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

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

New Statesman
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Image: Getty
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