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"An Attack on Journalism": WikiLeaks on Bradley Manning Trial, FBI Move to Infiltrate Organization

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Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesperson for WikiLeaks. He is an investigative journalist who was named Icelandic journalist of the year and best investigative journalist.

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In this web-only interview, WikiLeaks spokesperson and Icelandic journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson discusses the significance of the Bradley Manning trial. The U.S. government is seeking to strengthen its case against Manning by presenting evidence that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda used WikiLeaks as a propaganda tool. During the trial, prosecutors referred to a video produced by the American al-Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn. The video, released in June 2011, contained footage of an Apache helicopter attack on civilians in Baghdad put out by WikiLeaks under the title "Collateral Murder." Speaking in English, Gadahn exhorted al-Qaeda supporters to "take advantage of resources available on the Internet." Hrafnsson also responds to a report in Wired.com about how a WikiLeaks volunteer became a paid FBI informant.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Army whistleblower Bradley Manning has been accused of providing more than 700,000 secret U.S. government documents and cables to WikiLeaks, the largest disclosure of state secrets in U.S. history. Now the U.S. government is seeking to strengthen its case against Manning by presenting evidence that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda used WikiLeaks as a propaganda tool. During the trial, prosecutors referred to a video produced by the American al-Qaeda spokesman, Adam Gadahn. The video, released in June 2011, contained footage of an Apache helicopter attack on civilians in Baghdad, put out by WikiLeaks under the title "Collateral Murder." Speaking in English, Gadahn exhorted al-Qaeda supporters to, quote, "take advantage of resources available on the Internet." The prosecution also mentioned Inspire magazine, which is published by al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula. The magazine listed ways readers could help the mujahideen, including information useful for jihad. The article said, quote, "Anything from WikiLeaks is useful for archiving."

We’re joined right now by Kristinn Hrafnsson. He is an Icelandic journalist, award-winning investigative journalist in Iceland, is now spokesperson for WikiLeaks.

Can you talk about the significance of this?

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: It is of grave significance to journalism, in general, that this is being pursued by the prosecution here. On Monday, without putting it in any context, the prosecution was trying to convince the court that they had evidence that Bradley Manning aided the enemy—the more serious of the charges—by citing this information that they found, apparently, on Osama bin Laden’s computer and the material that you were referring to. It is an attack on journalism. Journalism is basically on trial there, because if you replace WikiLeaks with The New York Times, which carried also this material, what would you get then? The prosecutor has said, basically, when asked directly in the Bradley Manning trial if it would have made any difference if the first stop of Bradley Manning would have been The New York Times instead of WikiLeaks, and the prosecution said, "Not at all." So, I mean, that was of grave concern, I think, to The New York Times, who had, of course, had to be shamed by its public editor to actually cover the trial, but it should be of grave concern to all journalists. It is basically saying that by reporting stories based on sources or whistleblowers revealing information, if it somehow, in any way, throughout the interweb—Internet, gets into the hands of terrorist groups or criminals, it is—they are co-conspirators. And that is what is at stake. And we see the same thing in the James Rosen case, of Fox News. There is an attempt in this country to criminalize journalism, and that is the core of the matter here, [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting. In a sense, the same argument could be made against the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sy Hersh, who had exposed the My Lai Massacre, that by exposing that massacre, you’re going to rev up, incite people to attack American soldiers; or the reporters who exposed weaknesses in American tanks that were in Iraq or Afghanistan, that you’re then showing the, quote, "enemy" what the weaknesses in the tanks are. You could use that argument for anyone who does an exposé.

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: Absolutely. And that is the—why this should be a concern to all journalists and the general public, because—that’s why I say it’s an attack on journalism. They even tried to maintain, in the Bradley Manning trial, that by showing the "Collateral Murder" video, which I worked on prior to its release on April 5th, 2010, and even traveled to Baghdad to meet the victims, who suffered as a result of that, that showing that heinous attack on innocent civilians, within my opinion, showed—exposed an obvious war crime. That—

AMY GOODMAN: So, this was the videotape of July 12th—

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: Two thousand seven.

