REYKJAVIK, Iceland — From seafaring Vikings to digital dissenters, Iceland has always attracted outsiders.
This North Atlantic island nation has welcomed eccentric chess master Bobby Fischer, WikiLeaks secret-spiller Julian Assange and the online freedom advocates of the Pirate Party. Could its next guest be Edward Snowden, the American intelligence contractor who leaked secrets from the National Security Agency?
In an interview published Sunday outing himself as the source behind stories about the U.S. spy agency’s online surveillance programs, Snowden floated the idea of heading to Reykjavik. He told The Guardian newspaper that he was inclined to seek asylum in a country that shared his values — and “the nation that most encompasses this is Iceland.”
That has left many in this tiny seafaring nation, population 320,000, flattered, if bemused.
“I think it would be great for (Snowden) to come to Iceland,” Bjorn Sigurdarson, an executive at the University of Iceland, said Monday. “The actions by the U.S. government are disturbing and if we could protect him here, we should. But it’s a little funny how our tiny country is in the news about this.”
Iceland may be a global minnow, but it has a tradition of providing a haven for the outspoken and the outcast.
Descendants of Viking settlers in a country that for centuries made its living from the sea, Icelanders have never lacked confidence. The country has produced global figures from genre-bending musicians such as Bjork to the credit-fueled capitalists who snapped up businesses around the world before Iceland’s economy collapsed in 2008.
Facing a harsh environment prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and deep freezes has forged a hardy nation unafraid to go its own way and stand up to bigger countries. Iceland has faced off against Britain over fishing rights — in the “Cod Wars” of the 1970s — and continues to hunt whales in the face of wide international opposition.
In 2005, the chess-loving country risked the anger of the United States by offering citizenship to Fischer, who was wanted in the U.S. on charges of breaking international sanctions against the former Yugoslavia by playing a chess match there in 1992. Fischer lived in Iceland until his death in 2008.
More recently, Iceland stood up to strong pressure from the British and Dutch governments during the 2008 financial crisis, when it refused to reimburse those countries’ citizens who lost money in an Icelandic savings bank that went bankrupt.
The country also was an early base for the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
Iceland’s abrupt economic collapse in 2008 boosted the country’s anti-authoritarian mindset and spurred calls for greater transparency. Many Icelanders blamed a too-cozy relationship among its banks, politicians and media for the crisis.
Thousands of Icelanders held angry protests that toppled the country’s center-right government, clattering pots and pans in what some called the “Saucepan Revolution.”
The revelations of fiscal and political mismanagement behind Iceland’s economic chaos spurred a campaign for better access to information and more protection for whistle-blowers.
Iceland’s Pirate Party, founded on a program of direct democracy, digital innovation and media freedom, won three of the 63 seats in Iceland’s parliament, the Althingi, in April’s national election. Its members are pushing Icelandic authorities to extend a hand to Snowden, who revealed his identity on Sunday from a hotel in Hong Kong.
“We have called in our lawyers and are ready to assist him if he comes to Iceland,” said Smari McCarthy, a Pirate Party member and founder of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, a group campaigning to give Iceland even stronger freedom of speech protections.
He said the group was planning to meet with the interior minister to discuss a possible asylum request for Snowden. Icelandic Interior Ministry spokesman Johannes Tomasson, however, said the government has not had contact with the 29-year-old American.
“We have not received any application, and so his idea of maybe seeking asylum here is for us just speculation,” he said.
To apply for asylum, Snowden must be on Icelandic soil. His current whereabouts are unknown.
It’s not clear whether Iceland could protect a leaker like Snowden from American demands for his return. Iceland has a longstanding extradition treaty with the U.S., though it has never been used to deport an American citizen.
McCarthy said Iceland could offer Snowden one key thing — popular and political support.
“If (Snowden) decides to come to Iceland, I think we could protect him,” he said. “It’s really about the political will to do so. The U.S. is one of our biggest trading partners and we have diplomatic relations with them that the parliament may not want to jeopardize. But, historically, Iceland has never extradited a U.S citizen back to the U.S.”