The spy charges and court case against Arne Treholt, a Norwegian civil servant and politician, have led to a long-standing controversy in the Norwegian media.Footnote 1 This article examines the literature on the Treholt case for the first ten years after his arrest. The literature is classified under a scheme borrowed from Cold War history: traditionalist (‘Arne Treholt was the greatest spy ever caught in Norway’), revisionist (‘Treholt was a victim of a political vendetta against the left’), and post-revisionism (studies using greater historical distance and declassified archives to gain a more independent perspective – and it remains to be seen what the conclusion will be). Most of the published literature is revisionist, but none of the books classified under this heading offer a fully satisfactory answer to the traditionalist account. In particular, the revisionist literature fails to explain plausibly why Treholt and his case officers engaged in so much risky and covert behavior if all they did was to exchange political views. The effects of Treholt’s espionage in the sense of traditional national security may have been overestimated; his value as a political informer was probably far greater.

1 Introduction

The Treholt case is, arguably, the most serious political spy case to be revealed in the West after the Second World War. Of course, in several NATO countries spies within the military establishment and in the intelligence agencies have had access to more sensitive national security material than Treholt in Norway and the opportunity to pass along greater volumes of it. But one is hard put to name a spy with a higher political position than Arne Treholt, who served as a state secretary (the second highest political position) in Norway’s Ministry of Ocean Law, and before that as Political Secretary to the same minister, then Minister of Commerce and, as such, a member of the exclusive Security Committee of the Norwegian Cabinet. In 1978 the tasks of the Ministry of Ocean Law were completed, the Ministry was incorporated into the Foreign Ministry, and Treholt—then already on the short list of suspected spies—became a regular Foreign Service officer, although he continued to play an informal role in Labor Party politics. Treholt held higher formal office than Günther Guillaume, although the politician to which he had attached his career, Jens Evensen, was not as centrally placed as Willy Brandt and the country in which he operated was of course much smaller and more peripheral than West Germany. Nevertheless, he has been characterized by Oleg Gordievsky as one of the KGB’s ten most important agents.

In Norway the Treholt case came as a big shock when revealed to the public on 21 January 1984, the day after his arrest at Oslo airport while on his way to a meeting in Vienna with his case officer, KGB General Gennadi Titov. The case has remained embroiled in political controversy, much like the Rosenberg case in the USA or the Petrov case in Australia.

The first book with Treholt’s picture on the front cover was published just a few months after his arrest. His wife published a revealing book about a year later, before the trial started, and by the summer of 1994 my count had reached 17 non-fiction books dealing exclusively with the Treholt case. Add to this two slightly disguised novels on the case, and a half a dozen non-fiction books where the Treholt case played a major role. In addition, Norwegian law journals have published relevant articles, and there have been two debates in Parliament, one of them preceded by a lengthy committee report on why Treholt was admitted as a student at the Norwegian National Defense College. I have provided an extensive bibliography in an article for a Norwegian journal, along with a more detailed discussion of the literatureFootnote 2 and will limit myself here to the more important contributions to the debate, as well as the few contributions available in English.

The Treholt case belongs to the Cold War and it seems appropriate to interpret it within the framework of the tri-partite division of the literature on the Cold War: There is, first, the traditionalist school, an explanation of and to a large measure an apology for the official Western position. Then there is the revisionist school of critical studies, frequently coming close to an apology for the other side, and finally, there is the postrevisionist school, with a diverse set of studies using greater historical distance and recently opened archives to gain a more independent perspective.

2 Traditionalism

The two most important works in the traditionalist literature are the verdict (Eidsivating Lagmannsrett 1985)Footnote 3 and the volume by Michael Grundt Spang.Footnote 4 The lower court verdict (which eventually became final) was published as a 250-page book and there is also an English translation—although it is not as readily accessible.Footnote 5 Michael Grundt Spang, a senior journalist in Norway’s largest newspaper VG, has based his account on the extremely detailed reports of his paper. Since verbatim court records are not available from Norwegian trials, the VG reports and other news reporting, will remain the major source of what was said at the trial.Footnote 6 Spang’s views are close to views of the prosecutor, ‘a betrayal of dizzying proportions’, and his conclusion close to that of the court which imposed the maximum of penalty of 20 years. Treholt was convicted of handing over to KGB representatives a great deal of information to which he had access in the line of duty, and which was judged to be detrimental to national security. A great deal of this information he acquired while a student at the Defense College, which he attended as an official of the Foreign Ministry. In addition, he was also convicted for espionage for Iraq.

Other important books in the same tradition are the memoirs of Haarstad (1988), head of the Norwegian Special Branch for most of the seven-year period when Treholt was under investigation, and Tofte (1987), the Special Branch veteran who led the investigation, made the arrest, and conducted most of the interrogation. The two books of Treholt’s (now former) wife, which provide ample documentation of how Treholt kept family and friends completely in the dark, must be included in the same category.

