The woman behind Wikileaks: "I am not speaking with Julian"

Birgitta Jónsdóttir talks about what Wikileaks biopic The Fifth Estate got wrong.

This piece was originally published on newrepublic.com
 
It’s a few weeks before the Wikileaks drama The Fifth Estate goes into wide release, but the film is already making news. Last week, Wikileaks leaked a version of the script along with an internal memo calling the film “irresponsible, counterproductive and harmful,” and contesting its depiction of the organization. At the center of the film are Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), Internet activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), and Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir ("Game of Thrones" actress Carice Van Houten)—the three central players of the organization’s most contentious era. Jónsdóttir and Domscheit-Berg both left Wikileaks several years ago over disputes about its transparency and leadership, and the film’s script is based in part on Domscheit-Berg’s tell-all book, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website. I talked with Jónsdóttir, who advised director Bill Condon on the film, about the script and what parts of The Fifth Estate might actually be true.
 

Linda Kinstler: Have you seen the film?

Birgitta Jónsdóttir: No, I’ve only seen near final versions of the script. I’m not sure if I will be able to go to the premiere. I will be doing my parliamentary duties at the Inter-Parliamentary Union around the same time.

LK: Were you invited to the premiere?

BJ: I actually had asked to be invited.

LK: What kind of input did you have in the film?

BJ: When I saw the script, at first, I was furious. ... The script was based on two books [Domscheit-Berg’s and David Leigh and Luke Harding’s WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy] that are sort of divorce books. When you write about recent history, and you’re upset, you’re always really biased, even if there are lots of facts that are accurate.

LK: Have you spoken to Carice Van Houten, who plays you in the film?

BJ: I helped her a little bit when she was in Iceland just to get an idea of how I speak.

LK: Why did you decide to collaborate with the film, especially given Wikileaks and Assange have been quite vocal in critiquing it?

BJ: Julian was never going to be happy with the script. ... I decided to participate with this film because I feared that it would be unbalanced, because it was based on these two books.

LK: Why was it so important to you to take out the Iran plot? [An early version of the script included a subplot in which a Wikileaks cable revealed the identity of a U.S. source embedded in the Iranian nuclear program. Forbes reports that in the final cut, the plot has been shifted to Libya.]

BJ: That scene was a complete fabrication. To write that Wikileaks had compromised the source in relation to the nuclear program, was just too political, too incorrect, and too damaging. There’s a lot of misperception of what Wikileaks was and is about in the United States. It’s been blown up into this whole black-and-white debate. I was branded a terrorist because, at the time that this was happening, I was collaborating and working with Wikileaks. I thought there was a massive army of volunteers and collaborators. Then I realized, “We’re like five or six people, and somebody has just leaked the biggest leak in history.” Of course, the script is very inaccurate in many ways. But I could sense in the script—and I hope that people can focus on this element—how Wikileaks changed that debate, how people have become more aware of their own power, and how Wikileaks has enabled and empowered a lot of human rights groups all over the world.

LK: What other changes did you make to the original script?

BJ: In the original script, they had us [Jónsdóttir, Domscheit-Berg, and Assange] sitting in a hot tub discussing "Collateral Murder" [a video released by Wikileaks showing footage of U.S. soldiers firing on civilians in Baghdad]. It was completely distasteful, so I demanded they take it out; they had actually already taken it out by the time I got a hold of Josh [Singer, who adapted the script].

LK: So that never actually happened?

BJ: No, no—and there were lots of things. I never undressed and gave Julian my clothes when he was posing as a woman. [In the leaked script, it’s actually a journalist named Alex Lang who swaps clothing with Julian.]

LK: Have you had any contact with Julian about the film, or about Wikileaks?

BJ: I am not speaking with Julian, I haven’t spoken with him for a while. ... I left Wikileaks a long time ago and our friendship soured, so I’m just doing my thing and he’s doing his. I’m primarily focusing on trying to bring about legal change not only in Iceland, but elsewhere. That’s the path that I’ve been taking.

LK: Earlier this summer, you said that you found out you had been the subject of NSA surveillance. Have you found out anything more about that?

