Report: Former US Ambassador to Iceland Threatened Staff

Staff of the US embassy in Reykjavík are still recovering from the “threatening and intimidating environment” created by former ambassador Jeffrey Ross Gunter, a US government report reveals. Gunter held the position from July 2019 until January 2021, when he announced his departure. The newly-released report stated that the embassy’s new Chargé d’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission are working to rebuild diplomatic relations with the government of Iceland, which deteriorated under Gunter’s leadership. Mbl.is reported first.

The report comes from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the US Department of State. It describes a difficult working environment during Gunter’s stay. Several months after his departure, “embassy staff were still recovering from what they described as a threatening and intimidating environment created by the former Ambassador. For example, staff reported to OIG multiple instances in which the former Ambassador had threatened to sue Department officials and embassy staff who expressed disagreement with him, questioned his wishes, or were perceived to be ‘disloyal’ to him. In addition, many employees reported to OIG that the former Ambassador threatened reprisal against employees who communicated with Department officials in Washington while conducting their official duties.”

Relationship with Icelandic government deteriorated

Gunter’s relationship with the government of Iceland deteriorated to the point that the Department of State decided to bypass him in communications with Icelandic officials. “The then-Undersecretary for Political Affairs instructed the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs (EUR) to work directly with the Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ensure proper management of the bilateral relationship. This action attempted to mitigate the negative impact of the former Ambassador’s frequent failure to respect diplomatic protocol or to coordinate with the Icelandic Government on policy initiatives and press statements touching on sensitive defense-related subjects,” the report states.

As mentioned in the document, Gunter’s social media posts generated controversy in Iceland throughout his tenure. The report also states that certain important procedures were neglected under Gunter’s leadership, including seismic safety assessments for 11 out of 15 of its leased residential units.

US Embassy Accuses Icelandic Newspaper of Irresponsible Journalism and Fake News

The US embassy in Iceland accused Icelandic newspaper Fréttablaðið of irresponsible journalism and fake news in posts on Twitter and Facebook yesterday. Earlier that day, Fréttablaðið reported that a staff member of the US Embassy had contracted COVID-19. In its social media posts, the US Embassy has confirmed that a local employee caught the virus.

Yesterday, Fréttablaðið reported that an embassy employee had contracted COVID-19 but nevertheless, all embassy employees were asked to come in to work next Sunday to help move the embassy to its new location in Engjateigur. US Ambassador to Iceland Jeffrey Ross Gunter had moved up the move to ensure that they would be done in time for the US presidential election next Tuesday. Fréttablaðið spoke to Kristinn Gilsdorf with the embassy’s public affairs office who stated he did not know about any infection. Fréttablaðið’s inquiry was forwarded to the Embassy’s Regional Security Office but had not received a reply.

The Facebook post asks whether fake news has arrived in Iceland and claims Fréttablaðið’s journalism is irresponsible and shameful to see. The post goes on: “Long after the dedication [of the new US Embassy], a single case of COVID-19 was caught by a local employee. The source of the infection was traced back to an Icelandic school outbreak.” The post also claims that Iceland has one of the highest COVID-19 rates in Europe and that the US Embassy is one of the safest havens from COVID-19 in Reykjavík. While Iceland is currently in the midst of the pandemic’s third wave, it’s 14-day cumulative number of COVID-19 cases per 100 000 is currently at 213,3. That is considerably lower than France’s 706, Belgium’s 1,600, the United Kingdom’s 437.7, and Spain’s 508.6, to name a few, according to the ECDC.

Donald Trump appointed Jeffrey Ross Gunter as US Ambassador to Iceland in 2018 after the position had been vacant for a year and a half. He recently made headlines in Iceland as well as his home country for his security concerns.

The US Embassy post on Facebook’s caption was published in both English and Iceland and can be read in full below.

“Has Fake News Arrived in Iceland?
America has succeeded with the #NewUSEmbassy completed and dedicated while having Zero COVID-19 infections ever in the entire U.S. Embassy history. It is shameful to see Fréttablaðið’s irresponsible journalism. Long after the dedication, a single case of COVID-19 was caught by a local employee. The source of the infection was traced back to an Icelandic school outbreak. Iceland has tragically one of the highest COVID-19 rates in Europe. It is terrible and sad that Fake News Fréttablaðið would be so unprofessional and disrespectful in using COVID-19 for political purposes during this crisis. The U.S. Embassy in Reykjavik Iceland has always been and is one of the SAFEST havens from COVID-19 in #Reykjavik.