AMY GOODMAN: —2007, that showed, in this area of Baghdad called New Baghdad, a U.S. Apache helicopter—it was its videotape as they opened fire on people below and ended up killing 12 men, including two Reuters employees.

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: Two Reuters employees. And the more serious aspect of that video is the fact that an individual that came to the scene and was passing by, and he was going to assist one of the Reuters employees, Saeed Chmagh, was basically a Good Samaritan, was killed, and his two children, who were traveling with him, whom I met in Baghdad, they were injured and now are fatherless. That was never investigated properly as a war crime.

But showing that video to the public, it is now maintained in the Bradley Manning trial, is exposing tactics that could assist, possibly, terrorists. For me, as a journalist, who had a prior access to that video when it was—we showed extensive reporting on that in the Icelandic state television in April 2010—is absolutely an absurd argument. And this would—this is an attempt to silence every journalist that is covering acts of this nature. So, as a journalist, this is an extremely serious matter. And in the Bradley Manning trial on Monday, when they introduced this evidence of—so-called evidence of aiding the enemy, it is something that is of grave concern to me and should be to everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this time we’re in? Julian Assange is in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, and if he steps foot outside, the British authorities say, they will arrest him, though he has gotten political asylum in Ecuador; Edward Snowden, in a Moscow airport, trying to get political asylum for exposing the National Security Agency spying on people all over the world, millions around the world; and then Bradley Manning at Fort Meade. Fort Meade is the headquarters of the National Security Agency, but that’s where he’s being court-martialed for releasing this trove of U.S. government documents.

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: Well, I—for me, it’s the same story, whether it’s Manning; Assange; Snowden; Thomas Drake; John Kiriakou, the whistleblower from CIA; William Binney from the NSA. We are seeing now an attack on whistleblowers, an attack on everybody who tries to counter this terrible trend we’ve seen with escalating secrecy in government. And the reaction speaks for itself. The reaction to whistleblowers, the reaction to WikiLeaks, is exposing actually how effective WikiLeaks is and the new technology you have to get information out. That is why those in power who want to cover up corrupt practices, whether it’s in the corporate sector or in the government sector, are trying everything to quash these attempts.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about WikiLeaks’ role in Iceland in exposing the banks, why people in Iceland came to support WikiLeaks in the way that they did?

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: Well, the reason why WikiLeaks was a household name in Iceland, prior to everybody in the world knowing that, the name, in 2010, is the—is their exposure of the internal documents from the biggest bank who collapsed in Iceland, Kaupthing, in August 2009. It showed the corrupt practices on the inside, how the biggest owners in the bank were the biggest borrowers, with little or even no collateral at all. It was the most sensational story in the financial sector in 2009 and was shining a light on why Iceland went through an economic meltdown with the collapse of the entire banking sector in October 2008. So, there was a great search for information, of course, and explanations of what happened. WikiLeaks provided the answer in August 2009. And, for that, the people of Iceland are—were very grateful to WikiLeaks and understand the importance of, in that sense, that case. A breach of bank secrecy laws, which even I, reporting on this, was under investigation for my breach of Bank Secrecy Act in Iceland—but it served a higher ideal. I mean, that is the—why we need whistleblowers, who believe in higher laws and—

AMY GOODMAN: Why did this serve Iceland, these exposures, the exposé?

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: It, the exposé, showed—gave us an insight and the answer to why an entire banking sector could collapse overnight, when the—when serious strain was on the international financial market. It was basically a house of cards that kept tumbling down, crumbling down. And people actually knew, by seeing this information, the real explanation of how this could come about.

AMY GOODMAN: Kristinn, I wanted to ask you about Siggi Thordarson. Wired just exposed him in a piece, longtime volunteer for WikiLeaks with direct access to Assange, a key position as an organizer in the group. Wired writes, "With his cold war-style embassy walk-in, he became something else: the first known FBI informant inside WikiLeaks. For the next three months, Thordarson served two masters, working for the secret-spilling website and simultaneously spilling its secrets to the U.S. government in exchange, he says, for a total of about $5,000." Thordarson was 17 years old, still in high school, when he joined WikiLeaks in February 2010, "one of a large contingent of Icelandic volunteers that flocked to Assange’s cause after WikiLeaks published internal bank documents pertaining to that country’s financial crisis. ... He accumulated thousands of pages of chat logs from his time in WikiLeaks, which, he says, are now in the hands of the FBI." You must know him well.

