AS A SWEDISH eminence grise, a powerful background figure, well- connected with the Social Democratic Party, Ebbe Carlsson was a paradoxically public man.
In 1988 it became clear that Carlsson had been running a private, 'unconventional' investigation of the assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme two years previously with the go-ahead from the Government, and the support of at least the minister of justice, Mrs Anna- Greta Leijon, and possibly of the then prime minister, Ingvar Carlsson (no relation), himself. As a result, the Minister of Justice, the chiefs of the national police and the Swedish special branch all fell from power, and the government itself was nearly brought down.
Carlsson was convinced that the left-wing Kurdish organisation PKK, in collusion with the ayatollahs of Iran, were behind Palme's murder, and he was indignant that, according to him, the Swedish special branch had neglected warnings back in 1986 that a political conspiracy was afoot.
In order to check his investigations with French and British intelligence sources, Carlsson equipped himself with letters of introduction from the minister, which were kept secret and which became a political liability when the whole 'Ebbe Carlsson affair' blew wide open in June 1988. Leijon had to resign and, during that long hot political summer, the Swedish public was glued to their television sets, watching the parliamentary constitutional watch- dog committee interrogate ministers and senior police officers.
It became obvious that Carlsson, true to his style, had been running a free-lance operation, interpreting his mandate from the government in a fairly unorthodox manner. Not only the televised public hearings, a novelty in Sweden, but also Carlsson's personal performance made many commentators draw parallels with Oliver North, whose free-lance activities in the White House either did or did not have full authorisation from his superiors.
Carlsson did show a certain kinship with Oliver North, not least in his impatience with politicians and the Swedish Riksdag, which, he said, had not 'dared' to pass laws allowing the bugging, for example, of the Swedish members of the PKK organisation. Carlsson proceeded to do so himself, using sophisticated equipment - the importing of which landed him and one of his bodyguards in court. A lower Stockholm court found Carlsson innocent of the charges, while later the superior court on appeal found him guilty of smuggling the bugging equipment into Sweden and did not accept his or the superior police officers' defence that the bugging was done as an emergency measure.
Carlsson had many friends and was an intensely personable individual. He was indignant, too, when the political opposition attempted to make his sexual preferences an issue. On television before the watch-dog committee he freely, as he put it, 'stood by his homosexuality' and said that he, until then, had believed that Sweden was a nation where the rights of the individual to lead his own private life were respected and defended by the government. Last autumn he went public on a popular television programme about his by then well-advanced case of Aids, and once again became the centre of Swedish attention.
Carlsson had been a journalist from early on, working at some of the main Swedish newspapers before becoming a government spokesman at the Ministry of Justice in 1973, and - when the Social Democratic government left office in 1976 - editor in his own right of one of the party newspapers, the Vastgota-Demokraten in Boras in western Sweden. (Sometimes his English-speaking friends called him the 'Visigoth Demagogue'.)
A life-long social democrat, Carlsson was very close to Olof Palme, who found him refreshingly insolent. Palme's youngest son was at a French skiing resort when the prime minister was murdered in February 1986, and Carlsson, a close friend of the family, fetched him by car to Paris where he happened to be on the night of the assassination.
In 1984 Carlsson was appointed managing director of Bonnier Fakta, part of the Bonnier publishing firm. He was also president of the Swedish Canoe Society, and in Barcelona yesterday the members of the Swedish Olympic team were not told about his demise until after the competition.