Eru falsfréttir komin til Íslands?
Ameríka náði að vígja nýja sendiráðið án COVID-19 smits. Skömmin er núna hjá Fréttablaðinu fyrir ábyrgðarlausan blaðamennska. Löngu eftir vígslu kom upp eitt tilfelli vegna smits í íslenskum skóla. Smittíðnin á Íslandi er með því hæsta í Evrópu. Ömurlegt að Fals-Fréttablaðið væru svo ófagmannlegt og sýnir virðingarleysi með því að nota COVID-19 í pólitískum tilgangi. Bandaríska sendiráðið hefur alltaf verið og er öruggasta athvarfið frá COVID-19 í Reykjavík.”

US Ambassador to Iceland Wants to Carry a Gun

US Ambassador to Iceland Jeffrey Ross Gunter is reportedly so concerned about security in Iceland that he asked the US State Department to apply for special permission for him to carry a firearm, CBS News reports.

The Global Peace Index currently ranks Iceland as the most peaceful country in the world, but this does not seem to have put Ambassador Gunter’s mind at ease about his personal safety. Indeed, dozens of diplomatic staff and officials interviewed by CBS said that he’d been “paranoid about security” and the US Embassy in Iceland recently placed an ad in local papers seeking applicants for full-time bodyguards.

It has not been confirmed whether the State Department followed through with the ambassador’s request for a personal firearm, but it appears that his “irrational” security concerns did not end there. The former dermatologist and Republican Party donor—who only days ago drew swift criticism for retweeting a presidential tweet referring to COVID-19 as the “Invisible China Virus”—also floated the prospect of establishing door-to-door armored car service and suggested that he should be outfitted with a “stab-proof vest.”

See Also: Ambassadorial Tweet Denounced as ‘Deeply Offensive’

Although ownership of small shotguns and hunting rifles is fairly common and handgun ownership has been on the rise in recent years, there are still relatively few licensed personal handguns in the country. Per figures released by the Icelandic police, as of September 2019, there were 39,475 shotguns,  25,573 rifles, and 3,686 handguns as of September 2019—although it should be noted that the handgun total includes single-shot sheep guns used on farms. Icelandic law is very strict on gun control. In order to get a gun license, you must be 20 years or older, pass a mental and physical assessment, and have a clean criminal record. Applicants must also obtain recommendations from two people to attend a course on guns, gun safety, and gun and hunting laws. Only then, after passing a written test, can you get a license for smaller shotguns and rifles. In order to get a permit for larger rifles and semi-automatic shotguns, you must wait an additional year.

See Also: Hold Your Fire – Gun Ownership in Iceland

The CBS article goes on to describe an increasingly fractured and fractious work environment at the US Embassy. Ambassador Gunter has had seven Deputy Chiefs of Mission since his arrival in May 2019—one of whom prepared for over a year for the position and spent a considerable amount of time studying Icelandic only to be blocked because the Ambassador “didn’t like the look of him.” Ambassador Gunter also refused to return to Iceland after attending a conference in the US in February, took a personal leave of absence right in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and reportedly wanted to conduct his job remotely from California.

Read the full CBS report here.

Ambassadorial Tweet Denounced as ‘Deeply Offensive’

US Ambassador to Iceland Jeffrey Ross Gunter drew the ire of American nationals and Icelanders alike when he retweeted a presidential tweet that referred to COVID-19 as the “Invisible China Virus.” A petition demanding that the ambassador issue an apology to the people of Iceland has since received over 300 signatures.

“We are United in our effort to defeat the Invisible China Virus,” wrote President Trump in his July 20 tweet. Ambassador Gunter copied the exact same phrasing to describe COVID-19 when he retweeted it from his official ambassadorial Twitter account.

The tweet garnered a great deal of criticism, with commenters variously remarking “This won’t fly in Iceland,” and “Calling the Covid-19 virus ‘China virus’ is extremely ethnocentric,” and “Viruses do not have nationalities.”

Following the tweet, Elizabeth Lay, an American living in Iceland, started a petition denouncing the name “Invisible China Virus” as “deeply offensive and hurtful.” The petition continues: “The name, given by Trump, perpetuates racism and does not represent the viewpoint of the majority of Americans and Icelanders, nor does it represent the spirit of America.”

“We denounce Ambassador Gunter’s racist and divisive remarks in a time when unity is needed and demand that he apologize to the people of Iceland.”