The U.S. government’s “war on terror” and its companion “surveillance state” have become troubling issues not only for the civil liberties of Americans but even more so for the rest of the world where popular movements are arising to challenge the electronic penetration of people’s information and violation of their privacy.
Iceland Member of Parliament Birgitta Jonsdottir of the Pirate Party was in Berkeley, California, recently to speak at a forum with Daniel Ellsberg on “Disappearing Civil Liberties in The United States.” Jonsdottir is also Director of the International Modern Media Institute and co-producer of WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video, which revealed the slaughter of Iraqis in 2007 by a U.S. aerial weapons team.
Jonsdottir, who has worked closely with WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, discussed the status of this emerging international struggle against government secrecy and surveillance in an interview with Dennis J Bernstein.
DB: How did you get involved in the “Collateral Murder”project?
BJ: I was working with spokespersons for WikiLeaks in 2009. They came to Iceland and spoke at a Freedom Society event where I was speaking as well. They were talking about an idea that originated in this area of the world, from John Perry Barlow, who a year earlier, in the wake of our financial collapse, said that Iceland could become a safe haven for freedom of information, expression and speech. Julian [Assange] and Daniel [Ellsberg] talked about the same concept, and it was ripe.
I was elected to Parliament, the only geek in Parliament at the time. I approached them after the conference and we began to work on this project, which is to look at the best functioning laws in the Twenty-first Century that protect freedom of information, expression and speech. The reason I chose to work with WikiLeaks was they had hands-on experience in keeping things up no matter what. They had released some documents from the Church of Scientology, and anybody who knows anything about the Church of Scientology knows that it’s very difficult to keep things up because they have very good lawyers. They managed to keep their bible up and you can still access their bible through the Internet because they have archive versions of the WikiLeaks website before the big leak, which came a few months later.
As I was working with them and some other people, we came up with what politicians and people who want to increase civil liberties can do, and that is to get experts from all over the world to cherry pick the best laws that have proven to function. We wrote it on an “ether pad” in English, then translated it into Icelandic. For some mysterious reason that I can’t comprehend, maybe because there is such a need for it not only in Iceland, but everywhere, I got unanimous acceptance for it in Parliament. That is equivalent to both the Senate and [House of Representatives] voting yes on something.
The government of Iceland has been working on creating these laws. We have the best source protection in the world, and a very good freedom of information act for the Twenty-first Century, with transparency about media ownership, etc. We are working on something very important in the context of what has been happening in this country in the last week, which is we want to have the best whistleblower laws in the world put into place, and that is being processed currently in the ministry.
DB: Tell me about your response to the content of the “Collateral Murder” video shown on WikiLeaks. What did that mean to you? What did it tell you about what was going on?
BJ: I was one of the millions of people around the world who tried to stop the war in Iraq before it began and were nearly successful. We coordinated through the Internet. I was one of the few who kept protesting after the war, such as against such atrocities as Fallujah. One man posted the horrible things that were happening there. I was following the Iraq body count and knew what was happening. But you can’t express it enough to get people to feel the compassion or empathy that is needed to act.
When I saw the video that Jullian Assange showed me at a cafe opposite the Icelandic Parliament, I wept. I wept many times over this video. It is painful not only to see the war crimes that happen in this video. Particularly troubling for me was when I looked at the wounded man who was trying to get up, and good samaritans came to help, just ordinary citizens. Imagine there was an accident on the road here, and someone would come and try to take the wounded to the hospital – just like in this video. They had kids in their car and they were killed, slaughtered. It was a murder of innocent people who were trying to do a decent thing, by saving somebody who was dying, and they way the soldiers spoke about it was horrifying.
DB: There was almost a gleeful hysteria.
BJ: It was, “Look at the dead bastards. Line them up, nice. It’s their fault to bring their kids to war.” I mean, who brought the war to Iraq? It certainly wasn’t these people. It was from a country far, far away. I knew when I helped release this video that my life would never be the same afterwards. I knew that I was participating in making world history and I never thought twice about doing it. If I would be in the same situation tomorrow, I would do it without thinking about it.
DB: How did it change your life?
