From Iceland — Information Is Never Neutral: The Editor Of Wikileaks Breaks His Silence

Information Is Never Neutral: The Editor Of Wikileaks Breaks His Silence

Published March 22, 2019

Information Is Never Neutral: The Editor Of Wikileaks Breaks His Silence
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Hörður Sveinsson/Art Bicnick

“If you’re not a radical journalist, you’re not a journalist,” Kristinn tells us near the beginning of our interview. “You’re basically part of the problem. You’re in PR. Not to say that these reporters are necessarily being paid directly by the powers that be; they could also be avoiding conflict or shielding themselves from criticism. It can be difficult to take on power, and some people are just averse to conflict.”

Kristinn is not one of these people. His entire journalistic career, from his early days at public broadcasting to his current job managing Wikileaks, is a reflection of this notion that journalism is about speaking truth to power. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he cites his early influences as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the reporters who broke the Watergate story based on material leaked to them by a whistleblower, along with films such as ‘All The President’s Men’ and ‘China Syndrome’. “Films that depict journalists as a force for good in society.”

As the editor-in-chief of Wikileaks, Kristinn certainly has his plate full. Chelsea Manning’s re-arrest, the Cohen testimony, the Mueller investigation as a whole—all of these things involve Wikileaks in some fashion or another, justifiably or not. No matter what Kristinn has to deal with, his convictions on the role of Wikileaks and journalism in general remain strong.

What brought Kristinn from freelancing in his early days to the role he plays today? Why is Wikileaks still important? In the age of clickbait and “fake news,” what is the future of journalism? Most of all, how can the average person know what media to trust?

From Kompás to crash

Kristinn’s journalism career began in the 80s, doing what most people do when they start out in the business: freelancing. He would land a job at Iceland’s public broadcasting network, RÚV, in 1991; a time when there was plenty to report, both at home and abroad. Even in his early days, Kristinn had very clear ideas about what a reporter’s job should be.

“I felt that journalism had to be ethical, but tough,” he tells us. “The ideals that I followed at the time would probably be considered radical today. The accusation that journalism should be neutral in some way was a bit absent at the time. Being a journalist in Iceland for 20 years, I’ve gotten accusations of bias from all sides. As I was telling a friend the other day, when you’ve had people shouting at you from all corners of the political spectrum then you’re probably doing your job right.

“When you’ve had people shouting at you from all corners of the political spectrum then you’re probably doing your job right.”

“You become inoculated to that kind of criticism. You have to commit yourself to certain ideals if you want the privilege of the job.”

Kristinn would get his chance to put those ideals into action in a major way when he joined the team of Kompás, a first-of-its-kind for Iceland investigative news programme. Working with a small staff and constricted budget, Kristinn describes his time there as “a lot of work but very gratifying.”

The financial crash of 2008 would end up being a major turning point for Kristinn. Amongst the findings of the Special Investigative Commission, a body charged with examining the causes of the crash, was a fairly damning assessment of how the Icelandic media had been complicit in its silence, and its blind faith in financial actors to tell reporters the truth. It’s an assessment Kristinn agrees with wholeheartedly.

“In general, I think we as journalists had a lot to answer for. I said so, publicly,” he says, referring to an Icelandic Journalist Union meeting about a month after the crash. “I was quite critical of myself and my colleagues, for breaching the trust that was granted to us by the general public. We trusted all financial matters to dedicated financial journalists, who were often in bed with the bankers; pundits of the elite. The rest of us thought financial matters were too complicated and required specialisation. We bought into the story of these wizards who created wealth out of nothing; these modern day alchemists in the banking sector. We didn’t see through the smokescreen. That’s a failure. We ignored the warning signals, like many others. We as journalists had a lot of soul searching to do.”

Entry to Wikileaks

The wake of the financial crash would end up introducing Kristinn to Wikileaks, in part due to a data dump the site made that vindicated a story Kristinn had been working on about Robert Tchenguiz, a financier who was deeply involved with the failed Kaupthing bank. In fact, the legal blowback to the Tchenguiz story is what began to sour Kristinn’s taste for journalism.

This started in January 2009, when Kristinn received information on Tchenguiz’s borrowing in the days before Iceland’s collapse, which included offshore accounts in tax shelters. While Kompás shuttered its doors early in the year for financial reasons, the story was picked up by Kastljós, RÚV’s roundtable news discussion show. This, however, sparked an investigation of Kristinn having possibly broken the bank secrecy act, the same legislation which nearly ten years later would be used to attempt to silence the magazine Stundin’s coverage of the pre-crash money dealings of Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson. The injunction against Kristinn’s reporting would end up falling apart in autumn 2009, but it had a lasting effect on him.