BJ: I have only been able to get the confirmation [that the U.S. government was looking into] Twitter messages and metadata. [In 2011, Jonsdottir appealed a U.S. Court Order that required Twitter to hand over private records from her account.] ... But a couple of my friends who were also part of the Wikileaks team in Iceland got a letter from Gmail last summer stating that the NSA, or the FBI, requested their messages and data. I’ve been an activist for a long time, so I’m always careful. I can protect myself if I want to, I can remain anonymous in what I do. ... I took the Twitter matter to court because I wanted to raise people’s awareness that that sort of surveillance is happening. It bothers me that people don’t seem to understand that even if they haven’t done anything wrong, that doesn’t mean that they should give away these fundamental rights for privacy.

LK: In the leaked script, Daniel claims that Julian dyes his hair. Wikileaks denies it. Can you weigh in on that?

BJ: I never saw him do it, so I can’t. He did have some hair bleach that he left behind, but he had lots of weird stuff that he left behind. ... Hair becomes pretty dead when it’s bleached, and his hair didn’t look like that.

LK: You have said that Wikileaks has changed since your time there—can you comment on how it’s changed?

BJ: It’s sort of become more of a “MegaLeaks” than a Wikileaks. ... It doesn’t have the same grassroots element that it used to have, if you know what I mean. It’s more like an institution in collaboration with large media platforms. It’s not good or bad, it’s just different.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Linda Kinstler is a reporter researcher at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @lindakinstler.

This piece was originally published on newrepublic.com

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Image: Getty
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No, Jeremy Corbyn did not refuse to condemn the IRA. Please stop saying he did

Guys, seriously.

Okay, I’ll bite. Someone’s gotta say it, so really might as well be me:

No, Jeremy Corbyn did not, this weekend, refuse to condemn the IRA. And no, his choice of words was not just “and all other forms of racism” all over again.

Can’t wait to read my mentions after this one.

Let’s take the two contentions there in order. The claim that Corbyn refused to condem the IRA relates to his appearance on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme yesterday. (For those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a weekly political programme, hosted by Sophy Ridge and broadcast on a Sunday. Don’t say I never teach you anything.)

Here’s how Sky’s website reported that interview:

 

The first paragraph of that story reads:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised after he refused five times to directly condemn the IRA in an interview with Sky News.

The funny thing is, though, that the third paragraph of that story is this:

He said: “I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

Apparently Jeremy Corbyn has been so widely criticised for refusing to condemn the IRA that people didn’t notice the bit where he specifically said that he condemned the IRA.

Hasn’t he done this before, though? Corbyn’s inability to say he that opposed anti-semitism without appending “and all other forms of racism” was widely – and, to my mind, rightly – criticised. These were weasel words, people argued: an attempt to deflect from a narrow subject where the hard left has often been in the wrong, to a broader one where it wasn’t.

Well, that pissed me off too: an inability to say simply “I oppose anti-semitism” made it look like he did not really think anti-semitism was that big a problem, an impression not relieved by, well, take your pick.

But no, to my mind, this....

“I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

...is, despite its obvious structural similarities, not the same thing.

That’s because the “all other forms of racism thing” is an attempt to distract by bringing in something un-related. It implies that you can’t possibly be soft on anti-semitism if you were tough on Islamophobia or apartheid, and experience shows that simply isn’t true.

But loyalist bombing were not unrelated to IRA ones: they’re very related indeed. There really were atrocities committed on both sides of the Troubles, and while the fatalities were not numerically balanced, neither were they orders of magnitude apart.

As a result, specifically condemning both sides as Corbyn did seems like an entirely reasonable position to take. Far creepier, indeed, is to minimise one set of atrocities to score political points about something else entirely.

The point I’m making here isn’t really about Corbyn at all. Historically, his position on Northern Ireland has been pro-Republican, rather than pro-peace, and I’d be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable with that.

No, the point I’m making is about the media, and its bias against Labour. Whatever he may have said in the past, whatever may be written on his heart, yesterday morning Jeremy Corbyn condemned IRA bombings. This was the correct thing to do. His words were nonetheless reported as “Jeremy Corbyn refuses to condemn IRA”.

I mean, I don’t generally hold with blaming the mainstream media for politicians’ failures, but it’s a bit rum isn’t it?

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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