From Iceland — Prime Minister And Mayor Employed Morgunblaðið's Journalist To Spy On Socialists In 1960s

Prime Minister And Mayor Employed Morgunblaðið’s Journalist To Spy On Socialists In 1960s

Published November 13, 2014

Haukur Már Helgason
Photo by
Julia Staples, 1966

From 1961 to 1968, Styrmir Gunnarsson, later chief editor of Morgunblaðið, spied, in his capacity as the paper’s journalist, on Icelandic socialists, delivering regular reports to the Independence Party’s elected officials, including Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, and possibly the U.S. Embassy.

This is revealed in Styrmir’s upcoming memoirs from the Cold War, and reported in Morgunblaðið today. The book is called, for a verbatim translation of the title: “In A Cold War – Friendship And Struggle In Conflicted Times”.

Member of two leftist groups wanted to bring them down

In the 1960s, Styrmir, born 1938, was employed as a journalist at Morgunblaðið. The paper’s chief editor at the time, Eyjólfur Konráð Jónsson, colloquially referred to as Eykon in Styrmir’s book, asked the youngblood to be the paper’s contact person between with a man who had been active within two leftist groups, and reportedly wanted to “contribute” to their downfall: the Reykjavík Socialist Society and the largely Trotskyist “Youth Coalition”.

Styrmir Gunnarsson

Morgunblaðið quotes the following passage from the book: “Eykon said he had reached contact with a man who had been active within both the Youth Coalition and the Reykjavík Socialist Society and who wanted to contribute to their defeat in Iceland. He asked whether I was prepared to be a contact person with this individual, meet him regularly, preferrably once a week, and write reports about what he had to say about their internal affairs.”

“I knew that copies of those reports went directly to two men, Minister of Justice, later Prime Minister, Bjarni Benediktsson, and Mayor Geir Hallgrímsson.”

A later quote reads: “Eykon handed me a note with a phone number and told me to call it, which I did. In the following years I met with our source regularly, preferably in the evening or at night, in various places, where we were not likely to be seen. I wrote down what he had to say and typed rather extensive reports. I knew that copies of those reports went directly to two men, Minister of Justice, later Prime Minister, Bjarni Benediktsson, and Mayor Geir Hallgrímsson. I also suspected, but did not know for certain, that they were given to the U.S. Embassy by Laufásvegur.”

Styrmir told Morgunblaðið that he finds the word “spying” too dignified for what he did. He merely collected information. Reportedly, he says that he never doubted that he was doing the right thing.

The Independence Party and its allies

During the Cold War, Morgunblaðið served explicitly as the Independence Party’s mouthpiece. Having secured Iceland’s participation in NATO, as well as a U.S. military base in Iceland, both the party and the paper aligned with U.S. interests throughout the Cold War and beyond.

The two known recipients of the reports had much in common. Bjarni Benediktsson was born 1908. As well as being intermittently Interior Minister and Minister of Justice, de facto Interior Minister, at the time of the espionage, Bjarni Benediktsson chaired the Independence Party. Geir Hallgrímsson was born in 1925. He became Prime Minister and the Party’s Chair in the seventies.

In an extensive report delivered to Alþingi by a special investigative committee, established in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash, Styrmir was quoted as saying: “I have observed this for fifty years. This is a disgusting society, it is all disgusting. There are no principles, no ideals, there is nothing. It is all just opportunism, power struggle.”

Although no longer explicitly the party’s mouthpiece, Morgunblaðið, now edited by former Independency Party Chair and Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson, retains close ties to the Party and its officials.

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