8 Ways WikiLeaks Cables About a Tiny Country Like Iceland Expose the Dark Depths of American Empire
View of the WikiLeaks homepage featuring its founder Julian Assange.
Photo Credit: haak78 / Shutterstock.com
As Chelsea Manning serves a 35-year sentence for the heinous crime of informing Americans about their government, an obscure milestone in her journey passes this autumn—the fifth anniversary of Iceland's financial collapse. In early 2010 —with 251,287 diplomatic cables, records from Guantanamo Bay, and reams of raw intelligence from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—Manning reached out to WikiLeaks, having been spurned by the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Because Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg had traveled to Iceland, where they were lauded for publishing a loan portfolio detailing sketchy loans made by the collapsed Icelandic bank Kaupthing, Manning took an interest in the country. She learned about the so-called Icesave dispute between Iceland and Britain and the Netherlands in a WikiLeaks chatroom, and, as she later told a military court, decided to leak a cable describing the conflict, with Icelandic diplomats begging the U.S. to stop “bullying” them.
“Iceland was out of viable options and was coming to the US for assistance. Despite the quiet request for assistance, it did not appear that we were going to do anything,” she said. “I felt that I would be able to right a wrong by having [WikiLeaks] publish this document.”
It was published in February 2010. The deluge came after.
But the so-called Reykjavik 13 cable isn't the only globally noteworthy cable to emerge from WikiLeaks' Icelandic treasure trove. I read through every cable sent from America's northernmost embassy and discovered eight tasty tidbits that you might want to know about.
1. The U.S. organized a trip for foreign journalists to promote war.
According to a March 28, 2007 cable written by Ambassador Carol von Voorst, the U.S. Embassy was fretting that Iceland was losing interest in maintaining its small (but proportional) contributions toward the war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. She bemoaned the Icelandic government's plans “to withdraw its Icelandic Crisis Response Unit (ICRU) from Chaghcharan, northern Afghanistan in late April, where it has played an essential part in the region's humanitarian missions since 2004,” attributing the move to Icelandic officials being “greatly influenced by public opinion, especially in the run-up to national elections this May."
Von Voorst wrote that the Embassy “believes it is imperative at this time to shore up Iceland's support of NATO's ongoing mission in Afghanistan” and, therefore “is nominating one of the country's most influential broadcasters to participate in the upcoming USNATO opinion-maker tour in Brussels and Washington, D.C. to help explain the importance of NATO's reconstruction and security assistance mission to Afghanistan.” This was a veteran radio journalist working for the state broadcaster by the name of Jon Gudni Kristjansson.
Von Voorst characterized him as the optimal choice for the “US government-sponsored travel.” He was described by the ambassador as someone who “would appreciate the opportunity to participate in the USNATO tour to receive first-hand information about the US and NATO missions in Afghanistan”:
Mr. Kristjansson believes the USNATO trip would deepen his understanding of the complex situation in Afghanistan, and would give him the opportunity to obtain on-the-record comments from US and NATO officials, which he would use in developing stories to send back to Iceland during his trip.
Like most ambitions of an imperial nature, this did not exactly go as planned. In an email, Kristjansson, who confirmed that he went on the trip and said that it was paid for by the U.S. government, stressed that it was “next to useless” from a journalist's point of view. He said U.S. and NATO officials put forth “the message that everything was going fine in Afghanistan, but the 'information' was too one sided.” He, therefore, didn't use the trip to produce any sort of reports on Afghanistan.
“We used the opportunity to ask about other things, especially the then-planned missile shield in Poland and Chechnya, a hot topic at the time.”
Kristjansson also refuted the information about his interest in trip, as written by von Voorst (highlighting the fact that, while useful, the cables themselves need fact-checking):
“The invitation came to the newsroom at RUV ( Icelandic National Broadcasting Service) and was not directed at any employee there personally. It was decided to accept the offer and I was asked to go. I never expressed any special interest in going, nor did I express to anyone that I thought this a good opportunity to learn about the situation in Afghanistan.”
“What is written in the cable you are citing about me is like some kind of a spin,” he added. “Maybe the ambassador had to write something nice to make me acceptable.”
He also remarked that he wasn't sure how the invitation came to RUV, but said that he was joined by “people from Finland, Latvia, Germany, Slovakia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Spain, Turkey, and New Zealand.”
