Jan 15, 2011 – 8:30 AM ET | Last Updated: Jan 17, 2011 10:47 AM ET
Peter J. Thompson/National Post
Birgitta Jonsdottir is the Iceland MP under investigation by the US Justice department who is demanding Twitter hand over access to her personal account details, Wednesday January 12, 2011
A former WikiLeaks spokeswoman and now an Icelandic parliamentarian, Birgitta Jonsdottir had to rearrange her flight schedule for a Canadian visit this week after she became the centre of a diplomatic spat when the U.S. justice department subpoenaed Twitter to hand over her personal details. Ms. Jonsdottir spoke to the Post’s Tamsin McMahon about her thoughts on Julian Assange, why she left WikiLeaks, and her Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, legislation that aims to make Iceland a global save haven for whistleblowers and investigative journalists hamstrung by domestic censorship.
Why are you in Toronto?
Canada used to be the country that other countries would look for when it came to freedom of information and it’s obviously lagging behind. So it’s now sort of at the bottom. So I hope that by talking about these issues that will be an inspiration for everybody who really cares for these things to have Canada again be one of the top countries when it comes to these laws.
Your Icelandic Modern Media Initiative legislation hopes to make Iceland a global safe haven for whistleblowers and journalists. What are the implications for Canada if it’s passed?
One thing it will make sure of is if you publish material through Icelandic servers, it should not be possible to take it down.
Just the simple notion for Canadian authorities that the fact that all the main investigative journalist sections want to move their operations to Iceland, maybe that will be an inspiration for the Canadian legislators to make sure that the working environment for Canadian journalists would be in such a way that they can do their work to report the stories that need to be told.
It is really time to put a brake on the law firms and the corporations that are constantly, everyday, every hour of the day and every second of the day, looking for opportunities to take away our right to know things. Particularly in relation to the big international corporations and politicians that have something to hide.
Why did you change your travel itinerary to avoid going through the U.S. to get to Toronto?
I was advised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Iceland and lawyers in the United States right now that while this is not clear about how the U.S. authorities would respond to the complaints from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that it would be better to avoid going through the United States.
Obviously, the bureaucrats in the United States don’t necessarily know that I’m not responsible for the [leak of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic] cables, but the cable have sort of embarrassed the entire bureaucratic body in the United States. Since I’m obviously in the fishing net, it’s better to at least get a clear answer if I can get guarantees from the U.S. authorities that I can travel without the risk of being interrogated or my equipment being taken away.
But I’m definitely going there unless they tell me they’re going to be sending me to Guantanamo Bay or something.
What do you think the U.S. Justice Department was trying to find by subpoenaing your Twitter account?
I think that they’re trying to build a case against Julian Assange to have him extradited to the United States and maybe they think that I know Bradley Manning [the U.S. soldier jailed on charges he leaked much of the government material to WikiLeaks], or that me and Julian had a long Tweet discussion about Bradley Manning. I don’t know, but I think it’s a part of a bigger fishing expedition.
For me, fighting against handing over this information to a foreign government, when I know they’re building a case based on sand, where they’re trying not only to criminalize whistelblowing, they’re also trying to criminalize the middle man that hands over the envelope from a source to a newspaper or the public, I find that to be very disturbing.
I also want to protest this because even if I don’t think that parliamentarians should have any more immunity than others, that’s still the law and that needs to be respected between borders.
Parliamentarians are just ordinary people or people with various different backgrounds and many of them care for different issues. Some care for Palestine. Others care for Tibet. So let’s say that this would be accepted as something that’s OK. Then I can’t say that I would feel very sympathetic toward members of the U.S. Senate who would get similar probes and fishing expeditions from Chinese authorities because of their support of Tibet, or the Israeli government wanting to probe into those that want to support Palestinian issues in Europe. So this opens up a whole can of worms.
I am not a terrorist even if I’ve gotten that label for standing up for environmental issues in Iceland and for WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is not a terrorist organization and it’s not right when people that have strong media attention, such Sarah Palin and others, when they start to call for the assassination of Julian Assange. Just look at what happened in Arizona. People need to understand that words are very powerful and if you use this word calling for the assassination of Julian Assange or me or anybody else associated with WikiLeaks, are these people willing to live with the consequences if any of us would be killed?
Do you think you’re really at risk of being assassinated?
You don’t put out empty threats like this. This is a very serious threat. Here is a person that was running as a vice-president of the United States saying things like this. How can you possibly take the United States seriously if this is the quality of the dialogue of the people that are running for the highest offices in this country?
Beyond the Collateral Murder [A leaked video of a 2007 U.S. air strike in Iraq that killed 12, including two Reuters journalists], how much involvement have you had with any of the other leaks?
Not at all. I just helped with the Collateral Murder video. I worked as a spokesperson in relation to that. I worked with Julian Assange and [early WikiLeaks spokesman] Daniel Schmidt [ Domscheit-Berg] extensively in getting their hands on experience with where laws are good when we were cherry-picking the best laws for [the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative].
I was at one stage asked to, just in case something would happen to Julian or anything else, I was a security in the sense that I had access to information that I would pass on, but other than that, I was never a part of the decision-making of what should be or should not be published. Along with many other people I kept bits and pieces of the puzzle that would have been published or at least kept in a safe place were anything to happen. It was like some encrypted files.