The most troublesome point in the traditionalist literature concerns the proof for the actual transmission of sensitive information. Although Treholt initially confessed to being caught in a trap by the KGB (he later retracted this) he never admitted having handed over national security information. Broadly speaking, the stronger the evidence for transmission—or attempted transmission, the less significance for national security. For example, the 66 documents found in Treholt’s briefcase when he was arrested, were judged by the court not to be relevant to national security, either separately or as a whole.Footnote 7

In the end, the verdict relied heavily on the damage done by the transmission to the KGB of information Treholt acquired at the Defense College. By the time he was admitted to the Defense College he was under very strong suspicion, although definitive evidence to convict him was still lacking. Thus, the question arises whether the Norwegian authorities should not have prevented his term at the Defense College. Sending Treholt to the Defense College was the idea of a Foreign Ministry colleague in charge of finding suitable entrants who was not cleared for the information about Treholt’s probable espionage.

Another weakness (more from a historical than from a legal point of view) of the traditionalist literature is that it assumes that Treholt needed a motive for espionage, but fails to establish conclusive what that motive might be. Initially, the prosecution placed great emphasis on Treholt’s own confession (the one he had later retracted) which told in detail how as a student political activist he became involved in a relationship which he lost control of. Towards the end of the case, the profit motive came to the fore and the verdict explicitly rejected the idea that he was pressured by the Russians. These two motives might, of course, apply to different phases of his secret life. There was never any suggestion of pressure in the case of his espionage for Iraq, and this belongs to the late phase. The uncertainty about motives derives in great measure from Treholt’s retraction of his first statements to the police. By insisting that he was acting freely at all times, and insisting on full acquittal, Treholt and his lawyers awarded a walkover victory to the prosecution. However, for anyone who attempts to comprehend why the career of a talented and ambitious young politician ended in such a tragedy, the traditionalist literature seems ambiguous and incomplete. The second book by his estranged wife reveals that one of the FBI officers assigned to his case (posing as a friendly neighbor in Manhattan) thought that he was a communist; such ideological motives find little support in the Norwegian literature.

3 The Revisionist Critique

In the dozen revisionist works it is not simple to point to the main contributions. Jo Bech-KarlsenFootnote 8 covered the court case for a left-wing weekly and his book is a good summary which includes the many second thoughts and question-marks that many radicals had about the case, once the initial shock (and condemnation) had receded into the background. Treholt’s own bookFootnote 9 about the arrest and interrogation is a literary masterpiece, which received a prize in a non-fiction literature competition. His argument is so self-serving, however, and some of his excuses so transparent that the book might have been better submitted in a competition for fiction. A very interesting book by Calmeyer (1993) about political surveillance in the Norwegian labor movement attempts to link this to the Treholt case, but not very successfully.

A separate strand of revisionist literature deals with the pre-trial publicity. This literature provides extensive documentation that there was a massive pre-trial condemnation of Treholt in quasi-legal terms from politicians and the media, with Prime Minister Kåre Willoch as the most prominent example. This has led to a great deal of self-criticism in the journalistic profession, and to a lesser extent among politicians. However, it is impossible to assess the significance of this publicity for the verdict. Treholt’s status as a media star (even before his arrest) clearly works both ways. Quite apart from the pre-trial condemnation, he has also had a very active circle of friends who have argued his case publicly, a degree of public support not enjoyed by any other Norwegian charged with espionage.

The mainstream revisionist critique of the verdict relates to lack of concrete proof for the transmission of national security information, as well as the unfortunate admission of Treholt to the Defense College. Some go beyond this to argue that his term at the Defense College was a deliberate trap that the government set in order to obtain sufficient evidence to convict him. This question was extensively investigated by Parliament and the weight of the evidence clearly indicates that his admission was a bureaucratic error, although there is disagreement about how the error might have been prevented, by whom, and at what stage.

Several law professors have criticized various aspects of the investigation and the trial, notably the legality of a secret raid on Treholt’s apartment in Oslo, on the interpretation of the relevant paragraphs in the penal code, on the question of intent, etc. To a non-lawyer like myself, much of this criticism seems sufficiently well-founded to make it a reasonable expectation that the Supreme Court would have reduced the sentence, perhaps significantly. Treholt actively prevented this, by with-drawing his appeal after the Supreme Court proceedings had started (as a reaction to some procedural decisions of the court which went against him). Instead, he put his trust in a full new review on the lower court (a strategy which was unsuccessful) and eventually in asking for a pardon (finally granted on 3 July 1992). Some revisionists consider that the Court should have limited the verdict to the Civil Service Act (which Treholt clearly had violated), such violations have an upper limit of three years; while others portray him merely as an unconventional diplomat carrying out the kind of private diplomacy and openness which has been publicly applauded after the demise of the East-West conflict. Calmeyer, among others, interprets the persecution of Treholt as the culmination of a long struggle for power within the Labor Party, through which the establishment was finally able to discredit the left wing.