2. US: War is the solution to Iceland's financial crisis.
When the crisis was unfolding, U.S. diplomats were privately baffled that Icelandic officials didn't do more to ask for help.
“We are at a loss to explain why the Icelanders have not picked up the phone to discuss what they need and what we might be able to help them with,” wrote Deputy Chief of Mission Neil Klopfenstein on October 8, 2008, as the last of Iceland's big three banks clung to life (it would fall the next day).
“Without pressure from this Embassy,” wrote Ambassador von Voorst on October 20, “the Finance Minister [Árni Mathiesen] would not even have asked to meet with Treasury officials during his recent visit to Washington.”
But after a change in government spurred by a widespread protest movement led to a more active and humble leadership, Washington declined direct aid. Head of the junior coalition member Left-Green Party and newly appointed Finance Minister Steingrímur Sigfússon told van Voorst on April 7, 2009 that he wanted to obtain bilateral loans from the U.S. (and Canada), saying he was “never a proponent of an IMF loan.”
The Ambassador brushed off the appeal, saying there was a “lack of a mechanism or legislative authority in the U.S. for such loans to advanced nations.” (An audit of the Fed showed that it loaned up to $16 trillion to banks in the U.S. and abroad after the financial collapse—Iceland's rescue package from the IMF was worth about $6 billion.)
The very next day, however, van Voorst suggested to Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the newly elected Prime Minister and head of the center-left Social Democratic Alliance, that Iceland could seek to improve its post-collapse image by stepping up its involvement in one of America's imperial jaunts:
[Icelandic] officials took the opportunity to reaffirm Iceland's commitment to Afghanistan, but made no new pledges of support.... Ambassador made the case that Iceland's international reputation has taken a beating due to the country's economic difficulties. In these times, being seen as an active contributor to international reconstruction and stabilization efforts may be one of the most effective means to help displace 'economic collapse' as the first association foreign observers have when thinking about Iceland. The Prime Minister sidestepped a direct commitment but made it clear that Ambassador's points were taken on board.
It wasn't the only time van Voorst linked defense issues to Iceland's recovery. On February 27, 2009, in a conversation with then interim Foreign Minister Össur Skarphéðinsson, she pleaded with Iceland to resist the urge to slash its defense budget, with Keynesian justifications:
She urged the FM to support defense funding and pressed the FM hard to counter the oft-heard notion that funding for defense is not money spent in Iceland. Every krona the IDA [Iceland Defense Agency] gets for air policing purchases goods or services from Icelandic vendors, and deployed [NATO] forces [in Iceland for exercises] purchase fuel and spend money at tourism venues during their off-duty hours.
If it sounds like the U.S. solution to everything is militarism, these are only two examples. But von Voorst also told the State Department in April 2008 that it should manipulate then Foreign Minister Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir by playing on her feminist leanings to push Iceland to step up its support for the war in Afghanistan:
“We should push the Icelanders to greatly step up their support for police training, which may also allow them to blend in elements relating to the status of women (a heartfelt personal concern of Gisladottir's).”
According to the Afghan Interior Ministry's own statistics, the U.S.-backed Karzai government was keeping 600 women in prison for “moral crimes” in May 2013, an increase of 50 percent since October 2011. The crimes they had committed, according to Human Rights Watch, include “being victims of forced marriage, domestic violence, and rape.”
3. NATO allies helped set up sectarian torture squads in Iraq.
In March 2006, just prior to the fulcrum of turmoil during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the head of Iceland's Foreign Affairs Security and Disarmament Division told Ambassador van Voorst that “his government had a day earlier decided to donate approximately EUR 150,000 to the NATO Training Mission-Iraq (NTM-I).” The gift came, the dispatch noted, on the heels of an equal size donation that had been doled out in February 2005.
Why this is more than just illustrative of a tiny state paying imperial tribute is that it implicates Iceland—along with every NATO member, unknowingly or not—in the financing of sectarian torture squads in Iraq.
According to a DOD report to Congress, the first donation occurred after a NATO meeting in February 2005, in which all member states pledged to give money or material support to the training of Iraqi security forces. In that meeting, the report noted, NATO “declared that the NATO Training Mission-Iraq (NTM-I) has reached initial operating capability.”
