“Sitting quiet is taking part”

ISBN 978-3-86489-276-9

How the FBI tried to make Iceland a complicit ally in framing Julian Assange

by Sara Chessa*

Former Icelandic Interior Minister tells Independent Australia how he blocked US interference in 2011 in order to defend WikiLeaks and its publisher Julian Assange.
A Minister of the Interior wakes up one summer morning and finds out that a plane full of United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents has landed in his country, aiming to carry out police investigations without proper permission from the authorities.
How many statesmen would have the strength to say, “No, you can’t do this”, to the United States? Former Icelandic Interior Minister Ögmundur Jónasson, in fact, did this — and for the sake of investigative journalism. He understood that something wrong with the sudden FBI mission in Reykjavik, and that this had to do with the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks and its publisher Julian Assange.
Initially, it looked like a simple matter of collaboration against cyber attacks.
Ögmundur Jónasson told Independent Australia:
“In June 2011 I was told that US intelligence had discovered that hackers were preparing an attack on Icelandic governmental institutions. I was asked if we wanted to cooperate with the Americans.”
Of course, Iceland was interested in hearing what they had to say and then the idea was to evaluate whether to cooperate and to what extent. Icelandic police officers went to Washington and American officers visited Iceland in order to map the problem out, but no proof of possible attacks emerged.
However, in August 2011, a plane full of FBI agents accompanied by prosecutors landed in Reykjavik.
Jónasson says:
“When I heard of this, I asked my colleagues in the Ministry if, unknown to me, the FBI had been given permission to carry out police work in Iceland. I certainly had not given such a permission and the decision should anyway have been on my table.”
He then spoke with the Chief of Icelandic Police, having been told a meeting had been planned.
Jónasson explains:
“I knew that the FBI were on the way to Police Headquarters with the intention to map out cooperation linked to the WikiLeaks issue. I requested that no such meeting should take place and that there should be no further contact whatsoever.”
The FBI agents were not permitted to carry out any police work in Iceland.
But this was not only about defending Iceland’s sovereignty. According to Mr Jónasson, during this process, he had been informed that the FBI showed up in Reykjavik with the aim of framing Julian Assange.
While it would be logical to ask for some kind of documentary proof to this effect, Jónasson is clear:
“I am the proof. When I say they came here to frame Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, I don’t say this lightly, I am selecting my words very carefully, I know what I am talking about. I am stating this in accordance with my word of honour that I knew this was the case. I have testified to this effect in front of a parliamentary committee and in the parliamentary assembly, and my words have not been contested.”
Actually, it works like this in most countries. It’s difficult to find someone as well informed as is the Minister of Interior.
Beyond his certainty regarding the FBI trying to make life difficult for WikiLeaks, Mr Jónasson also has a theory on another possible goal pursued by the US:
“In a way, it might be said that they wanted to frame us as well, by turning Iceland from being the uncritical complaisant ally (like most of the NATO’s partners are) to become the complicit one in the war against WikiLeaks.”
The whole WikiLeaks story highlights how the word “empire” can still be used nowadays in connection with the power machine that the US Department of State built all around the world. Whether we agree or not with the use of that term, it is still uncommon for a NATO member to say “No” to a request of cooperation by the US.
However, the FBI agents left. “They had no option,”  the former Interior Minister explains.
“As things turned out the best they could hope for was our silence. They can live with anything as long as they can keep us silent, uncritical, complaisant, but once we speak, they are just naked, like the emperor in the fable.”
In Ögmundur Jónasson’s view, the responsibility of states and individuals plays a game-changing role. For Jónasson, denying complicity to the US agents was a crucial step in standing up for investigative journalism.
He says:
“Being informed of their real intentions, I figured out that the communications from them in June 2011 were intended as camouflage. They were establishing a contact, but from the beginning, they wanted to come full force at a later stage and be able to say ‚this is just in continuation of our good cooperation’.”
But even if the FBI were requested to leave Iceland for lack of proper procedure, Ögmundur Jónasson emphasises that there is also the dimension of taking sides in a vicious power game and faced with a choice, he would most certainly ally with WikiLeaks rather than with the FBI.
Following on from this is the question of whether Iceland could be considered a safe country for journalists and whistleblowers, including the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Kristinn Hrafnsson, currently living in Reykjavik.
Ögmundur Jónasson says:
“Kristinn Hrafnsson is highly respected in Iceland. But for WikiLeaks and whistleblowers in general, I think it will depend – as indeed anywhere – on the public, which in the end is the guardian of freedom, including the freedom of the press. You can have excellent laws and constitutions, and they are, for sure, needed, but it is almost non-relevant if society is asleep. You need people to speak up.”
This is for Ögmundur Jónasson the main point also in Assange’s case:
“WikiLeaks was bringing out the truth, revelaing crimes which should have been taken to court. This has been prevented. So the charges brought against the publisher are, in reality, charges against free speech and freedom of the press. The American police and secret services are trying to create an atmosphere of impunity, where they can do anything. Even when they landed here, they were showing contempt for democracy.
 What they are doing to Assange is in opposition to the American Constitution and the principles of human rights, they claim they are protecting.”
He is not alone in his considerations, given what the UN Special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, said some months ago regarding Assange.
The former Icelandic Interior Minister is aware of this and quotes the statement by Melzer:
“In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution I have never seen a group of democratic states ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonise and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law ... The collective persecution of Julian Assange must end here and now!”
“These are heavy words,”  Ögmundur Jónasson says.
But in his opinion, the responsibility does not only rest with those states directly involved:
“What is Australia doing? Isn’t Julian Assange an Australian citizen? However, I don’t see Australian authorities taking on the responsibility to protect their citizen. Australia shows, as far as I can see, the same indifference and hence complicity with the US as is the case in most other lands. And may I add where is the world press, the same press which gratefully published the material WikiLeaks provided them with? Why are they quiet? In the end, we are all responsible. We are seeing an individual and an organisation taken to court, with 18 charges which could lead to 175 years in prison. All this for carrying out investigative journalism.”
In 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also stated Assange should walk free. However, he is in a London prison, waiting for the US extradition hearing scheduled for February 2020. Meanwhile, the sexual misconduct allegations in Sweden (never turned into charges) are not involved with his current imprisonment.
When Ögmundur Jónasson is asked who can do something to make governments align with the UN request, he again brings into play the people:
“All depends on us. There is not such a thing as spectators. Everybody is taking a part – sitting quiet is taking part!”
It is believed the FBI agents, after being chased out of Iceland, went to Denmark. It is not known if they asked for the same cooperation there that they did not obtain in Iceland. Unlike Iceland, Denmark kept quiet about the Bureau’s visit. So do most countries, whether complaisant or complicit – to use Jónasson’s wording.
Ögmundur Jónasson does not want to speculate on what happened in Denmark or other countries.
He says:
“My suspicion, however, is that the FBI was quite happy with Denmark’s silence at this point. From their point of view, I guess, when it comes to undercover work, the thumb rule is that silence is golden.”
And, maybe, other complicit partners were found, elsewhere in Europe.    •

*    Sara Chessa is a UK-based independent journalist.

Source: Independent Australia (IA) from 5 November 2019