Smári McCarthy is a twenty-nine year old information activist, developer, founding member of Iceland’s Pirate Party, executive director of the International Modern Media Institute, and former WikiLeaks volunteer. In 2010 he participated in a project with WikiLeaks, called “Collateral Murder.” A team lead by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange worked in Reykjavík, preparing for the April 5 release of leaked United States military footage from an Apache helicopter airstrike outside Baghdad in July 2007. The airstrike wounded two children and killed around a dozen unarmed people, including two Reuters employees. In May of 2010, US Army private Bradley Manning was arrested on allegations of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks, including the footage of the airstrikes. Bradley Manning is currently on trial. American investigative journalist Alexa O’Brien stated that in November 2010 the U.S. Attorney General at the Department of Justice confirmed an “active, ongoing criminal investigation,” of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, which was again confirmed ongoing in March 2013. It’s an enormous investigation—in line with the concerns raised from Edward Snowden’s recent leaks—with a wide, catchall dragnet that appears to encompass anyone who has been involved with WikiLeaks.
“The Dragnet at the Edge of Forever”
The evening of June 18, Smári opened his Gmail inbox to find a nondescript-looking email from Google. Attached to the email were two scanned court orders from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia (U.S.C.E.D.V.); one demanding Google disclose information from Smári’s Gmail account and another outlining the terms of nondisclosure on the then sealed order. Specifically, “the records and other information described in Attachment A to this Order,” which listed eight types of information, considered metadata (i.e. “descriptions of whom I communicated with, when, for how long; who communicated with me, when, for how long; which documents I have authored, when I have connected to Google’s services, which services I have used, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam,” Smári explained), “for the time period of November 1, 2009 to the present,” which at the time the court order was filed, was July 14, 2011. The second paragraph of the order, issued July 2011, read: “The Court finds that the United States has offered specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the records or other information sought are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” Smári is Case No. 1:11 EC 105.
The court order for Case No. 1:11 EC 105 was unsealed on May 2, 2013 by Federal Judge Liam O’Grady. ‘EC’ stands for ‘electronic communication’ order, which is different from a Search Warrant, or ‘SW.’ “There was no SW issued to me to my knowledge, although Alexa O’Brien says otherwise. I haven’t seen the document,” Smári told me. Herbert Snorrason also received one of these emails from Google, Case No. 1:11-sw-594, filed August 12, 2011. Herbert is a university student, activist and developer. He was a monitor for the WikiLeaks chat room for a couple of months but left in 2010 along with other WikiLeaks volunteers during a dispute about Assange’s leadership style and inadequate redaction of the Iraq war logs. Herbert’s email came with an added search warrant, which means the metadata as well as the content of his Gmail account were searched.
The U.S.C.E.D.V. claims that there are “specific and articulable facts” that Smári and Herbert’s Gmail account information is relevant to a criminal investigation, but the men haven’t been given any specific facts. Of course, they know the reason they’ve been investigated is because of their respective connections to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, though neither are active volunteers. Regardless, it’s the principles of the matter that remain problematic. The investigation “appears to have been conducted not for the purpose of attributing criminal behaviour to those guilty of conducting said war crimes and violations of fundamental human rights, but to punish those who performed the public service of making the world aware of them,” Smári and Herbert wrote in a joint blog post entitled “The Dragnet at the Edge of Forever”.
Alexa O’Brien has been closely reporting on Bradley Manning’s trial as well as the investigation into WikiLeaks. On her website she published a document of every search warrant under seal by the U.S.C.E.D.V. between May 3, 2010 (the month Bradley Manning was arrested) and April 11, 2013, as well as another list of electronic court orders under seal. She states that between May and December 2010 there were 456 search warrants under seal, 756 search warrants in 2011, and 292 between January and April 11, 2013. “The 700 number comes from Alexa O’Brien,” Smári wrote when I asked for clarity on the matter, “but she has pointed to a court docket referring to the file numbers of all of the files pertaining to a certain case, and mine and Herbert’s files were included in that docket.” Though not necessarily surprising, it is significant that the personal information of around 700 people may have been searched as an element for building a case against one Julian Assange. Smári and I talked about the possibility of that number of people being under investigation. He told me, “I don’t care about my personal case, but I’m concerned about civil liberties in the larger investigation. You have to ask, what is probable cause?”