The same report stated (directly after the reference to the Iceland-supported NTM-I) that the “ultimate goal of the transitional security process is for the Iraqis to take ownership of their own security,” detailing, among other Coalition progress measures, “Transition Readiness Assessments (TRAs)...conducted through Multinational Corps-Iraq (MNC-I) Coalition Military Transition Teams embedded at the battalion, brigade, and division level units for the Iraqi Army; Special Police Transition Teams (SPTTs) with MOI’s [Ministry of the Interior's] Special Police Commando battalions and Civil Intervention Forces.” Thus, the NTM-I is intertwined with these institutions—its members “embedded.”
Cut through the technocratic self-important military jargon and the bureaucratic alphabet soup, and it shows coordination between NATO members and the U.S. in setting up the Special Police Commando battalions, revealed by the Guardian and the BBC, in March, to have “conducted some of the worst acts of torture during the US occupation.” James Coffman, a retired colonel who worked under James Steele, another retired colonel and the man deputized by Donald Rumsfeld to organize these paramilitary forces, reported directly to then commander of the NATO training mission, Gen. David Petraeus. In a 2005 press conference, Petraeus singled out one Special Police Commando leader for praise, saying that “I call [him] personally every night before I go to bed, just to get energy from him, and to cross-level our bubbles, if you will, share information and so forth, because he's just so much into the operations and really, again, very much getting after it.”
In 2005 and 2006, every man, woman, and child in Iceland effectively gave him a euro to aid his “getting after it” – activities, which according to the BBC and the Guardian, likely included brutal forms of cruel and unusual punishment without any sort of due process.
Whether aware of Petraeus' paramilitaries or not, it wouldn't stretch belief to theorize that Icelandic diplomats weren't overly perturbed by the prospect of U.S.-backed torture. According to a July 13, 2007 cable written by Deputy Chief of Mission Neil Klopfenstein, when U.S. diplomats approached their Icelandic counterparts after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it was launching an inquiry into CIA extraordinary renditions that passed through Iceland, the Icelanders “tried to minimize the inquiry's significance...describing it as 'an exercise in transparency' and an attempt to take the issue away from the opposition”:
MFA Defense Department Counselor Fridrik Jonsson, also present at the meeting, was quick to add that the announcement was mostly for domestic consumption as a move to 'clip the wings' of LG [Left-Green] Chair [Steingrimur] Sigfusson before he had an opportunity to create further problems for the Minister. [MFA Counselor Finnur Thor] Birgisson agreed, saying the inquiry is the Ministry's effort to be seen as transparent on the matter. Questions may eventually be directed to the USG, but for now 'the important part is to be seen as doing something.'
In another meeting described in the same cable, an unnamed Icelandic official told the Americans that the investigation was essentially a foregone conclusion without judicial bite:
The MFA's Counselor for Human Rights reiterated this message in a meeting with PolOff [DEFINE TK] on July 3...She drew PolOff's attention to the specific language in the press release ('examination' vice 'investigation'), underscoring that the MFA had no plans nor authority to conduct a formal investigation in a legal sense.
4. We don't trust the French.
When Edward Snowden revealed details about NSA surveillance of European allies' telecommunications, French President Francois Hollande demanded that the United States “immediately stop.” The demand was the subjection of much laughter, as FRANCE 24 explained, due to France's own history of espionage:
“Colourful stories about the lengths the French secret services would go to emerged in the early 1990s, such as the bugging of seats on Air France planes to eavesdrop on American business leaders.
At the time, then-CIA director Stansfield Turner qualified French intelligence as “the most predatory service in the world, now that the old Soviet Union is gone."
The Americans are not the only country to have complained about French espionage. In a 2009 US diplomatic cable revealed by Wikileaks, an unnamed German CEO of a satellite manufacturer was quoted calling France “the evil empire, stealing technology, and Germany knows this,” adding that French industrial spying was doing as much damage as anything coming from Russia or China.”
Another secret cable sent from the U.S. embassy in Reykjavik demonstrated that the State Department has a policy of being wary of French intelligence activities. That December 24, 2009 dispatch, describing a Counter Intelligence Working Group (CIWG) meeting, revealed that the embassy's Regional Security Officer (RSO—the head security attache for the embassy), citing the Security Environment Threat List (SETL—a State Department metric used to rate security threats at embassies), told diplomats that the U.S. government classifies France as a notch below some spooks' favorite boogeymen:
“RSO began the meeting by discussing Post's current ratings on the Security Environment Threat List (SETL)...RSO advised that the current CRITICAL threat countries represented in Iceland are Russia and China and the HIGH threat country is France. In addition to the countries noted above, accredited diplomatic missions in Iceland include Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, India, Poland, Japan, Finland, Canada and the United Kingdom.”
