Monday, December 10, 2007

Icelandic Teen Calls White House; Causes an International Incident

It's extraordinary how little it takes with the current administration to cause an international incident:

When Vífill Atlason, a 16-year-old high school student from Iceland, decided to call the White House, he could not imagine the kind of publicity it would bring.

Introducing himself as Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the actual president of Iceland, Atlason found what he believed to be President George W. Bush's allegedly secret telephone number and phoned, requesting a private meeting with him.

"I just wanted to talk to him, have a chat, invite him to Iceland and see what he'd say," Vífill told ABC News.

A White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore insisted to ABC News that the young man did not dial the private number but instead dialled 202-456-1414, the main switchboard for the West Wing. But that was not the case. The student gave ABC News the number. It is indeed an extention off the White House switchboard and goes to a security command post office in the building next door to the White House.
Vífill claims he was passed on to several people, each of them quizzing him on President Grímsson's date of birth, where he grew up, who his parents were and the date he entered office.

"It was like passing through checkpoints," he said. "But I had Wikipedia and a few other sites open, so it was not so difficult really."

When he finally got through to President Bush's secretary, Vífill alleges he was told to expect a call back from Bush.

"She told me the president was not available at the time, but that she would mark it in his schedule to call me back on Monday evening," he said.

Instead, the police showed up at his home in Akranes, a fishing town about 48 kilometers from Reykjavik, and took him to the local police station, where they questioned the 16-year-old for several hours.

"The police chief said they were under orders from U.S. officials to "find the leak" -- that I had to tell them where I had found the number," he said. "Otherwise, I would be banned from ever entering the United States."

Vífill claims he cannot remember where he got the number.

"I just know I have had it for a few years," he told ABC. "I must have gotten it from a friend when I was about 11 or 12."

tlason's mother Harpa, who was not home at the time, said she was shocked to find her son had been taken away by the police but could not quite bring herself to be angry with her son.

"He's very resourceful you know," she said. "He has become a bit of a hero in Iceland. Bush is very unpopular here."

Vífill was eventually released into his parent's custody, and no charges have been brought against the high school student.

When ABC verified the number, it was the Secret Service Uniform Division, which handles security for the president.

"If the number were not top secret, why would the police have told me that I will be put on a no-fly list to America?" Vífill asked.

"I don't see how calling the White House is a crime," he added. "But obviously, they took it very seriously."

Wrap your brain around that one. A 16-year-old kid pretends to be the president of Iceland and calls a private line at the White House. He doesn't threaten anyone or say or do anything sinister or scary -- he just pretends to be the president of Iceland inviting Pres. Bush for a visit. And he's put on the no-fly list! After he's been questioned by the police for hours and they can see he's just a high-spirited teenager.

I mean, there is something to be said for having a sense of proportion.

Some of the comments underneath the story are worth reading. This one is my favorite:
Iceland is a small nation and Icelanders are not big fans of authority, the idea that there are phone numbers that mustn't be called and people that may not be approached is quite foreign to us. The fact that a silly phone prank made by an Icelandic teen has made headlines worldwide is what is truly amusing about the whole affair, so are the responses on comment threads such as this one. There is way too much security paranoia in the world today that deserves ridicule, let's all just calm down a bit. This really is not a big deal at all. Grow up and move along please!Also, Bush has absolutely nothing to with anything, he could just as well have called an Obama/Clinton/Guiliani/Thompson White House and nothing would have been different about it.

Posted by:
bjrki 6:16 PM

In other words, the Bush administration might not screw up everything it touches if there were some effort made to understand other cultures.


Chief said...

I think we'd be a whole lot safer if we didn't piss off that powerhouse in the North Atlantic. Now we'll get bombarded with flying fish.

Kathy said...