BJ: It changed in both positive and more disturbing ways. I felt I had done something that would make me feel I had done something important with my life, because it had a tremendous impact on so many people, all over the world. It helped bring voices to the voiceless. People in Iraq are trying to tell how it is and what is happening there every day, and nobody pays attention to it.
It also – and this was so important to me – showed the truth to the families of these people who were killed in the video. It is an incredible gift to somebody to be able to do that. So in various aspects it was good. On the other hand, I had an unexpected visit by the FBI. They came into my home, and went through everything, looked at letters I had been sending to my kids and my mother. They looked at who I was with and where and for how long. They went through everything, everything. But they didn’t come through my front door – they came through my back door, the Internet. They demanded that there would be no knock. Instead, they demanded that Twitter hand over all their meta data, IP numbers and messages, without my knowledge, within three days.
Twitter took them to court and managed to unseal a secret document saying what a very scary person I am, a terrible terrorist. I wasn’t able to take them to court, but I was advised to contact the EFF [Electronic Frontier Foundation] and the ACLU. I contacted them, and they offered to help and take this to court pro bono. In the first ruling, which was not reported in either the U.S. or Europe, the judge said that I, as an individual, or you, or any individual who listens to this program, do not have the right to look after our own back when it comes to our information that is being stored and kept by social media companies like Gmail and Skype. So we have to trust these companies to look after us, and some of them have a very bad track record. …
I’m talking about social media companies, the new generation – Google, Facebook, Skype and phone companies as well. When the FBI entered into my home, this is exactly what happened. There are four more companies that I cannot possibly get unsealed by your courts, although we took this to three different court levels. This goes hand-in-hand with what has now been revealed with the NSA, which is that I cannot unshield the companies that apparently are in all these documents. There are four others that handed over my information.
The Department of Justice demands that this is kept sealed because of some investigative thing, but I am not the subject of any criminal investigation, so I don’t get it. I am a member of Parliament of a sovereign country, yet your government feels they need to find something about me, which compromises everybody who communicates with me, and I communicate with a lot of people. It also compromises their private information to me, so it’s not only about me – it’s about all of us. I was trying to tell people this. That’s why I took this to court, so now we can see. If they can do this to me, they can do it to anybody.
I am so thankful to the whistleblower in the NSA case, Edward Snowden, because he put forward and got the entire world to pay attention to what many of us have been saying of the NSA, suspicions that it was being abused. I learned much from Thomas Drake, a NSA whistleblower who they tried to put him in a long-term prison. I think it’s important that people wake up – your government is not only prying into U.S. civilians’ private data, but into every person on the planet who uses Facebook or smart phones. You have become like China, Russia, and you must roll it back because you still can. Europe is thinking about building a digital fortress around itself to protect the civilians in Europe against tyranny – not against China, Iran or North Korea, but against the United States surveillance state.
DB: The video transformed the nature of the war effort in Iraq and forced the U.S. hand to at least get some soldiers out of the country more quickly. We know what the U.S. left is sectarian violence, and May had the most deaths since the so-called end of the war – 1,000 people killed because of U.S. foreign policy. Let’s talk more about this “Collateral Murder” and the work of Julian Assange, and others. What do you think about what Julian did and what happened to him?
BJ: Julian and I share a similar vision that it is not enough to talk about the problems – we need to figure out solutions, work on them, and try to inspire others to do it. I worked with him nearly every day for five months so we got quite well acquainted and it was very stimulating to talk with him and brainstorm. He’s not very easy to work with, to be honest. He’s peculiar – he works so much. I would leave him at midnight and wake up at 6, and he would still be sitting in the same position, not having had anything to drink, just working. He is a very dedicated person to the cult of transparency.
It was not only Julian at WikiLeaks – there was always a team of people behind WikiLeaks who are making it possible. He and his organization managed to bring into the public debate a very necessary discussion that has been ongoing – the status of the freedom of information in our world. Bradley Manning managed to get into the discussion with his act, then when he was caught, it raised the necessity of whistleblowers. This word has almost been forgotten since Daniel Ellsberg, who says, “I was Bradley Manning.” It is uncanny to think about the newest whistleblower coming forward from the NSA, who looks almost like Daniel Ellsberg, and had access to the same security clearances as Ellsberg, at the same level. I heard somebody say, “Daniel Ellsberg is back.”