Why did you leave WikiLeaks?
If you had a startup company, it’s very hard when it grows to let go of your vision, or your idealism, or the way you do things. So I could see that WikiLeaks was morphing. The tendency is if you have an organic grassroots movements, it doesn’t matter if there’s one person that’s sort of leading the way because there are still very organic discussion-based decisions being made. When you morph into a larger structure, there are so many more responsibilities that come with that. You need to be able to utilize more people because there are just so many different responsibilities that come with it. So if you don’t have a very good structure in place, it is a very big danger that people will become disgruntled.
There is not enough transparency within the organization about decisions and not good enough communication flow and in order for a good communication flow, you have to have good structure and know whose role is appointed to each other. I just wanted to have a debate about this with sort of the core group of volunteers and I couldn’t. I tried for a long time and it didn’t happen.
One of the biggest criticisms on WikiLeaks, just like WikiLeaks criticizes government for their lack of transparency, there was a big criticism of WikiLeaks for not being transparent enough about their financial system, their donations. It would have just been so easy to make that just completely open instead of defending it all the time and having these speculations. I don’t think there was any reason to suspect that there was anything wrong with the financial aspect, it’s just that it needed to be more transparent.
Do you think WikiLeaks has done enough to support Bradley Manning after his arrest?
This is a tricky situation because on the one hand Julian did call out on the 15th of June last year for fundraising for Manning on the WikiLeaks mailing list. But it didn’t have a tag saying I’m donating to Bradley Manning. So this is one of my criticisms. Nobody really knows who sent money for Bradley Manning and who was supporting WikiLeaks. At the same time, because Bradley Manning was mentioned as the WikiLeaks source, even if we don’t know if he was or not, they offered to support half of his legal fees, which was around $50,000. Then that sort of changed. Julian said he could only do $20,000 and then the money never showed.
So I have allowed myself to criticize them to encourage them to do something about that. There were some fears I’ve heard that if WikiLeaks would really gets behind Bradley Manning, the U.S. authorities would use that as proof. So it’s a tricky situation how to deal with it.
But I think that it’s super important that people rally behind Bradley Manning because he has been sitting in jail for 7.5 months in isolation. And it’s no soft isolation. I don’t think he even has a pillow or anything. He needs for us to know that he exists and he needs to know that there are a lot of people that think that he at least should have a trial and what he did, if he is responsible for the Iraq war Collateral Murder video, that was a courageous act.
Do you know if it was Bradley Manning who leaked the files?
No. But if he is indeed the alleged source, then I feel compelled to stand behind him because it takes a hell of a lot of guts to report on war crimes, particularly if you were part of the war crimes by being part of the military.
Julian Assange is facing sexual assault charges in Sweden and his case has seemed to have even eclipsed the attention over what government information that has been leaked. What do think about the focus on these charges against him and his conduct as a person?
I don’t really I don’t know what he conduct is. I wasn’t there. I’ve seen police reports. I’ve seen his defense. I want to stress that there are these two women in Sweden that are having actually quite a miserable life and since we don’t know what happened, if they are honey pots — CIA spies — or if they are just ordinary women that are supporting WikiLeaks. We don’t know, so I think we should consider that and be considerate of all the parties involved by just letting go of speculating too much about this and focus on the content of WikiLeaks and to stop letting the messenger be in the way of the message he is delivering.
That is also the responsibility of the media. I know from many talks that I’ve had with Julian Assange that he is not like he is portrayed. His biggest dream is not to be on the front pages of newspaper, but the story that he wanted to tell it’s all been mixed up. I guess getting into the spotlight like he did, you have to be really well-prepared to deal with that and that’s why you also need structure. You need to be able to take the load off now and I think it would have saved him a lot of agony if that would have been in place before sh-t hit the fan.
If he is guilty, does that diminish the work he has done with WikiLeaks?
I don’t know. It should not. My personal thing, not with him, just in general, you really should always practice what you preach. It’s very hard to do that, but still the ultimate goal ought to be to always practice what you preach.
If you’re a priest and you’re talking about how you’re the middle man between God and us and then you abuse that power to some other means, that’s not really walking your talk. It’s the same if you are a poet and you write beautiful poetry about how you should honour women and then you go back home and you beat up your wife.
I’m not saying that Julian is not. I’m just saying that it is very important if you’re preaching for sort of freedom of information then you can’t really complain that somebody leaked your police report. It’s not even his police report, it’s the reports from the women.
But I think that the guy is just under tremendous pressure and that really the focus of all of this should be rather than Julian Assange versus Sweden, it should be Julian Assange versus extradition to the United States and I will support him in that. But with this Swedish thing, I just don’t want to get anywhere near it. I don’t even like talking about it. I shouldn’t have because it just adds on to this endless debate about something that is completely irrelevant to me.
You generally don’t talk about WikiLeaks much anymore. Why are you now?
I want to talk about WikiLeaks because I have now become affiliated again with WikiLeaks through this subpoena. I made a plan that if Julian Assange was attacked by any authority for the work he is doing for freedom of information that I would stick my neck out and that is the single most important thing.
To me the centre of the story is danger that people like him are facing by U.S. authorites rather than if he is annoying or not.
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