“My taste for the profession had been souring for quite a bit in light of all this,” he recalls. “It was quite a revelation then when in the beginning of August 2009 when I was working at RÚV again, I was given a tip to check out this site called Wikileaks. I had never heard of it before. But lo and behold, but there was the entire Kaupthing loan book, with the internal evaluation a few days before the banking crisis.” Robert Tchenguiz so happened to be in this leak. This led to “this bizarre episode in Icelandic journalism” when the Kaupthing resolution committee sought an injunction against RÚV reporting on what was in the Wikileaks loan book dump. “I was amazed. I got confirmation of the loan book’s authenticity very easily.” He had sent the leak out in a pdf to a number of business insiders. “Within minutes, I got a call back of someone asking me, ‘Where the hell did you get this?’, and I was like, ‘Well, thanks for confirming.'” Kristinn laughs. “It was incredible. I had been working for months to get information on this individual, and there it was, all of it.”

Wikileaks appealed to Kristinn’s journalistic sensibilities. “This was something that was adding to the transparency,” he says. “It was legally difficult to stop. On that basis, I sought out Julian [Assange]. He was invited to Iceland in the autumn of 2009. We met, befriended, and that led to my involvement.”

The game-changer

2010 was a banner year for Wikileaks. Leaks such as Collateral Murder, the Afghan war diary, a similar report from Iraq, and the Cablegate leaks were all highlights of the organisation and would put them at the forefront of international headlines. The importance of this work cannot be overstated.

“In journalism, Wikileaks did two things,” Kristinn says. “First, it showed the power of huge leaks of this nature, and that you can really move things by exposing many aspects of corruption and war crimes. Second, we pooled together resources of the mainstream media. We demanded that people work together, which was often difficult.” The organisation created a media alliance with hundreds of outlets around the world. “It laid the groundwork for the [International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ (ICIJ)] cooperation on the Panama Papers, for example. This also inspired other whistleblowers. Edward Snowden has confirmed that if it hadn’t been for those leaks in 2010, there would not have been Snowden leaks later on.”

This work, though, has not been without criticism, neither about Wikileaks or its founder, Julian Assange. One of the most prominent criticisms about Wikileaks is that they dump files without making any redactions. There is no filter to the information Wikileaks might post, prompting what Kristinn describes as “counter-spin,” most prevalent after the Collateral Murder leak: that the release of unfiltered information could put innocent lives at risk. Kristinn isn’t having it.

“It was quite extraordinary to see the Joint Chief of Staff on television, almost in tears over the supposed dangers, saying that Wikileaks could already have blood on their hands for releasing this information,” he says. “But this hasn’t materialised. Information is never neutral. It can have adverse effects to some degree. Every journalist knows that. But to this day, there has not been a single incident from this biggest leak in military history exposing all these internal secrets of the most powerful military machine in the world. No harm has befallen anyone; no one has lost their lives. I’m pretty sure we would have heard about it if that would have happened. This was confirmed during the Chelsea Manning trial of 2013 by the Pentagon officials—the leak had not caused harm.”

“You’re going to take at face value something Roger Stone is saying, at the same time that you’re charging him with lying to investigators?”

Ultimately, the ethos of Wikileaks is fairly simple: everything should be in the public domain except sensitive personal information. “Transparency should be the norm, and exceptions from transparency should be very few and must be justified,” Kristinn explains. “All freedom of information laws were based on that principle, but for some reason it doesn’t seep in. We’re still fighting this endless war against secrecy.”

On Assange

Beyond Wikileaks, Assange is also a polarising figure, and many people put off by Wikileaks are so because of him. Kristinn addresses the criticisms of Assange directly.

“Well, the Swedish case was dropped,” Kristinn says, referring to the sexual assault allegations made against Assange. “This is something we maintained for a very long time was very spurious, in how it was being pushed. We got confirmation of that, through a FOIA request by an Italian journalist, Stefania Maurizi. There we saw email exchanges from Sweden showing that Swedish authorities were not pursuing the case; they were actually being directed by the Crown Prosecution Service in London telling [Swedish authorities] not to give up and to keep the pressure on. All this is in the public domain now. The Swedes were ready to drop the case years before they eventually did.”

