New United States Ambassador to Iceland Appointed

Carrin F. Patman

The United States Senate has confirmed Carrin F. Patman as the next US Ambassador to Iceland. Patman is a lawyer by training and was a major fundraiser in both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden’s electoral campaigns in 2016 and 2020, respectively. Vísir reported first.

Patman, 65, was nominated for the position by Joe Biden in February. At the time of her nomination, she stated she had picked up some basic Icelandic, though in her words: “Just a little.”

Patman has been chair of Houston Metro in Houston, Texas since 2010. She was previously a partner at Bracewell LLP, where her specialisations included class action litigation and environmental violations. She was a founding board member of the Center for Women in Law and has been a leader in women’s rights organisations in Texas.

In a statement, Patman said she hoped to “strengthen our cooperation and understanding between the governments of the United States and Iceland.”

The last US ambassador to Iceland, Jeffrey Ross Gunter, was a controversial figure, not least for the social media posts he made throughout his tenure. A US government report published late last year revealed that embassy staff were still recovering from the “threatening and intimidating environment” created by Gunter.

President Biden Nominates New US Ambassador to Iceland

US President Joe Biden has nominated Carrin Patman to be the United States’ ambassador to Iceland, RÚV reports. Patman is a former trial lawyer, currently serves as the chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas, and was a major donor to Biden’s presidential campaign.

The US’ last three ambassadors to Iceland have all been political appointees and fundraisers for the presidents who have nominated them. Prior to this, Robert C. Barber was appointed by President Barack Obama and Jeffrey Ross Gunter was appointed by President Donald Trump.

Over the last few decades, US presidents have generally given the country’s more comfortable ambassadorial seats to political supporters, says Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir, professor of political science at the University of Iceland. The president’s ambassadorial nominations must be approved by the senate.

“Today, they look at this as something of a sinecure,” she continued, saying that the opposition party tends to approve political appointees as a sort of quid pro quo. It’s a system that politicians seem largely satisfied with, but among “those who work within the foreign service and have worked their way up, there’s a fair amount of criticism,” said Silja Bára, “and of course within watchdog organizations as well.” Critics argue that “you can buy an ambassadorship.”

President Biden has now nominated around 90 ambassadors, 60-70% of whom could be considered political appointees.

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.

Ten MPs Urge United States to Drop Charges Against Assange

Alþingi Icelandic parliament

Ten Icelandic MPs from five different parties have sent the US Ambassador in Iceland a letter urging the country to drop its charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, RÚV reports. This comes in the wake of the recent revelation that a key witness in the US’s indictment of Assange, Sigurður Þórðarson (also known as Siggi the Hacker), has admitted to fabricating his accusations against his former mentor.

Assange is currently in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison, where he has been held since being arrested in April 2019 for skipping bail seven years ago. The US is seeking his extradition on charges of espionage, charges which the cosigning MPs say are an attempt to criminalize investigative journalism and set a bad precedent for freedom of the press throughout the world. If extradited and convicted, Assange could face a sentence of 175 years in prison.

The letter also cites a report written by Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which stated that as a result of the charges, Assange has been subjected to isolation, disgrace, and stripped of his fundamental human rights.

The letter comes in the wake of a special investigative report published (in English) by Icelandic outlet Stundin, in which Sigurður Þórðarson, an Icelandic hacker recruited by the US “to build a case against Assange after misleading them to believe he was previously a close associate of his,” admitted, among other things, that Assange “never asked him to hack or access phone recordings of MPs.”

The letter was co-signed by Helga Vala Helgadóttir and Guðmundur Andri Thorsson (Social Democratic Alliance), Ari Trausti Guðmundsson (Left Green), Halldóra Mogensen, Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir, Björn Leví Gunnarsson, and Andrés Ingi Jónsson (Pirate Party), Hanna Katrín Friðriksson and Jón Steindór Valdimarsson (Reform Party), and Inga Sæland (People’s Party).

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.”