I called Iceland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on July 1, the day Edward Snowden applied for asylum, to ask for Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson’s response to the news about Smári and Herbert. The Icelandic government was very quiet about the incident. The music that played when I was put on hold was poppy with rhythmic, echoing claps. It seemed horribly out of place. But in hindsight, it wasn’t. It complemented the already bizarre nature of the call. To ask the Foreign Minister what he thought about citizens of my country spying on citizens of his country. The music cut off and the press officer answered. She told me to email her. I did, and asked if the next day would work for a phone conversation if the Minister couldn’t be reached then. “I suspect that tomorrow is almost impossible due to the Ban Ki-moon visit. But I will check.” Of course, Ban Ki-moon. The United Nations secretary general came to Iceland for an official visit on July 2. While in Iceland, Ban Ki-moon spoke out on the Snowden case, saying that he considers it to be misuse, adding that: “Access can be for the greater good, but sometimes it creates bigger problems through misuse by individuals.”
I asked if anyone else in the Foreign Ministry would be available for a statement. “Neither the Minister nor anyone else at the ministry will be commenting on this particular issue, However, the Minister made some general comments in parliament on allegations of spying, which may be of some use,” she said, and attached a link of written copy from a Parliament session that appeared to have taken place that morning, where MP Árni Þór Sigurðsson (Left-Green Movement) made an enquiry about American intelligence in Europe.
It is “a serious matter, if it’s true that governments, whoever they are, are spying on their most devoted allies and I feel it needs explaining,” said Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, “at least whether it’s true or not. As far as I know, it’s not quite clear whether news of this matter are entirely true but it seems that some sort of operation against allies in Europe and the EU was going on and obviously, that worries us. The European Commission has demanded answers from the United States and we will follow closely how the matter unfolds. But we have already, just so you know, criticised US authorities here in Iceland, that is, we contacted their embassy in Reykjavík and have also, through our embassy in Washington, made comments on and requested, or at least stated that it must be unfortunate and even unthinkable if US authorities have been operating like that in Iceland, and that they should respond to that. So we’ve sent to ball to their court. But of course we should absolutely not be so naïve as to think that if governments are spying on other countries, in Europe or elsewhere, that we’re exempt from that.”
Do the right thing, even when someone is watching
I called Pirate Party MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir on July 9. She had a bit of a cough, there was a summer cold going around. On the last day of parliament, only days earlier on July 4, Edward Snowden applied for Icelandic citizenship and the MPs were “running around like a headless chicken” trying to address all the controversial issues always crammed into the last day, Birgitta told me. In 2011, Birgitta found out that information from her Twitter account was disclosed as part of the US grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks. She’s credited as “co-producer” of “Collateral Murder.”
“They are fishing. It was a massive fishing expedition, and in my opinion they went too far,” Birgitta sighed, “and you know, they’re trying to figure out if I knew anything about Manning in advance, which I didn’t. It was as much of a surprise to me as anybody else—that he was who he was. I was really shocked, because he’s just slightly older than my older son.” I asked if she thought these recent events would at all change relations between Iceland and the US. “I don’t think so. I don’t think this current government cares. At least, they’ve not shown any sort of attempt to put their foot down. I talked about these issues with one Member of Parliament and he said, and many of them actually said, not only him, that we should be grateful that they are interested in snooping on Icelanders, because we’re so small.”
At one point in our conversation, Birgitta paused and took a deep breath, “My name has been mentioned in the [Bradley Manning] trial, by the way, a few times. Because apparently he searched for my name, and yeah so, I am—I don’t, I just, I have no idea how this is going to end actually.”
Illustrations By Hördur Krisbjörnsson
This article is part of our issue 10 feature, which spotlights the ongoing, interconnected saga of WikiLeaks, IMMI and the rise of the surveillance state.
Read our interview with former WikiLeaks volunteer/FBI informant “Siggi the Hacker” here.
Read WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson’s response here.
Read informant Adrian Lamo’s comments on the case of Siggi here.
Read about espionage in Iceland here.
Read about the dead or dying dream of Iceland as “whistleblower haven” here.