreign" branch of IB, it little more than mentioned the existence of the "internal" branch. Bratt and Guillou were arrested upon publication of their story in a small leftist magazine and eventually sentenced to one year imprisonment each for "spying". Under arrest, Bratt was told by an interrogator: "You are sitting here not because of what you have written, but because of what you have not yet written". This would indicate that Bratt and Guillou were put behind bars and labelled as spies in order to stop them from investigating further into the activities of the totally unlawful "internal" branch of IB. Indeed, evidence now disclosed suggests that such an investigation would almost certainly have resulted in a Swedish "Watergate" scandal.

 

IB: the Social Democratic Party's political police?

In July 1998, the government declassified the records of interrogations carried out, in 1993, by the parliamentary committee on neutrality policies. In one of these interrogations, a former chief of IB, Birger Elmér, openly stated that the internal branch of the service launched a scheme of cooperation with the governing Social Democratic Party (SAP). Under the scheme, the Social Democratic Party structures were effectively used to gather information on persons considered politically unreliable. Information was than forwarded to IB's internal branch.

According to the report of the Military Intelligence Board, approximately 22,000 Social Democratic shop stewards and local party representatives were asked by their party superiors to report regularly on the political opinions and party membership of their colleagues. After World War II and during much of the Cold War era, Social Democrats (SAP) and Communists were engaged in a constant battle over control of the Swedish labour unions and the Social Democrats were concerned about Communist "infiltration" of factories and public services. Most SAP party workers believed they were gathering information for use only by the party, for the purpose of unmasking infiltrators and winning shop steward elections. They were totally unaware of the fact that their services were being used not just for party-political purposes but by IB as a means of bringing to an end the employment and careers of politically "unreliable" people.

Pointing to this odd symbiosis between SAP and IB, right-wing opponents of the Social Democrats are trying hard to portray IB as a sort of a secret party police run by the Social Democrats and funded with taxpayers money. According to this reading, the main aim of IB's internal branch was to serve SAP’s interests, i.e. secure continuing Social Democratic dominance in Sweden. However, there is strong evidence to suggest that private business circles, right-wing circles and the Swedish Employers Association (SAF) also engaged in spying for IB. Despite loud claims to the contrary, leading Conservative politicians must have been well aware of IB's internal snooping activities, and they did nothing to stop them during the periods they were in power. Thus, one may conclude that, rather than the IB serving the Social Democrats, the Social Democrats served the IB. And they did so on the basis of an, at times, paranoid fear of "communism" they shared with the whole of Sweden's political and economic elites, and ... with the USA, neutral Sweden's most important secret ally.

 

Creation of IB triggered by US demands?

Indeed, last July, the conservative Swedish daily, Svenska Dagbladet, ran a story claiming that the IB's internal branch was set up in 1957 in response to demands from the USA, rather than to a need established at home. This contention too is based on the disclosure of previously classified 1993 records of the parliamentary committee on neutrality policies. These documents indicate that the creation of the internal branch was actually based on a secret agreement between the Swedish Employers Association (SAF), the Labour Unions (LO), the (Social Democratic) Government, and the army. According to Svenska Dagbladet's interpretation of the documents in question, the agreement was reached after the USA threatened to stop the transfer of defence-related US technology to industries abroad considered as unsafe as a result of their employing unreliable (i.e Communist) workforces. Swedish armament industries strongly depended (and still depend) on access to US technology. Be that as it may, if American demands there were, they quite obviously coincided with the Swedish establishment's own home-made agenda.

 

Will a "Truth Commission" find the truth?

While recent academic research, the work of investigative journalists, official reports and declassified documents have cast some light on particular aspects of Swedish secret service activities, a comprehensive and exhaustive inquiry has yet to be carried out. Thus, it is still not known how many Swedes were actually spied upon by Säpo or IB. As regards IB, speculations made in the press range from 5,000 to 300,000 people. Nor is there a law granting persons access to their own files. As a matter of fact the fragmentary character of information hitherto disclosed is a consequence both of the limited mandates and means of academic research groups and control bodies, and the Government's prevailing policy of piecemeal disclosure of carefully selected secret documents according to its own assessment of whether their content is suitable for public debate or not. All of this has contributed to a widespread feeling that the full truth still remains to be discovered.

When announcing his Government's decision to set up a "Truth Commission", Prime Minister Persson somewhat strikingly declined to specify on the proposed commission's composition, mandate and powers.

Advocates of a "Truth Commission" have long insisted that such a body will be credible only if the following conditions are met: the Commission must be made up of persons whose independence and integrity is beyond doubt; it must have full access to all registers and records of interest; witnesses must be freed from secrecy obligations, the Commission must have powers to sanction witnesses who refuse to testify; and, it must have the necessary staff and budget to effectively conduct its inquiry.

Even if these conditions are met, the chances of bringing full light into the Swedish secret services' past snooping activities are slim. Indeed, the persons involved in these illegal activities have had plenty of time to do away with compromising documents and personal files.

In any event, the "Truth Commission" will deal only with the past. It will not address the risk of illegitimate snooping today. The issue was raised last June by five opposition MPs, including the former Conservative Justice Minister, Ms Gun Hellsvik. In a statement published in the Svenska Dagbladet, the five politicians pointed to the fact that - just half a year after the Government's decision to grant Torsten Leander 400,000 Swedish crowns in compensation for moral and economic damage suffered as a consequence of his registration - the government was proposing a Bill providing, among other things, for the establishment of an electronic criminal intelligence register. Among other things, the MPs note: "The government wants to permit police to register both suspects and persons not suspected of any offence, but whose data are considered useful anyway(...) To be registered the police need only suspect that a serious crime has been committed or might be committed. This means, for example, that a person who lives in a block of flats where the police suspect drug dealing can be registered [in the criminal intelligence register](...) Workmates of a suspect can be subjects of registration. Anyone who has provided information to the police must expect to be registered. Anyone registered in the police database - suspect or not - must reckon with the possibility that the police can transmit his or her personal data to foreign authorities for further processing". The five MPs concluded by calling on the Swedish Parliament to address in depth the issue of privacy rights versus the requirement of efficient crime control before agreeing to the setting up of ever more data registers. Their call went unheard and the law was adopted.

 

Sources: Updates by Prof. Dennis Töllborg (Gothenburg), 7.12.99 20.1.99; 11.1.99, 24.3.99; Svenska Dagbladet, 2.6.98; 24.7.98, 25.7.98; Dagens Nyheter, 26.7.98; Göteborgs-Posten, 22.8.98, 23.8.98; SVT 1 (Swedish Public Television), Speciellt, 13.9.98.