Just three years after WikiLeaks first published classified information with help from volunteers in Reykjavík, another massive national security scandal in the U.S. has managed to weave Iceland into its narrative. After leaking top-secret documents to the Guardian detailing clandestine American intelligence activities and cyber warfare, a 29-year-old former intelligence contractor named Edward Snowden wants refuge in Iceland.
While it could put Iceland on a collision course with the world’s sole superpower—American officials have launched a criminal investigation into Snowden, who is currently hiding out in Hong Kong—two prominent opposition MPs told the Grapevine that Iceland should welcome the whistleblower. Calling Iceland a country “that puts a strong emphasis on personal freedom and the internet,” former minister of foreign affairs and current Social Democrat MP Össur Skarphéðinsson said that “Iceland could very well justify granting him asylum on political grounds.” And former minister of the interior and current Left-Green MP Ögmundur Jónasson said that Snowden “is doing us all a favour by telling us about espionage allegedly conducted by U.S. authorities.”
“This is no private matter for the Americans since it has to do with gathering information about individuals and groups on the internet,” Ögmundur added. “We Icelanders should follow this very carefully and be open to the idea of giving Edward Snowden asylum here if he so wishes, even offer him assistance.”
Snowden first brought up the issue of a permanent sanctuary in Iceland when he outed himself in a June 9 interview with Guardian journalist Ewan MacAskill who, alongside colleague Glenn Greenwald, had used the former contractor’s leaks as the primary source for explosive reporting.
“My predisposition is to seek asylum in a country with shared values,” Snowden said. “The nation that most encompasses this is Iceland. They stood up for people over internet freedom.”
Although he didn’t explicitly mention it, Snowden was referring to Iceland’s post collapse experimentation with 21st century transparency. Icelanders welcomed WikiLeaks in late 2009 after the Kaupþing-RÚV gag order scandal—a move that set the stage for Reykjavík to play a massive role in Cablegate and the subsequent fallout. Alþingi’s unanimous approval of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) in 2010—a resolution calling on Iceland to modernize protection for journalists and freedom of information laws—similarly garnered international attention.
A fanciful desire?
But Snowden himself mentioned that his desire might be fanciful. Even the International Modern Media Institute—the non-profit organization that essentially started out as a lobby for IMMI, the parliamentary resolution—noted that other nations could offer Snowden stronger protection due to “the security implications of asylum.”
In a statement issued after Snowden went public, IMMI Executive Director Smári McCarthy and Birgitta Jónsdóttir, IMMI chairman and Pirate Party MP—both former WikiLeaks volunteers who have been contacted by American officials for their work—noted that “Iceland may not be the best location, depending on various questions regarding the legal framework.” Iceland and the United States have an extradition treaty, and Iceland, according to reports based on WikiLeaks disclosures, was party to the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme under the Bush administration between 2001 and 2007—an era dominated by the incumbent ruling parties.
Snowden himself remarked, in a June 17 Q&A with Guardian journalists and readers, that he believed staying in Hong Kong, for the time being, offered him more security than a direct trip to Iceland.
“I had to travel with no advance booking to a country with the cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained,” he explained. “Hong Kong provided that. Iceland could be pushed harder, quicker, before the public could have a chance to make their feelings known, and I would not put that past the current U.S. administration.”
Ready to assist
Despite potential pitfalls, IMMI noted in its June 9 statement that it planned to reach out to Snowden and Minister of the Interior Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir. And in an email, Smári said that IMMI has, in fact, reached out to Snowden through their contacts who are in touch with him. “The message was simply that we stood ready to assist,” he said.
Investigative journalist and WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson said in a Fréttablaðið column that a representative for Snowden approached him on June 12, requesting his help liaising with the Icelandic government. Smári added that IMMI has also contacted the Icelandic government “explaining the steps that we have taken and that we would attempt to be involved.”
Jóhannes Tómasson, a spokesperson from the Ministry of the Interior, said that Kristinn Hrafnsson requested a meeting on his case and this request was granted the same day. “A representative of the Ministry of the Interior met him and went over with him the legislative arrangements regarding asylum seekers and the rules that are in force,” he said. “The legislation is general and applies equally to everyone,” he said. “In order to apply for asylum in Iceland, the individual in question must be present in Iceland and make the application in his or her own name.”
Whether or not the Snowden case would impact Iceland’s foreign relations, the domestic climate might not be terribly favourable. In May, when Ögmundur Jónasson was still minister of the interior, Iceland deported 29 ethnic Serbs to Croatia on the grounds that ethnic minorities are protected under Croatian law, even though reality might not comport with the law.
Is it possible?
Iceland has also not yet become the sort of digital age safe haven that Snowden described.
“Whistleblower protection is woefully unlegislated,” Smári said. “Most of the progress to date has been in the form of research and development of laws, not in the actual proposal and adoption of laws.” The majority of journalistic protections that have been codified into law as a result of the 2010 parliamentary resolution, he wrote, somewhat concern “information and telecommunications acts” and “a new media law, which protects sources and places transparency requirements on media outlets.”
But, he noted, if Iceland bestows citizenship upon Snowden, it would be illegal, under article 66 of the Icelandic constitution, to extradite him.
“Whether the same applies to those who have been granted asylum is a slightly complicated question,” he said. “Generally speaking, those granted asylum are not automatically citizens, nor do they have the rights of citizens.”
Nor would Snowden have to be in Iceland to become a citizen by act of Parliament. Össur pointed out that Alþingi granted citizenship to Bobby Fischer last decade. The chess legend, who had become increasingly infamous for anti-Semitic rants—not a crime under U.S. law—and allegedly evading taxes and breaking the travel embargo against Yugoslavia in 1992—both crimes under U.S. law—was granted Icelandic citizenship in 2005, while under detention in Japan.
“I acknowledge that it might be politically difficult for the government to be a prime mover of such a proposal,” Össur said. “However, if my memory serves me, some of the new ministers in our government were among the sponsors of a whistleblowers’ bill, among them our beloved minister of foreign affairs. So instead of confronting the government with the issue, it might be an idea to solicit their tacit approval for a Private Members Bill on yielding political asylum to Snowden.”
A bigger issue
At the heart of the matter lies not just an academic conversation about individuals’ privacy. In the U.S., for example, federal officials played a role in cracking down on the Occupy Movement. Anti-war activists and anarchists have been investigated for political beliefs in counter-terrorist probes. Journalists—from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to Fox News’ James Rosen—have been investigated by the Obama administration’s Justice Department for allegedly conspiring to leak classified information—something that “senior administration officials” and friendly journalists do all the time in D.C.
Iceland, too, has not been left unmolested by the long arm of American spookdom. In 2011, for example, the FBI turned up unannounced to interview a WikiLeaks associate. Ögmundur, however, ordered the Icelandic police to refrain from cooperating.
The involvement of NSA intelligence gathering is unclear in these cases. But considering how the Obama administration stands accused of trampling on free speech and privacy, dubiously, in the name of national security, the global import of the former contractor’s allegations is unquestionable. Icelandic law, too, might have been subverted, with Snowden providing mounting evidence of global data mining, espionage, and cyber warfare.
“Edward Snowden is doing us all a favour by telling us about espionage allegedly conducted by U.S. authorities,” Ögmundur said.
“The Icelandic government, being charged with safeguarding Icelandic sovereignty, should take a stand on this issue,” Smári added. “I have no doubt they will.”
Update: Change of plans? As of June 24, Snowden’s reported route to political asylum has changed direction. Read further coverage here.
Book your day tours in Iceland right here!