SDUs (Surveillance Detection Units) and What They Do

…and what they don’t do, incidentally.

An SDU, in regards to embassy security, is a Surveillance Detection Unit. The name really says it all, but there is still a lot of controversy once one of these units are discovered.

The task of the SDU is just what the name says it is – detecting surveillance, i.e. counterintelligence. Find out who, if any, are watching, and then watch them to see if there’s a need to do anything but watch them. If there is a need, then redirect the “doing something” part to the appropriate authorities.

For more about the abbreviations used in this article, and more about embassy security specifics, visit our other pages on the subject here, here and here.

The recent controversy in Norway, in regards to the SDU that has been operating under the authority of the RSO (Regional Security Officer) and in turn the Department of State, shows that these groups operate in a definite gray area of the law. The trouble is, once you’re operating outside the embassy walls or fences, host country laws apply, and in most cases, that country has laws that govern surveillance and registering information about its inhabitants and citizens. In just about every instance, the host country will have some sort of specialized group within the police that take care of it – in Norway, this agency was formerly called POT (yeah, yeah. Ha ha), now named PST, has a monopoly on everything national security / terrorism / surveillance related. And now they’re PO’d.

SDU Methodology

The SDU answers to the RSO, who also oversees and administers the LGF (Local Guard Force) and is the liaison to the host country in regards to security issues.

The SDU is different to the LGF or the rest of the RSO’s office because of their methods in general. Their tasks, per se, is not too different from the LGF, but while the LGF is usually uniformed, stationed inside the embassy compound and highly visible, the SDU will be stationed outside the embassy, working in plain clothes and will do its best not to be noticed or seen as having anything to do with the embassy. The members will normally be recruited from police or military intelligence, and are usually very experienced in their chosen field. They will actively follow, photograph, videotape and monitor persons that they deem to be deserving of that treatment, and will also report back to the RSO, who will disperse the information to the LGF as necessary.

And example; Person A is observed taking pictures of the embassy building and grounds a number of times. The first times, the SDU will photograph Person A, leaving it at that, but flagging the image and report as recent, and keep an eye out for the person. If Person A keeps coming, the SDU will actively follow Person A, track movements and report to the RSO. If Person A has, for example, met with other persons from SDU reports, the surveillance will be stepped up, the LGF will be informed and personal information about the person is found and looked into.

The SDU will also use this method when it comes to other embassy connected sites such as MSG (Marine Security Guard) quarters if they are outside the main compound, the ambassador’s residence, etc.

SDU Relationship With Host Country

In most cases, the host country government will be asked for permission to run an SDU program, and permissions will be obtained to register and monitor host country citizens. In the case of Norway, that permission was denied, something which is surely common, since most countries have the same attitude towards foreign intelligence gathering on their soil.

The SDU in Norway was started up approx. 10 years ago anyway, and this is also surely an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) when it comes to dealing with host country denial of permission. The SDU is an integral part of the embassy security setup.

In most cases, the members of the LGF and the RSO’s office will be informed that talking to host country authorities of the activities of the RSO, LGF or SDU is not allowed, and that passing any information about sensitive operation branches will be grounds for dismissal and legal action. In short, the LGF and members of the RSO’s office will be punished if they tell host country LE (Law Enforcement) about the SDU. The embassy will also operate with an internal document classification called “Law Enforcement Sensitive”, which means that it is not to be shown to host country LE. If any such information has to go out to the LE, it is to be done through the RSO only.

SDU Relationship With LGF

The LGF is another part of the embassy security setup, and answers to the RSO, same as SDU. The LGF will always limit communication with the SDU, and any information that is not deemed too urgent is to pass through the RSO before going out to the SDU – the same applies vice versa, as described above.

In the event that the information has to be passed right away, the LGF will always be able to reach the SDU by way of radio and/or cellphone. Every LGF position will have contact details and radio call signs for the SDU, and every SDU will have the call signs of the LGF position, in case they need information or assistance.

In extreme cases, the LGF may be called out by the SDU to assist if a dangerous situation arises, and the SDU is close enough to the embassy. In general, the SDU will not be armed, and in cases where they may have been compromised, the LGF will be the natural resource (so to speak) to draw on, since the SDU will have serious trouble explaining to host country LE why they need assistance or got in trouble in the first place. The LGF in Norway have on several occasions come to the aid of the SDU, including one incident in 2009 when members of the SDU were cornered at a nearby cafe by “persons of interest” to the SDU. Three members of the LGF (including one shift supervisor) were dispatched (outside embassy compound) to make sure the SDU members could leave unhindered, and were successful in doing so. Host country LE was never contacted or informed about this action, which is, technically, US State Department Agents acting on foreign soil in an LE matter.

US DoS Attitude towards SDU Operations

While press attention in regards to SDU operations is a bad thing, the risk of exposure is always present, and will be an issue from time to time. While the RSO, the embassy and the DoS (Dept. of State) may say that the SDU operations have ceased, that is unlikely. The SDU, as described above, is an integral part of the embassy security setup, and is never likely to be shut down or radically changed. In instances where the operations are cleared with the host country and permissions have been obtained, this will hardly be an issue, but in most cases, it will be.

Key thing to remember here is that while they may have changed their offices, they are still out there.

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