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: I mean, the Wired story is overstating his role, and he’s probably relying on himself, and he has been extremely economical with the truth, not to say the least. He had a minor role as a volunteer within the organization, not for a long time, for a period of a few months. He was a moderator in an open chat room pertaining to WikiLeaks matter, and he was tasked with overseeing the sales of mugs and T-shirts with WikiLeaks logos, which ended up in him basically stealing more than $50,000, and which he had to charge him to the police for that theft, and he’s now under investigation. He was already out of—without any contact with the inside of the organization after he entered the U.S. embassy in Iceland and offered his help in August 2011. So—but he is a—he’s, unfortunately, a person that has overstated his own role, and that is reflected in the Wired magazine. And at no point did he have any access to sensitive information while in contact with the organization. But he did, of course, come to—in contact with Julian and was photographed with him, etc.

AMY GOODMAN: Wired writes, "’It’s a sign that the FBI views WikiLeaks as a suspected criminal organization rather than a news organization,’ says Stephen Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy." He says, "WikiLeaks was something new, so I think the FBI had to make a choice at some point as to how to evaluate it: Is this The New York Times, or is this something else? And they clearly decided it was something else." Kristinn?

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: They did send a Gulfstream jet with six agents and two prosecutors from Alexandria, Virginia, to Iceland in August 2011 and interviewed and interrogated this young man, with a minimal role within the organization, for five days, stayed in the country of Iceland even after the minister of interior had indicated that their presence was not welcome because they had come to the country on false pretenses. They were basically kicked out of Iceland.

AMY GOODMAN: What were the false pretenses?

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: The pretense was that they were coming to the country to assist Iceland because of a possible imminent attack on the computer infrastructure in the country. But the real reason why they went to all this trouble for a—one volunteer, which they tried to get wear a mic and tried to reestablish connection with Assange. They paid for his information. They flew him to Copenhagen. They flew him to Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: This guy, Siggi.

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: This guy, Siggi. But it shows the extent of the investigation, which is ongoing behind the secret wall of a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia. Over a year ago, a year-and-a-half ago, we learned, through the Bradley Manning hearing, that they had collected more than 42,000 pages of documents in that investigation. It has been revealed through FOIA requests in Australia that Australian diplomats in Washington had been told by State Department officials that the investigation into WikiLeaks, which is ongoing and is aimed at six individuals described as founders and managers of the organization, is now fast becoming the most extensive criminal investigation in this country against a journalistic organization that I’m now working for. That is outrageous. But it showed how afraid the people in power are of information getting out to the public.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned yourself about being targeted?

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: I assume that I am targeted in that investigation, even though we have not had the names out. But it is the part of doing journalism, as I have been doing for 25 years, to race yourself towards those things. And before I came to the United States, I took precautions, but it’s nothing unnatural I do to take precautions when I travel to war zones.

AMY GOODMAN: Edward Snowden released his revelations in Hong Kong in the midst of the Bradley Manning trial, so he knew the stakes—Bradley Manning, facing life in prison, could even face death—yet he did it anyway. Why don’t we wrap up by ending up with Edward Snowden?

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: He knew—and we know through the interview with him—the grave consequences that he could face for becoming a whistleblower. But there we have a young man, extremely courageous, who risks everything because he believes in the higher ideals and the higher laws that we should adhere to. He is a true whistleblower and a hero, in my mind, and just as with Daniel Ellsberg, who was lambasted in the early ’70s and called by Kissinger "the most dangerous man in America." He was put on trial. He was called a traitor. A few years later, he became the hero of this nation for his exposure, the Pentagon Papers. I am—I hope and I wish that Edward Snowden will have the same place in history in a few years. And that applies, as well, to Bradley Manning and all the other whistleblowers that have been persecuted in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you put Julian Assange in that category?

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: I would.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesperson for WikiLeaks, investigative journalist from Iceland. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

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