According to Peter van Buren, a former State Department foreign service employee turned whistleblower and author, the classification isn't particularly noteworthy.
“As we have seen, the NSA spies on all of America's allies, so we assume they spy on us,” he wrote in an email. “It happens all the time and is not in my experience overly remarkable. It's naughty and nasty, but not remarkable.”
5. Cables from a small embassy are a window to the world.
Of perhaps more interest in the realm of espionage, the aforementioned 2009 intelligence estimate suggested that the Russians could be more keen on spying on the Chinese in Reykjavik, while the Chinese could be more interested in spying on the U.S., and Icelandic corporate activities:
"It is believed that the Chinese are continuing to utilize their TECHNICAL and HUMINT [Human Intelligence] capabilities to conduct industrial espionage. It is also believed that the Russians are monitoring the Chinese actions. The current Russian DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission]in Iceland is considered to be a China expert. The current Chinese AMB [Ambassador] to Iceland is a known U.S. expert. It is unknown if there is any targeting of the mission or any of its employees by the Russians or Chinese."
In another secret cable containing February 2009 responses to the so-called Security Environment Profile Questionnaire (SEPQ), U.S. diplomats expand on suspected Chinese industrial espionage, describing it as “in the areas of DNA decoding and medical research in Iceland."
6. Lazy prejudice creeps into the State Department's analysis.
When it comes to crude bigotry informing U.S. policy, it's more often than not vessels of brute force guilty of stereotyping: the FBI, with training manuals that taught agents “mainstream” Muslims are “violent” and “radical” (scrapped after being exposed by Spencer Ackerman); JSOC and the CIA, with their “signature strikes,” targeted assassinations of “suspicious” figures in militant-controlled regions of Pakistan (and possibly Yemen), loosely bound by a broad definition of suspicious, in which any military-aged male killed by aerial bombardment is considered a terrorist, unless proven otherwise posthumously. With NYPD chief Raymond Kelly rumored to be President Obama's top choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security after having overseen “stop and frisk” and the infiltration and surveillance of peaceful Muslim groups, it seems that the militarized arms of the U.S. government actually reward racism.
But the previously mentioned February 2009 SEPQ cable also showed that foreign services officers, often thought of as thoughtful intellectual types, can also display prejudicial attitudes. According to American diplomats in Reykjavik who filled out the questionnaire, Muslims in Iceland should be viewed with suspicion, despite essentially admitting that there is zero evidence of their involvement in any nefarious plotting.
The cable describes Iceland's Islamic contingent as “a religious community of Muslims, some of whom might harbor anti-American sentiments.” But in the same paragraph it notes that no members of the 800-strong group, “comprised mostly of European Muslims” have led any “known anti-American demonstrations.” It also noted that “within the Muslim community and others outside the Muslim community, there might be a small number that support theactions of terrorism groups against the US.”
The response to the questionnaire conceded,“the numbers or make-up of possible supporters are not known.” The cable made no note of any U.S. efforts to reach out to Iceland's Muslim community.
7. Iranian detente seems legit.
With the recent overtures of newly elected moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and the subsequent reciprocation by President Obama, Americans who see Iran as a threat to America's imperial ambitions are looking for any clues that could reveal just what Tehran is thinking. Is it serious about rapprochement? Or are the Iranians just looking for sanctions to be lifted? One cable from Reykjavik suggests that Iran is, more or less, accepting of the regional pre-sanctions status quo. In additional the cable suggests that unfettering it from sanctions will almost certainly not be akin to some sort of second Holocaust, as neocons are warning.
In a 2009 sit-down between U.S. Charge D'Affaires Sam Watson and “newly arrived” Danish Ambassador Soren Haslund, the latter, having just come from a three-year stint as Denmark's ambassador to Iran, described an Islamic Republic neither as radical as stated under Ahmadinejad, nor as open as the West might hope under a reformist regime:
“There is, Haslund warned, a tendency by the West to attribute huge differences to those in power and those in the opposition when, in fact, they are all part of the same small group. There is no true opposition faction in Iran, he opined, really only 'nuances of black' exist.”