It is a tremendous service that these people have given to our societies. Julian Assange is among them. He has had lots of controversy about his person, and I don’t want to go deeply into that. I want to see the message that he is delivering. Yesterday I watched him give a speech by Skype at an event for a company called Thoughtworks. He was so right on it. He wrote a book with three very other important people called Cyber Punks, which is a very important book to read. There is another important book about the history of cryptography called This Machine Kills Secrets by Andy Greenberg, who writes for Forbes as well. That book is both very creepy and very inspirational. If people want to get a crash course in the persons behind the cryptography movement and the leaking culture that has been developing after WikiLeaks, they should read these books.
DB Let’s conclude this way: we do know that structurally the U.S. government is engaged in a system of permanent war and is supported by a military industrial communications network that is tough to take on. You have been going up against it. Bradley Manning is facing life. Some people want to kill him for telling the truth. We are facing tough times. What guides you through all this, what’s at the core for you?
BJ: Most of us are brought up to have the ethics of “if we witness a crime, we are supposed to tell about it.” If you see somebody stealing a very expensive perfume, would you look the other way? If you see somebody abusing children, would you look the other way? If you see somebody killing somebody, would you look the other way? If you see somebody committing war crimes, would you look the other way? I am brought up to tell the truth. I am brought up that if I see a crime, I am supposed to report it.
Most of the world is a part of the Geneva Convention, except the United States. If the people of the U.S. want to earn respect, trust and compassion from the rest of the world, they need to start cleaning up their garden. It is absurd and very depressing that nobody has been questioned or held accountable for the murders that we witnessed in the “Collateral Murder” video, except Bradley Manning, who showed it to us, who had the guts, heart and ethics to put it out there.
DB: We have the First Amendment here and the example they use is you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater if there’s no fire. I like to say, if there is a fire in that theater and you turn and walk away, then you are responsible for what happens in the aftermath. We live by that on Flashpoints on Pacifica radio. We believe that information is power and that it’s important to get this information out, and it’s important for people to understand how essential it is to have somebody like Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning.
BJ: Yes, and let’s not forget about the journalist Barrett Brown. They managed to character-assassinate him by saying he threatened the FBI people who were harassing him. He was taken into the trapwire that has now been revealed in the NSA leak. I encourage people to look at what trapwire is. Brown was digging deeper than they wanted him to dig. WikilLeaks has the spy files, much of them now revealed by the NSA. Those of us who have known of these things for a while, have been trying to warn the public.
Barrett Brown was too close for comfort, so they arrested him and he’s in prison for submitting a link to leaked files, the Stratfor files, I think. Jeremy Hammond, sometimes called the Robin Hood of the Internet, is in prison and facing probably ten years for getting the files from Stratfor. There’s a campaign for him. Stratfor is a private surveillance company that is contracted by the government to look after us, or look at us, without our knowledge. They were doing a specific attempt to undermine WikiLeaks, people associated with it, and spy on WikiLeaks. Jeremy Hammond revealed this.
This is all interconnected – WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning, Jeremy Hammond, Barrett Brown, Thomas Drake … There are many more. I encourage people to look at these people, because it all falls under the category of mass surveillance and a mass secrecy state. They are surveilling everything about us, and in particular in the U.S. and Europe, we don’t have a clue about who is doing it. I have heard that 70 percent of the surveillance state is contracted with private firms. Imagine how money is spent on this when infrastructure is absolutely collapsing – health care, education, even bridges are collapsing because there’s no money to be put in there It’s all being paid to private firms that are dancing in the revolving door.
DB: In the aftermath of the permanent war policy, when people ask me if America loves its children, I say we hate our kids. I know, because I taught emotionally disturbed for almost 15 years. We build advanced weaponry, bugging each other, while the kids die, the bridges fall, and the wars continue. It is a big struggle to restrain this endless war policy, isn’t it?
BJ: While you have the revolving door, and accept that as the right way to govern, then something is wrong. Do people want this? Do they want Monsantos to genetically modify our food, killing farmers in India and the United States? They are taking their own lives because they don’t see any future, and they are frankensteining our food. If people will not change, they need to think of the issue we can unite around – what is the single most important thing the American people can do to put a crack in the system. That is the task.
Dennis J. Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.