The third chair was for the spy

The third chair was for the spy
A new Swedish snoop law has sparked the wildest political debate in many years, mass demonstrations in several cities and court challenges.

The controversial law allows Sweden’s National Defence Radio Establishment, FRA, to conduct a nation-wide data-mining project, processing and analyzing cross-border telephony, email and web traffic.

To some of us who worked as foreign correspondents in Europe during the dark old days of the Cold War, the current debate in Sweden seems somewhat naive: we always took it for granted that national security services monitored our activities and perhaps even eavesdropped on our phone conversations. It wasn’t especially controversial, it was expected.

One of my good friends at the time—we can call him Sasha — was the Stockholm correspondent for a Russian news weekly. Sasha and I frequently met for lunch, where we gossiped about our peers, exchanged family news and sometimes discussed East-West politics. If there was an empty chair at our table, we would joke: “That chair is reserved for SÄPO, the Swedish security police”.

I contributed regularly for many years to U.S News & World Report, based in Washington, D.C. which was very keen for news about Russian submarines lurking in Swedish waters, the tragic case of humanitarian war hero Raoul Wallenberg who disappeared into the Soviet gulag at the end of WW II, and any topic involving espionage. I also worked briefly for Defense News.

One visited various embassies, sipped wine or Campari cocktails at diplomatic receptions, and interviewed politicians, researchers and military people. During those excursions into murky waters, we knew that we might rub shoulders with a spook of one nationality or another. Once, I actually met a fellow who definitely worked for SÄPO. That arranged meeting went down in a McDonald’s restaurant on Sveavägen of all places,

During the bad old days of the late 1980s, we usually had no way of knowing if an intelligence service was keeping tabs on us. The static on the phone was probably just a technical glitch, but who can say for sure? My attitude at that time—which hasn’t changed—was pragmatic. I figure that if you as a foreign journalist are perceived as a “player,” you are an idiot if you don’t take precautions to protect your sources.

If SÄPO or FRA are not currently engaged in surveillance of foreign nationals, they aren’t doing their job. That doesn’t mean a wholesale invasion of private integrity is necessary or desirable. Far from it.

No one wants to have their mail opened by strangers. In fact, it is good news for democracy that a large portion of the Swedish public is motivated to defend their civil liberties. Expressen’s online campaign against the new snoop law resulted in over 6 million email protest letters to the government.

The harsh reality though is that as long as international terrorism is perceived as a genuine threat, increased monitoring of private communications will happen in Sweden and other countries whether or not it is officially sanctioned by specific legislation. But not to worry: that static on your cell is probably just the usual poor reception.