But he opined that Iran has only aligned itself with certain governments (like the Assad regime) out of convenience,and said that two of America's best friends in the region could end up on friendly terms with the Iranian government:
"According to Haslund, Iranians consider themselves religiously, linguistically and ethnically superior to their neighbors. This Persian arrogance, he argued, plays a large role in Iran's foreign policy. Iran tends to use proxies and money to accomplish its regional goals, he said, and would prefer not to interact with its neighbors face-to-face. Syria, he had heard, was receiving one billion dollars to act as just such a proxy for Iran in what he termed a marriage of convenience between the two countries. Haslund suggested that Turkey, as a secular country, might potentially serve as a regional ally for Iran. Somewhat surprisingly, he also suggested that Israel could eventually become a regional ally. The Iranians, he said, have no particular hatred for Israel and the approximately 30,000 Jews that live in the country are treated well."
Haslund (who did not whitewash Iran's human rights abuses, describing them, in Watson's words, as “deplorable”) also suggested that —in spite of the Iranian Revolution and past U.S. support for the hated Shah Reza Pahlavi—Iran would welcome detente with the Great Satan, and that recent American military adventurism in the region hasn't exactly been unwelcome in Tehran:
“...most of the Iranians he met viewed America as the most natural candidate to become a long-term global ally. For historical reasons, he suggested, Iran has a deep mistrust of the British and Russians. America, however, is viewed in a different light. The Iranians, he joke, have noticed who is responsible for deposing of Sadam [sic] Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It does not hurt the United States' reputation in Iran, he said, to be responsible for having removed two of the country's greatest enemies."
8. U.S. diplomats are nationalized lobbyists.
Finally, the cables from Reykjavik reinforce previously reported stories about U.S. Embassies acting as lobbyists for American corporations. It's something we had already learned from cables revealing diplomatic advocacy on behalf of companies that grow genetically modified crops; Chevron, while fighting an $18 billion environmental damage lawsuit in Ecuador; and Mastercard and Visa, who were seeking favorable legislation in Russia.
In Iceland, embassy lobbying was on behalf of aluminum companies, which take advantage of Iceland's extremely cheap geothermal energy and hydropower, and consume about three-quarters of the country's electrical output. Just over a year after the crisis, in November 2009, as the center-left government prepared an austerity budget, a proposal that would have seen energy rates increase by one Icelandic krona (eight-tenths of a cent, in U.S. dollars) per kilowatt-hour saw aluminum executives seethe with rage. They took their complaints to the U.S. Embassy's Charge D'Affaires, Sam Watson:
"Executives from the two American-owned aluminum smelters, Alcoa and Century Aluminum, expressed concern to CDA that such action could violate their existing investment agreements and significantly reduce the companies' profitability. They estimate the tax at one ISK per kWh would create an additional expense of 13.2 billion ISK ($106 million) per year.”
Equally troubling, said aluminum representatives, is that they first learned about the proposed tax in the newspaper. Communication with the government, they complained, has been virtually non-existent since the new government...took control earlier this year."
Watson noted in the same cable, however, that “over the past few weeks,” he had reached out to representatives of the new government who had “in fact, walked back the proposed energy tax and is engaging industry leaders in the process”:
GOI officials across the board, including the Minister of Environment Svandis Svavarsdottir, have told CDA that they do not want the aluminum companies to leave Iceland....Their size and importance is one reason the aluminum industry should not be excluded from rebuilding the country, said Minister of Industry Katrin Juliusdottir. Minister of Finance, Steingrímur Sigfusson, also acknowledged that it would be healthy for some aluminum projects to go forward as they would create additional jobs and revenue for the state.
Katrín Júlíusdóttir assured Watson that the proposal “had merely been an example.” And on November 9, the government revised its proposal down by a factor of almost nine: to 0.12 ISK (12 aurar) per kWh. As Watson pointed out, this was, more or less, due entirely to aluminum lobby efforts, greased by the U.S. State Department:
...aluminum representatives, who earlier approached the Embassy in frustration after being kept out of the discussions, recently thanked the Embassy for getting them a seat at the table and nudging the government away from the initial tax proposal. The reduction...resulted from consultative talks between the GOI and the Association of Icelandic Employers, of which the aluminum companies are the largest members.
Finally, on a cable sent two days before Christmas, Watson noted that the bill passed, with the 0.12 ISK/kWh rate increase acceptable to the aluminum lobby. Meanwhile, as Watson noted, everyone else in Iceland (population: 320,000) could expect to collectively pay $343.2 million more in taxes in 2010.