Like many people in Iceland, I read today’s news about the US Navy “returning” to Iceland with a mixture of emotions. As has been pointed out, this news does not exactly mean thousands of troops are going to offload on our shores and re-house the NATO base in Keflavík – rather, air patrols searching for Russian subs in the North Atlantic will be stepped up.
However, a Navy official added that they “could eventually create a permanent patrol mission at the base … which would likely resemble the Navy’s maritime patrol force at its air base in Sigonella, Sicily, where squadrons rotate out every six months.” Sigonella’s base, incidentally, is home to over 4,000 troops. And we know the US military’s track record when it comes to gradually adding more troops and firepower to the countries it is ostensibly defending.
What is especially troubling, though, is that we never got the chance to put this important matter to a vote – the country learned about the Navy’s plans from local translations of coverage from Stars & Stripes, the US military’s media outlet. Not the Prime Minister, not the Foreign Minister, nor any other representative of the Icelandic government broke the news to us; the US military did.
I’ve visited the Keflavík base before, in September 2005, where I had the unfortunate task of investigating a murder that had taken place there. That visit and its aftermath was one of the weirdest and most unpleasant things I have ever had to deal with as a reporter.
In its heyday, the NATO base in Keflavík was like an American suburb in miniature. By the time I visited in 2005, there were few people left, but it was still a fairly bustling place. Myself and a photographer got onto the base easily enough, as we had been invited by servicemen from the Navy. Not so welcoming was the guy in charge of the place.
When we visited his office, the Chief of Operations asked who we were. When we told him we were from Grapevine, his next question was, “How did you get in here?” He then explained that Grapevine was not welcome on the base, whether copies of the magazine or its staff. He cited a few examples why: we had printed a photo of Bubbi Morthens giving the middle finger, we had printed a full frontal nude in another issue, and then there was Issue #2 with its cover story on the base, “Jackboots On Ice”. No one except neo-Nazis like being compared to actual Nazis, and the US military is apparently no exception. Regardless of his objections, he told us we were nonetheless welcome to try and get soldiers to talk to us, but to not get our hopes up.
He was probably unaware that a few guys from the Navy had already agreed to talk to us. I met with them, and they were more than happy to go on the record and speak their minds about the murder that had just happened there. I went home, wrote it up, and sent it off to print. I thought that was going to be the end of it.
Instead, some time after the issue hit the streets, I received a phone call from a person I knew at the US embassy. He invited me to meet him for a coffee. When I arrived, someone else from the embassy was there. She asked me if the Navy guys really said what I had quoted them as saying, and I confirmed this was true. She told me they could get in a lot of trouble for having spoke to a reporter on the record, adding that they could even get deployed to Iraq over this. Shocked, I asked if this did not amount to a death sentence, and she said, “Well, not everyone who goes to Iraq dies.”
This shook me. After the end of this meeting I went straight to a phone and called these guys in the Navy. They confirmed that their CO had indeed thoroughly chewed them out for talking to me, but their orders had not changed: they were still going back to the US. As far as I know, that’s exactly what happened.
This experience has stayed with me to this day. The message I received, loud and clear, was that press scrutiny was unwelcome at the NATO base, that any soldier who speaks on the record to a reporter can expect disciplinary action, and American authorities will make sure reporters in this country are made aware of this. This kind of chilling effect is common enough when used by our own government; a foreign military presence imposing even stricter chilling effects on local journalists goes against everything this country stands for.
So yes, I do have a bad feeling about US military personnel returning to Iceland in greater numbers. Not just because past precedent tells us that the Pentagon has a tendency to step up its numbers in places it has started to make a foothold, and not just because I do not expect the Icelandic government to give us any say in the matter, but also because I do not have any confidence those of us trying to report on the activities of the US military in Iceland will be able to do so. I learned that firsthand, and wouldn’t want anyone else learning it the same way I did.