Kristinn believes the Swedish case was, in part, an extension of a great campaign against Wikileaks. “We also knew early on that a grand jury investigation against Wikileaks had started, in early 2010, because of the leaks that year, and it has continued for almost a decade now,” he says, adding that this investigation has been renewed repeatedly. “Unparalleled in scope and nature. Years ago we heard the documents gathered for the investigation exceeded 40,000. We’ve always known that this was ongoing and brewing. We were called conspiracy theorists because of that, ridiculed for maintaining that there was a real danger of extradition to the US. Until the confirmation came a few months ago, inadvertently and by mistake, that an indictment against Julian is ready and sealed, along with an extradition request to the US.”

Wikileaks, Russians, and the 2016 elections

Wikileaks also caught plenty of flack for the Democratic National Committee emails leak, which started in June 2016. Critics have contended that the leak was the work of Russian hackers, working at the behest of Donald Trump’s campaign team, and that figures such as Roger Stone and Paul Manafort allegedly either speaking with or meeting Assange underscores a conspiracy to steal the election from Hillary Clinton, with Wikileak’s collusion. Kristinn addresses these charges in a systematic fashion.

“What people are missing about this story is the core principle here,” Kristinn says. “That journalists are supposed to publish materials on politicians, and especially candidates prior to election. That’s the role of journalists; that’s why it’s called the fourth estate. It’s totally amazing that even journalists are telling me, ‘You shouldn’t have published [the emails] before the election.’ Are we not supposed to inform the electorate about the candidates? Isn’t that your job? If you have internal information about a candidate or a party, it’s your duty. It would be a journalistic crime to withhold it. Then I heard ‘You should have waited until you had something on Trump so that you could be balanced.’ But it doesn’t work that way. The DNC emails had information that was newsworthy, and definitely it should have been published prior to the election, and that’s the end of it. It doesn’t really matter where it came from. It’s not the concern of the journalist to disregard information because it comes from some source that might have an agenda. You always have to evaluate the information that is in front of you. Is it in the public interest to publish it? It’s a no-brainer: either it is, or it isn’t.”

Kristinn believes that rather than blame Wikileaks, the DNC should instead do some soul searching.

“The DNC wants to maintain [the email leak] had an effect, to try and brush over the humiliation of their defeat in the electoral college.”

“The DNC wants to maintain [the email leak] had an effect, to try and brush over the humiliation of their defeat in the electoral college,” he says. “The Democratic Party just needs to come to terms with the fact that Hillary Clinton was not a charismatic candidate that people were excited about. Of course, it’s a hard thing to swallow, but it’s a necessary thing to do if the Democratic Party wants to come to terms with this and try to move forward. I haven’t seen any discussion within their ranks about how it’s possible you could win the popular vote and still lose the election. For us who have a hard time understanding the electoral college, when you get an instant like that, it should call for introspection and that the system needs to be changed. It’s a very serious situation that demands examination.

“In the general scheme of things, is the country that came to be the bastion of democracy in the world going to accept and acknowledge that a few dozen rogue trolls in Saint Petersburg can actually upset the entire process, working on a budget that is basically a fraction of what is spent on the election?,” he asks. “That would actually be an admittance of an extreme weakness of the system, I would say.”

On Roger Stone, Paul Manafort and Chelsea Manning

“It’s rather pathetic how people are trying to connect the dots about some kind of collaboration” between Team Trump and Wikileaks, Kristinn says, citing the fact that early on, Assange broke from past precedent and disclosed that the DNC email leak source was a non-state actor. “I think it was a sort of clearing of the air. If you look at what has happened since, with the Mueller investigation, nothing has emerged that changes what I’ve said.”

Roger Stone, a lifelong weasel of the Republican Party who was an advisor to the Trump campaign, has gone on record saying he spoke with Assange. This was also brought up in the testimony being given by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen.

“If you read through [Stone’s indictment], and it’s only 23 pages long, it’s basically a confirmation that there was no communication between Roger Stone and Julian Assange,” Kristinn says. “Stone claimed that there had been. He was trying to elevate his position. He’s a player in that circle. It’s Roger Stone.” In fact, Kristinn says, “The only communications that arguably took place between them was a direct message on Twitter, where Wikileaks asked Roger Stone to please stop making the claims that you had access to Julian Assange and had communication with him. Because it didn’t exist.”

With regards to the Cohen testimony, Kristinn points out that Wikileaks is mentioned only once, “When [Cohen] said that he was present when Roger Stone called Trump and said that he had just talked to Julian Assange. So that’s the proof that Trump knew that Stone had talked to Julian Assange and therefore there’s a direct connection? But it’s a claim. You’re going to take at face value something Roger Stone is saying, at the same time that you’re charging him with lying to investigators?”

