In partnership with NRK
Behind an abandoned military facility 40 miles northwest of Oslo, Norway built a surveillance base in close collaboration with the National Security Agency. Its bright, white satellite dishes, some of them 60 feet in diameter, stand out against the backdrop of pine-covered hills and red-roofed buildings that scatter the area.
Classified documents describe the facility as “state-of-the-art,” with capabilities “previously not released outside of NSA.” Despite a hefty price tag of more than $33 million paid by Norwegian taxpayers, the Norwegian Intelligence Service has kept the operations at the site beyond public scrutiny.
The station, code-named VICTORY GARDEN, was ostensibly built to support Norwegian troops serving overseas and to combat terrorism. But its dragnet has also secretly captured records of phone calls and emails transmitted between law-abiding Norwegians and their friends, families, or colleagues in foreign countries, an investigation by The Intercept and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, known as NRK, has found.
In 2014, the data collection at the base was central to a behind-closed-doors dispute between the Norwegian Intelligence Service and the oversight committee that monitors the conduct of the country’s spy agencies, according to sources with knowledge of the incident. The intelligence service argued that the surveillance was lawful and necessary. But the committee disagreed and claimed that the storing and searching of Norwegians’ communication records was legally dubious. The disagreement remains unresolved; meanwhile, the surveillance appears to have continued unabated.
The cooperation between the Norwegian Intelligence Service and the NSA began officially in the early 1950s, when Norway and the United States signed an agreement called NORUSA. Due to its geographical proximity to the Soviet Union and its submarine bases on the Kola Peninsula, Norway was uniquely positioned to provide intelligence on Soviet submarines, missile systems, and military activity during the Cold War.
The countries have since continued to cooperate closely. In 2001, Norway approached the NSA seeking to buy foreign satellite surveillance technology, known as FORNSAT, according to documents obtained by The Intercept from Edward Snowden. Two years later, the NSA provided the Norwegians with four specialist antennas. Each capability was given code names seemingly inspired by different types of gardens – WINTERGARDEN, FLOWERGARDEN, TOPIARYGARDEN, and so forth – together forming a VICTORYGARDEN.
Norwegian intelligence sent employees on multiple trips to receive training and test equipment at the NSA, and a delegation from a now-defunct NSA Yakima facility in Washington state traveled to Norway. Meanwhile, NSA employees based in Oslo took delivery of more than 90 containers crammed with electronic equipment, which were sent by boat and airplane, according to an October 2005 article in SIDtoday, an internal NSA newsletter. Two months later, on December 15, 2005, the Norwegian Intelligence Service’s director, Torgeir Hagen, declared VICTORYGARDEN operational. An NSA article describing the base’s opening ceremony concluded: “We have only begun to see future possibilities to benefit both our nations and the free world.”
Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, said that the documents provided a rare insight into how Norway’s relationship with the NSA has evolved. It “seems that Norway is asking for more and more capabilities, including training that enables them to better conduct surveillance,” Reichborn-Kjennerud said. “There’s been very little public debate about this in Norway.”
Until recently, the surveillance station located near Oslo was so secret that the oversight committee could not mention it in unclassified annual reports. Cryptic references in Norway’s defense budget pointed to “modernization of the Defense Satellite Earth Station” without linking these to the intelligence service. Local media were told the large dishes were used for communications with NATO partners and Norwegian forces overseas.
During the country’s parliamentary elections in 2017, then-Minister of Defense Ine Eriksen Søreide visited the facility. “Satellite communication is extremely important,” she told Ringerikes Blad, a local newspaper, “when frigates at sea need to communicate with the command center.” She announced an additional 200 million Norwegian kroner ($25 million) funding to strengthen cyber defense and additional satellite equipment.
But there is a lot more to the station than enabling “satellite communication.” The documents provided by Snowden state that VICTORY GARDEN can “see 130 foreign satellites” – indicating that it can tap into communications passing across them, including the contents of international phone calls and emails, as well as various types of metadata. (Metadata reveals information about a communication — such as the sender and recipient of an email and the time and date it was sent — but not the written content of the message.)
VICTORY GARDEN’s antennas are aimed at countries from which the Norwegian Intelligence Service collects information in support of Norwegian interests and interventions in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. But Norway’s spies have also used the base for a more controversial purpose, not previously publicly disclosed: For several years, they have collected metadata about Norwegians’ communications with people located in foreign countries and accessed those records through searchable databases. In 2014, the oversight committee found out about that practice and began raising concerns.
“Our most important task is to ensure that the Norwegian Intelligence Service does not monitor Norwegians in Norway. It’s not their job,” said the committee’s chair, Eldbjørg Løwer, in an interview for this story. “We were uncertain whether the way they conducted these operations was sufficiently grounded in the law.”
The intelligence service told the committee that Norwegian citizens’ metadata is used to identify new targets. It denied that it used the intercepted communications for “mapping domestic relations or matters relating to Norwegian persons.” The country’s defense minister, Frank Bakke-Jensen, claimed that the spy agency “does not conduct surveillance against Norwegians in Norway.” He added, however, that “the legislation needs to be updated.”
In response to questions for this story, Norwegian spy chief Morten Haga Lunde said that a new law currently in the works will solve the oversight committee’s legal concerns. The VICTORY GARDEN base, he added, served an important purpose and helped save lives in 2013 during a terrorist attack on an Algerian gas facility.
It is unclear how many Norwegians’ communications have been swept up by the surveillance to date. A spokesperson for the intelligence service said he could not provide that information.
The NSA declined to comment.
Documents published with this article: