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Ole Kopreitan never knew his telephone was being tapped until he picked up the receiver one day, called a friend in the Socialist People's Party and found himself speaking to Norwegian army headquarters.

Nils Petter Gleditsch realized he was being watched when he called a colleague to arrange a meeting in Stockholm. Flying in from Oslo, he noticed a man taking photographs of him at the airport. Another was loitering outside his colleague's apartment.Dossiers on the two men, both veteran left-wing activists, are among an estimated 49,000 compiled by the Norwegian intelligence services in a vast and hitherto secret surveillance operation that ran from the late 1940s into the 1980s.

Its long-rumored existence, finally confirmed last week with the declassification of a 1,200-page government report known as Document 15, has prompted outrage among Norwegians, who pride themselves on their fiercely defended democratic rights.

"It's like the Stasi," said Kopreitan, a campaigner since the 1950s on issues such as the Vietnam War and German rearmament and now general secretary of Norwegian Committee on Nuclear Disarmaent. "You have to wonder how many people they got to.

"They say 49,000 dossiers, but many must have been destroyed and all those people had families and neighbors. Maybe a couple of hundred thousand? That's a hell of a lot in a country of four million people."

Initiated by Norway's dominant Labor Party amid fears native Communists were plotting with Moscow, the illegal operation seems to have been triggered by Finland's 1948 treaty of friendship and mutual assistance with the Soviet Union.

Document 15 says Haakon Lie, secretary-general of the Labor Party from 1945 to 1969, decided that the Communist threat must be taken seriously. He ordered Communist Party meetings to be bugged and allegedly listened to the proceedings of its 1951 congress from an Oslo bunker.

But while originally targeted at Communists, the operation - which included telephone-tapping, spying and police harassment - spiralled out of control in the '60s, taking in left-wing activists, women's libbers, ban-the-bomb campaigners, pro-Palestinians and even alternative bookshops.

Whoever was targeted, the spying shattered families, wrecked careers and pushed some people to near insanity, according to Hakan Sneve, a former Communist, now in his eighties.

"I am a bitter man. No one can expect me to forgive this," he said. "For decades I was watched by undercover agents. My mail was opened. My telephone was bugged. My children got visits from police who asked about their father."

Lie, 90, has rejected many of the report's accusations but justified his actions as "essential in order to reduce the strength of the Communists' position."

While embarrassed, the Labor government of Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland seems to have avoided being tainted by the scandal. "Mistakes were made and we accept responsibility," a party spokesman said. "But links between the intelligence service and the Labor Party ended in the early 1970s."

Norwegian intelligence was radically reformed and made accountable to parliament after a 1991 scandal in which Israeli agents, posing as Norwegian security officers, were allowed to interrogate Palestinian asylum-seekers.

But the scale of the operation revealed by Document 15 has shocked even the most battle-hardened activists.

"The fact that it went on into the '80s, that the judges routinely approved the phone-tap orders - it's like they got this mandate in the Forties and just carried on," said Gleditsch, a senior researcher at the Oslo Peace Research Institute. "It's just extraordinary."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)