The idea that Paul Manafort met secretly with Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where Assange currently resides, is even more absurd to Kristinn.

“The Ecuadorian Embassy behind Harrod’s in London is probably the most surveilled spot in the most surveilled city in the world. It is absolutely impossible and unthinkable that anybody could sneak into that building and have a secret meeting, and the Guardian should know that.”

“No such meeting ever took place,” Kristinn says. “And the Guardian [who broke the story about the meeting] should know best that it didn’t take place, because a few months earlier, they had written a story about how the embassy in London is monitored with internal cameras, 24/7 surveillance outside, not just by the metro police, either. Every visitor that comes into the embassy has to hand over his passport, sign a log, and is filmed by dozens of cameras. The Ecuadorian Embassy behind Harrod’s in London is probably the most surveilled spot in the most surveilled city in the world. It is absolutely impossible and unthinkable that anybody could sneak into that building and have a secret meeting, and the Guardian should know that. They’re not defending the story or answering any questions. Everyone knows that the story is wrong.”

Another figure who again appears in the crosshairs of the US government is Chelsea Manning, who was recently jailed again, this time for refusing to testify against Wikileaks to a grand jury. The response to this, in particular from Rachel Maddow at MSNBC, is something Kristinn has likened to “Alex Jones at his best” when it comes to weaving conspiracy theories.

“I think it’s unethical, disgusting and disgraceful,” he says of this reporting. “This grand jury investigation reminds me of the Middle Ages: very much not in line with what you would consider normal in a civilised, democratic society. The fact that you can have a secret investigation in a secret investigatory court for years and years, where the people being investigated have no say in it at all, this is what Chelsea Manning has pointed out is the main reason why she is not willing to testify. It’s an incredibly brave thing, what she’s doing. It’s unfathomable that you should be called into court for something that you were court marshalled for. She gave full testimony in her court marshall, she was sentenced, she served seven years in jail in conditions that were tantamount to torture by UN standards, and then pardoned by Obama towards the end of his term, perhaps remembering that he campaigned on a platform of protecting whistleblowers. And now years later, being hauled to jail for refusing to testify against Wikileaks and Julian Assange. She needs a lot of support.”

Where is journalism heading?

Kristinn is one of many journalists who believe a war on journalism is already taking place, and that it is getting worse.

“People will have to learn to trust certain news outlets; never fully though. But you should read news outlets with a critical mind.”

“There’s a silencing epidemic going on that is part of what I’m referring to as neo-McCarthyism,” he says. “The war on journalism will probably escalate somewhat further. I don’t really expect the mainstream journalism community to see the danger that is looming and why it is absolutely necessary to wake up now and support Julian Assange, Wikileaks and Chelsea Manning. Things will probably get worse before they get better. But I try to be an optimist. It did take some years for the mainstream media to come to terms with the fact that we had been lied to about the reasons for the invasion of Iraq.”

Kristinn points out that famed journalist and personal friend John Pilger has pointed out that all the major stories about abuse of power—the after effects of the bombing of Hiroshima, the My Lai massacre, the crack and CIA connection—were all broken by smaller, more independent media outlets, indicating that smaller journals perhaps reflect a sort of light at the end of the tunnel.

That said, with so many sources to choose from, how are readers supposed to know who to trust?

“People will simply have to be more critical,” Kristinn says. “They will have to learn to trust certain news outlets; never fully though. But you should read news outlets with a critical mind. Take into account the influence that might be behind the reporting. Do you trust the BBC when it’s reporting on the British intelligence community? Do you trust Russia Today when they’re reporting on Putin? Do you trust Al Jazeera when they’re reporting on Qatar? You should take everything with a grain of salt, and learn how to put together a somewhat unsordid picture of what is going on in the world. But you should also demand proof and say ‘show me the documents’. Demand the evidence. Demand transparency.”

As he continues to soldier on, for his ideals and for the truth, Kristinn is not particularly worried about his legacy.

“I’m old enough to have seen the pendulum swing back and forth,” he says. “I have no doubt that it will be recognised in historical terms the tremendous importance of Wikileaks to journalism. Whether I or Julian will be gone by then, I don’t know, but Wikileaks will be recognised as such.”

Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that the Wikileaks Twitter direct message to Roger Stone occurred in January 2017. This is in fact occurred on October 13 of 2016.

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