Politics

Controversial U.S. Ambassador to Iceland wants firearm, security for Reykjavik post

Despite being assigned to one of the safest countries in the world, Jeffrey Ross Gunter has been “paranoid” about his security since coming to Reykjavik last year, according to a dozen diplomats, government officials, former officials and individuals familiar with the situation. As a result, Gunter wanted the State Department to obtain special permission from the Icelandic government for him to have a firearm.  He also wanted door-to-door armored car service, and entertained the idea of wearing a “stab-proof vest.”

The State Department declined to say if there is any credible threat to Gunter’s safety, but U.S. government officials told CBS News the ambassador has been informed multiple times that he is at no extraordinary risk. Regardless, the embassy recently placed a jobs listing in Icelandic newspapers looking for local, full-time “bodyguards.” Those same officials said they believe security is being augmented to placate Gunter’s “irrational” concerns. 

“Protection programs for our leadership are standard features at most U.S. facilities around the world,” a State Department official said when asked about the “bodyguard” position .  “While the U.S. government does not comment on specific security measures, our goal around the world has always been to be proactive with security measures.”

The State Department did not directly address a question about Gunter’s desire to arm himself. The Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs declined to say if the U.S. ever officially sought permission for the ambassador to have a gun, adding that they “generally do not comment on the security details of diplomatic missions.” However, local sources in Reykjavik said the request was never made, and three diplomatic sources told CBS news Gunter was talked out of pursuing self-armament because it would be perceived as an insult to the host nation

But other issues with the California dermatologist and GOP donor-turned-diplomat, persist.

Since his nomination in May 2019, Gunter has created an increasingly “untenable” working environment at the Embassy in Reykjavik, according to current and former diplomats familiar with the situation. He has already had seven Deputy Chiefs of Mission (DCM’s), experienced Foreign Service Officers who traditionally serve in the number-two jobs. The first deputy prepared for more than a year and spent months learning Icelandic, only to be blocked from coming to post because Gunter reportedly “didn’t like the look of him” at their introductory meeting. The second DCM made it to Iceland, but only lasted six months. 

After that, Gunter tried to persuade frustrated officials in the European Bureau he didn’t need a DCM and could manage the relatively-small mission on his own. Unconvinced, they set up a rotation system until a suitable candidate could be found.

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“In order to ensure continuity of support for Embassy Reykjavik while Ambassador Gunter selected a new, permanent DCM, the State Department also deployed four experienced career foreign service officers to serve short-term details as Acting DCM from January 2020 to June 2020,” a State Department Spokesperson said when asked about the high turnover. “These temporary duty assignments were of short duration by design.”

But Gunter didn’t get along with the acting deputies either. According to three individuals familiar with the situation, the ambassador once “flew into a rage” because a DCM left snow boots under their own desk in the middle of the Icelandic winter. Sources said he accused others of various, unsubstantiated infractions, including trying to undermine him to Washington and being complicit with the “deep state.”

Senior leadership at the State Department is well-aware of the trouble in Iceland, according to current and former agency officials, but has been reluctant to take action against anyone perceived to have close ties to the White House. Supervisors have also had difficulty getting Gunter to follow protocol or respect the chain of command. In February, after attending a conference in Washington, Gunter refused to return to Iceland — leaving a temporary deputy in charge on the ground for months, in the middle of a global health crises. 

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“Ambassador Gunter had scheduled personal leave after the Chief of Mission conference,” a State Department Spokesperson told CBS News when asked about the absence.  “His return to Iceland was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But multiple sources in Washington, Reykjavik and elsewhere said Gunter wanted to work remotely from California and told senior officials he would not go back overseas unless expressly ordered to do so by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Those sources were unclear if Gunter wanted to stay in the US because he was worried about the virus or had other, unspecified safety concerns. 

Increasingly higher-ranking individuals tried and failed to get the ambassador back to post. Eventually, a State Department Official told CBS News, Pompeo had to call Gunter directly. The exchange was described as  “polite” and “gentle,” which the official speculated may have been to avoid angering a potential future political donor. Pompeo is widely expected to run for office after his term ends, though he has repeatedly denied it. 

Having heard from on high, Gunter finally returned to Iceland in May. His new DCM, Michelle Yerkin, arrived this month. CBS News attempted to reach Gunter for comment multiple times through the State Department press office, the embassy in Reykjavik and directly by email, but did not hear back. 

Icelandic officials declined to comment on any specific incidents or characterize their interactions with the American ambassador, but he has become an increasingly controversial figure in his host country. Earlier this week Gunter drew widespread ire for a referring to COVID-19 as “the Invisible China Virus!” on Twitter. Many Icelanders said the phrase was offensive and ethnocentric. 

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Gunter is one of a number of Trump administration appointees with little or no foreign policy experience now filling top jobs at American embassies around the world.  Woody Johnson, owner of the New York Jets and ambassador to the United Kingdom, is reportedly under investigation for making inappropriate comments to his staff and trying to get the British Open moved to a Trump resort. In South Africa, handbag designer and frequent Mar-a-Lago visiter Lana Marks dismissed her DCM and then allegedly tried to promote her son to a senior-level position.

“In fairness, this has been a problem in other administrations” said career Foreign Service office and three-time ambassador Ronald E. Neumann. “It has not been as bad a problem or as frequent.”

Forty-two percent of current American ambassadors are political appointees, according to the American Foreign Service Association. That’s up from thirty percent in the Obama administration and thirty-two percent under George W. Bush. But Neumann, who now runs the American Academy of Diplomacy, said the percentage of political appointees isn’t as important as making sure they are qualified to do the job. 

“Its not all one thing or the other,” he said. “They have appointed some competent people, but they have also appointed an excessive number of incompetent people who are an embarrassment to the nation.” 

The State Department did not comment when asked if the Secretary still has confidence in his Ambassador to Iceland. 


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