Going Public: Norwegian Authorities Made the Right Choice

In light of the recent news about a terrorist threat against Norway, Hans-Jørgen Bonnichsen, the former chief of Danish intelligence, came out against the Norwegian authorities' decision to inform the public about the threat. In an interview with the Danish newspaper Berlingske, he said: 

- You can see that this has already put Norway in a state of shock and alarm. You've stabilized the reputation that terrorists want, namely a reputation as someone to fear and who can attack at any time. 

Bonnichsen explains the authorities' decision by referring to the national trauma the country experienced after the July 22nd, 2011 attacks. 

- It's the only reason I can think of. [...] Threats are a reality in any western intelligence organization, and it's their responsibility to deal with them. Here, [Norway] has chosen to hand that burden and worry over to the citizens. 

I personally disagree with a few of Bonnichsen's points. Although he's the one with a career in intelligence gathering and national security, and I'm just a goof with a keyboard, I do have a pair of working eyes. 

Since the threat against us was made public I have been working in the city center of Bergen, Norway's second biggest city. The weather has been unusually nice and people have been swarming the streets in droves, day and night. There have been big events in several of Norway's cities, with the Cutty Sark/Tall Ships Race in Bergen, the Norway Cup soccer tournament in Oslo, etc. People are everywhere. No one seems especially worried. 

I have been unusually cognizant of people around me and trying to gauge people's behaviour in public in light of the potential danger. Everyone is acting normal, and there have been more people out in public the last few days than what I've seen in a long time. This is pure speculation from my side, of course, but if the Norwegian population had taken the aforementioned burden from the authorities (or at least shared in it) more people would have stayed at home. 

The Norwegian security police have for the last few months been releasing monthly reports of threats against the country (or at least the ones' they are comfortable sharing) and they have all been checked off as unlikely and not much to worry about, after thorough investigations. This last threat has apparently been the exception, and so they've heightened security all over the country. This is understandable. 

Normally Norwegian police is unarmed. I do believe they have a firearm locked up in their squad cars, but they never carry guns. Now they do. If the authorities would have said nothing about the threat, but put the police forces at their highest level of alertness and sent them into the streets with weapons, without telling us why, people would definitely become more worried than they are now. 

Cato Hemmingby, a researcher at the Norwegian Police Academy, agrees with me. In a commentary piece on newssite Dagbladet, he argues why PST made the right decision. 

- Going public like PST has done, has two main objectives. The first is to make it more difficult for terrorists to execute an attack. The second is to make the public more alert and responsive. It is a wise strategy that may have helped to reduce the threat. When terrorists lose the moment of surprise it becomes less inspiring [to other potential attackers or enemies of the state, one assumes] and more difficult to carry out an attack.

Police Commissioner Odd Reidar Humlegård explains in an interview with national broadcaster NRK that,

- When we armed the police and increased their presence, we had to go public and explain why we did it. But we cannot say more than what we have said so far. It's about source confidentiality and protection, and about not exposing this situation more than what is absolutely necessary.

Considering the vague nature of the threat, it was the right choice to inform the public. If the security police knew specifically who made the threat, and where their attack was meant to take place, they would have eliminated the threat without telling us. If you know you can prevent an attack without needlessly disturbing the peace, great. Do it. 

I'm under the impression that the authorities made the right move: after the national tragedy three years ago we as a people have become determined not to let something like that happen ever again. It would be absolutely catastrophic to the reputation and credibility of the government, and our country as a whole, in the global stand against terrorism, if they knew about a credible threat, did not inform the public, and then failed to prevent it.

Now, having informed the public, Norwegian authorities have an entire nation of people looking out for each other, partaking in our own safety, and doing everything we can to make sure we remain a safe and sound democratic society. I think that's a good thing.