A detailed discussion of the revisionist position would easily lead to a new book. However, a couple of frequently made points are worth mentioning. First, it has become a favorite theme for the revisionists that Treholt cannot be a major spy because he was photographed with his case officers in restaurants. Given how frequently spies have met their case officers in restaurants and the origin of that covertly obtained picture (taken apparently, by Norwegian Special Branch operatives using a camera hidden in a baby carriage) this argument does not have much force. Treholt’s extensive ‘home archive’ has also been adduced as proof that he cannot have been much of a spy because he failed to take elementary precautions. This argument overlooks the most important aspect of his home archive: that it does not contain any notes from his meetings with his case officers, even though Treholt was a compulsive note-taker. His calendar entries about the time for next meetings were carefully coded, although the Special Branch broke the code after they had covertly obtained copies of his calendars. This ultimate consequence of this line of argument is that no one can be a major spy if he is ever caught. Or in other words: If there is no evidence of espionage, the defendant must of course be acquitted. If there is evidence, he is unprofessional and therefore not a major spy, and therefore must also be acquitted.

The charge that the Treholt case was a politically manipulated move, relies on a supposition that other leftist politicians behaved in the same way as Treholt. No one, however, has been able to point to another left-wing politicians who conducted secret meetings with senior KGB officials (one of whom had been publicly expelled from Norway because of his involvement in an earlier Foreign Ministry spy case) behind the back of his friends, family, and colleagues. In fact, the authorities were careful to stress the uniqueness of the Treholt case and the faint beginnings of a political witchhunt were squashed very quickly. Thus, the Treholt case is very different from the British saga of the Cambridge ring, with its endless quest for the third man, etc. When a few people on the Left have equated Treholt’s modus operandi with standard political practice on the Left, they have invited a criminalization of their own political activity—an invitation their political opponents, not to speak of the prosecuting authorities, have declined to accept.Footnote 10

The greatest problem with the revisionist literature, however, is that it contains no plausible explanation of why Treholt and General Titov should take the trouble, risk, and expense of meeting covertly in Helsinki and Vienna if all they ever did was to exchange political generalities which Treholt never even bothered to record or pass on to anyone. While the revisionists have a point when they criticize the court for not entertaining rival interpretations to the espionage hypothesis, they themselves have been unable to suggest any plausible hypothesis for Treholt’s behavior, or for Titov’s.

4 A Post-revisionist Synthesis?

By and large, the existing literature is strongly polarized and rather unsatisfactory. The revisionist writings are the most voluminous and also contain the strongest exaggerations. This proves nothing about the case itself but illustrates the common phenomenon that while the establishment rules, the opposition argues. There is an asymmetry in exaggeration: the establishment rules to excess, by sending Treholt to jail for an unprecedentedly long period and on somewhat shaky evidence, the opposition engages in conspiracy theories and other strained theorizing.

Norwegian historians, now actively involved in several studies of the connections between the intelligence services and political surveillance in the postwar period, have not yet tackled the Treholt case. Short treatments in a popular history of the postwar period by radio journalist Yngvar Ustvedt (1992) as well as the entry in the leading Norwegian encyclopedia Store norske konversasjonsleksikon (1987) have a mildly revisionist flavor. Apart from a book by Arne Treholt’s father, a former Cabinet Minister,Footnote 11 politicians’ memoirs have not yet shed any light on the case. Kåre Willoch’s half-page treatment of the Treholt case in his volume from his 5½ years as Prime MinisterFootnote 12 (when the decision was made to let Treholt into the Defense College, and later to arrest him) is reminiscent of Harold Wilson’s cursory treatment of the secret services in his memoirs. More recently, a biography of Thorvald Stoltenberg,Footnote 13 a close colleague in the Labor Party, dealt more extensively with the case—but without providing any significant new information.

Excellent post-revisionist works exist for the politically controversial Rosenberg of 1946 caseFootnote 14 and the equally controversial Petrov case of 1955 in Australia.Footnote 15 Both of these books made extensive use of previously unavailable archival material. While the main positions of the revisionist critiques—that the Rosenbergs were not spies and that the Petrov case was a plot to discredit the Australian Labour Party—were refuted in these works, the traditionalist position was modified in very significant ways, What are the prospects for a post-revisionist reinterpretation of the Treholt case?

