Published December 21, 2016
Birgitta Jónsdóttir has been back on Icelandic soil for less than twelve hours when we meet. During the previous three days, the Pirate Party MP, privacy activist and former Wikileaks volunteer quietly travelled to Moscow, where she took part in a documentary with Dr. Lawrence Lessig, and the world’s most famous whistleblower: Edward Snowden. The three were brought together by French journalist and documentarian Flore Vasseur, who has previously interviewed Birgitta and Lessig for the French media in her ongoing coverage of the current troubled state of democracy.
“I’m still processing the experience,” says the tired but upbeat Birgitta, flashing her trademark mischievous smile. “Lessig has been very busy trying to inspire the electoral college to act in the US. Then, there’s Edward Snowden. People get caught up in the soap opera around Snowden, but everything he does is driven by his belief in democratic process. So it was amazing to sit and brainstorm with these two guys, and ask: “What can we do?” Because we’re at a critical juncture in saving democracy right now.”
It was Birgitta’s first time in Russia, but as a former Wikileaks volunteer who helped bring the “Collateral Murder” film to the public, she’s long been a person of interest to the NSA, making for some nerve-wracking experiences of international travel.
“Beforehand, you don’t really know what’s going to happen,” she explains. “I don’t let myself get paranoid, but of course you have to be careful. People who are much more tech-savvy than me say that it’s possible for hard drives to be compromised coming through airport security. I use an iPhone and MacBook, which I shouldn’t if I want to be very careful. I use Signal, which I highly recommend. But of course, for real security, you should meet in person, and leave your phone behind.”
But even in-person meetings aren’t safe from being monitored. “There are now ‘mosquito drones’, similar to the size of a fly,” says Birgitta, “and listening devices can be directed at houses. The idea of privacy has been thrown away, as if it’s not a human right. Snowden helped to bring forward the idea that legislators are way too slow to protect citizens from these rapid advances in technology.”
After attaining a three-day visa, Birgitta entered Russia without incident, and was met at the airport by Lessig and the film crew. “I wasn’t worried about any trouble getting in,” she says. “I was more worried when I visited America. They didn’t have scanners and fingerprint technology in Moscow—they just stamped my passport. I was just careful to not make it public in advance, and I took some steps like leaving my laptop behind, and letting people know I’d only be communicating through secure email.”
The meeting took place in a central Moscow hotel. Organising it was a big operation. “There were lots and lots of FSB agents around the hotel,” says Birgitta, “and there were a lot of manoeuvres—the location was changed at the last minute, and there was a lot of security from the hotel side. The film crew were operating on a tight budget, and did amazing work.”
When Birgitta went in to meet Snowden “He was sitting doing a Rubik’s cube,” she says. “I sort of feel like I know him, because we’ve been communicating for a while. So when I finally met him, it was like meeting an old friend. It was a very good feeling. He seemed healthy and, you know—okay. That was the most important thing to witness. He was really calm and composed.”
An academic, a poet and a geek
The group sat in discussion for three hours for the filming. “We had a deep and intense conversation, and I completely lost track of time,” says Birgitta. “It was thoroughly enjoyable to talk to him and Lessig—it’s a privilege to talk to such bright people, and to be invited to this table. The academic, the poet and the geek.”
“The discussions weren’t formal in any way,” she continues. “We just wanted to talk about the state of democracy. But there we were—three ordinary citizens who decided to do something. None of us ever envisioned that this would be the path we’d take, when we were thinking about what we’d be when we grew up. That’s an extremely important message that came from the discussion. Another take-away is that democracy takes work. And you have to tend to it and care for it. Or it will become a lot more work.”
Ice and Snowden
Birgitta makes an impassioned and convincing case for Snowden’s position to be reevaluated by both the US and the wider international community, especially given a swell of public opinion in support of his actions.
“There’s been growing support for Snowden in the States,” she says, “but for some reason, not by the administration, and particularly Obama. We don’t yet know what Trump’s position will be. But really, why not just guarantee him a fair trial? It’s not an unreasonable request. He’s not a war criminal, he’s a whistleblower. There’s no proof, even after all this time, that what he did put anyone in harm’s way. There was a very professional vetting of the documents that were published. And he completely transformed the public awareness of privacy—or the absolute lack of it.”
Snowden conducts his meetings and interviews in central Moscow hotels, making a living from speaking engagements, and also doing pro-bono consultancy work. The location of his home is secret, and his appearances are coordinated by his lawyer. His interim situation in Russia, whilst better than many of the possible outcomes, is far from secure, which is why the Pirate Party has proposed that Icelandic citizenship to be granted him.
“He has to be very careful,” says Birgitta. “He’s been critical of the Putin regime, and every time he does that he’s taking a huge risk. Then Trump is so unpredictable, nobody knows what’s going to happen. Therefore, it’s more important than ever that the work to get him an honorary citizenship continues. Perhaps that gesture would give the opportunity to other countries to allow him to travel. That can be the role of Iceland—to take that little courageous step that allows others to follow suit.”
Snowden’s situation continues to evolve as new evidence emerges. “It recently came to light that the NSA watchdog who insisted Snowden should have gone to him first was terminated for ‘whistleblower retaliation’,” says Birgitta. “Snowden was heavily criticised for not going to him. But now we see it’s a good thing he didn’t. Given all this, I don’t think it would be such a huge embarrassment for the US government to give him a fair trial.”
“Maybe it’s politically convenient for the US to have Snowden in Russia, so they can paint him as a traitor,” she continues. “But he’s not a traitor. He thinks the establishment should work. But often, when whistleblowers blow the whistle, the establishment they’re trying to protect turns against them.” She sighs, shaking her head. “I hesitate to use the word ‘patriot’, because it has become so loaded—but the founding fathers would have liked what he did.”
As well as giving rise to some interesting discussion between the three participants, the documentary aims to keep the spotlight on Snowden’s situation. “Everybody needs to follow very closely the political developments around this,” finishes Birgitta. “People have been killed in Russia just for being journalists. Snowden is part of a political game now, so to speak. And we all have a responsibility for what happens to him.”
The documentary will be released in April 2017.