To some extent the future is already here. The volume on the KGB by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky published in 1990Footnote 16 provided the first confirmation from inside the KGB of Treholt’s perceived value as a spy. Some of this information had been revealed in a secret session in the Treholt trial, but it was then presented in extremely veiled terms because Gordievsky was still in place. The book does not provide much new information on the case (in fact it relies mostly on Tofte’s memoirs and does not even cite the more extensive and authoritative court verdict); the force lies in Gordievsky’s personal observations and his authority as an official of the KGB department dealing with Scandinavian affairs. Two years later, another KGB officer, Mikhail Butkov,Footnote 17 who had left the sinking ship in 1991, published a volume of memoirs augmenting Gordievsky’s information. While Butkov was much less senior, he had been stationed in Oslo after the Treholt trial and confirms that official policy of the KGB was to deny Treholt’s status as an agent and that it was seen as a publicity victory for the KGB when Calmeyer published an interview with Titov in Arbeiderbladet in 1990. It may safely be assumed that journalists of all persuasions have conducted a fairly intensive search for former KGB officials willing to talk about the Treholt case. Apart from the rather unconvincing interview with Titov (and another interview with Treholt’s case officer in during the UN period, Vladimir Zhizhin, published in Aftenposten in 1993, in which he refused to talk about the Treholt case) all such revelations to date have gone in Treholt’s disfavor.

Statements by former KGB officials about Treholt’s significance as an agent are very destructive for the revisionist interpretation, but do not necessarily provide any support for the traditionalists. The ex-KGB’niks have provided no new documentation of Treholt revelations which concern national security. In fact, Gordievsky has emphasized Treholt’s role as an agent of influence and as a collector of political intelligence.Footnote 18 But Treholt was not charged with such offenses, and apart from violating his obligations as a civil servant it is very hard to see what charges they could have led to. If there had been concrete evidence, for instance, of leaks from Treholt of Norwegian negotiating positions during the talks on the delimitation of the economic zone on the Barents Sea (in which Treholt played a key role and which ended in a very controversial agreement) the political condemnation would have been massive, but it is not obvious that this would have been a chargeable offence under the espionage legislation. The prosecution did make an attempt to extend the concept of a secret as described in the penal code, but this attempt was largely rejected by the court, in line with the argument by a minority of the court-appointed experts.

In August 1991 the Court declassified information from 18 pages of the secret part of the Treholt verdict. Even though the new information does in my view add to the evidence for his technical guilt under these particular paragraphs, still, approximately 100 pages of the verdict remain wholly or partly classified. Treholt’s defense lawyer has argued that increased openness about the verdict and the court proceedings will speak to the defendant’s favor. This may be correct in the limited sense that some of the mystique about the closed sessions evaporates. However, so far Treholt has not had much more success with either Norwegian or Russian glasnost’ than the sons of the Rosenbergs have had with Khrushchev’s unexpurgated memoirs, Sadupletov’s memoirs, or and other new information on the Rosenberg case.

An uncertain factor is whether the authorities possessed any information which they refrained from presenting in court. The fact that they revealed some of Gordievsky’s information (even though it occurred in a super-secret session and though he was not named, he must have been exposed to considerable danger) and presented the illegally obtained evidence from the search of Treholt’s apartment in court, indicates that the prosecution was hard pressed to make its case stick. However, if the authorities had had access to signals intelligence, it seems very likely that it would not have been kept outside the courtroom, in order not to endanger ‘sources and methods’. We know that signals intelligence—the Venona material—played an important role behind the scenes in the Rosenberg case. A slight preview of a possible future development in the Treholt case was provided by Ørnulf Tofte, who is cited by Treholt as having said in an early interrogation that there was a significant increase in radio traffic from the Soviet embassy in 1973–74, that is, several years after Treholt was recruited and when he was first employed in an official position (as politically secretary to Jens Evensen during the negotiations for a trade agreement between Norway and the Common Market). It is not known whether reference was made to such traffic analyses in closed sessions of the trial, but it would in any case be a large step from that to reveal the contents of decrypted intelligence, if any such exists.

In spy cases prosecuting authorities have been known to cut corners. They represent the collective anger of the nation over treasonous activities, they ‘know’ that the defendant lies through his teeth, they may know more than they can reveal to the court, technical guilt is notoriously hard to establish, and the secrecy of the proceedings provide a golden opportunity for getting away with more than would be possible in other criminal cases. When, as in the Rosenberg and Treholt trials, they get free points from the defense lawyers by unrealistic insistence on total acquittal, the outcome may turn out to be unduly harsh. My tentative guess about a post-revisionist literature on the Treholt case is that he may be seen to have provided the Russians with much more information than included in the charges, while the legal basis for his conviction under the national security paragraphs of the penal code was nevertheless weaker than the verdict made out. The drastic conclusion here may be that an involuntary alliance of Cold War crusaders on both sides sent Treholt to prison for much longer than would have been justified, had the complete evidence been publicly available, but that he may have been let off too lightly in the political arena.

When the Norwegian book market is overloaded with Treholt books, the available English-language information is remarkably sparse.Footnote 19 So while waiting for the post-revisionist revelations, a solid journalistic book in English could serve a useful function.