Aid, WikiLeaks Gets Back in the Game
Accompanying Mr. Snowden on the Aeroflot airliner that carried him on Sunday from Hong Kong to Moscow — continuing a global cat-and-mouse chase that might have been borrowed from a Hollywood screenplay — was a British WikiLeaks activist, Sarah Harrison. The group’s founder, Julian Assange, who has been given refuge for the last year in Ecuador’s embassy in London, met last week with Ecuador’s foreign minister to support Mr. Snowden’s asylum request. And Baltasar Gárzon, the legal director of WikiLeaks and a former Spanish judge, is leading a volunteer legal team advising him on how to stay out of an American prison.
“Mr. Snowden requested our expertise and assistance,” Mr. Assange said in a telephone interview from London on Sunday night. “We’ve been involved in very similar legal and diplomatic and geopolitical struggles to preserve the organization and its ability to publish.”
By Mr. Assange’s account, the group helped obtain and deliver a special refugee travel document to Mr. Snowden in Hong Kong that, with his American passport revoked, may now be crucial in his bid to travel onward from Moscow.
More broadly, WikiLeaks brought to global attention the model that Mr. Snowden has wholeheartedly embraced: that of the conscience-stricken national security worker who takes his concerns not to his boss or other official channels but to the public.
The group’s assistance for Mr. Snowden shows that despite its shoestring staff, limited fund-raising from a boycott by major financial firms, and defections prompted by Mr. Assange’s personal troubles and abrasive style, it remains a force to be reckoned with on the global stage.
“As an act of international, quasi-diplomatic intrigue, it’s impressive,” Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said of WikiLeaks’ role in Mr. Snowden’s flight. “It’s an extraordinary turn of events.”
The antisecrecy advocates are themselves secretive — Mr. Assange said he could not reveal the number of paid staffers at WikiLeaks because of “assassination threats” or its budget because of the “banking blockade” — but the group has dedicated volunteers in several countries, notably Britain and Iceland, and a large number of supporters.
Since publishing the military and diplomatic documents in 2009 and 2010 that made it famous, the group has released several lower-profile collections: documents on commercial spying equipment; internal e-mails of an American security consulting company, Stratfor; millions of e-mails sent by Syrian government and business officials; and a library of cables to and from Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, though most of those were already public.
Mr. Assange said that WikiLeaks, which he started in 2006, has a “seven-year history of publishing documents from every country in the world.” He added: “We’ve documented hundreds of thousands of deaths and assassinations, billions of dollars of corruption. We’ve affected elections and prompted reforms.”
WikiLeaks played no role in Mr. Snowden’s disclosures of classified documents he took from his job as a National Security Agency contractor. But since joining forces with him, WikiLeaks has used his case to boost its profile; its Twitter feed on Sunday made an appeal for donations along with news about Mr. Snowden’s flight.
Even as Mr. Snowden’s odyssey continued, the source whose disclosures brought WikiLeaks to broad public attention, Pfc. Bradley Manning, was in a military cell in the fourth week of his court-martial at Fort Meade, Md. Private Manning, who became disillusioned as an intelligence analyst in Iraq, has admitted that he gave WikiLeaks roughly 700,000 confidential government documents. He faces a possible sentence of life in prison if convicted of charges that include espionage and aiding the enemy.
In a statement on Saturday, Mr. Assange suggested that President Obama was the real “traitor,” for betraying the hopes of a generation of idealists represented by both Private Manning and Mr. Snowden.
“They are young, technically minded people from the generation that Barack Obama betrayed,” Mr. Assange wrote on the WikiLeaks Web site. “They are the generation that grew up on the Internet, and were shaped by it. The U.S. government is always going to need intelligence analysts and systems administrators, and they are going to have to hire them from this generation and the ones that follow it.”
Mr. Assange added a warning to the government: “By trying to crush these young whistle-blowers with espionage charges, the U.S. government is taking on a generation, and that is a battle it is going to lose.”
The claim sounded like bravado. But Mr. Snowden is the seventh person to be prosecuted by the Obama administration in its unprecedented campaign against leaks. And while by many accounts the threat of prosecution has distinctly chilled conventional national security reporting, Mr. Snowden has said he was inspired to leak by several high-profile, self-described whistle-blowers who have faced criminal charges since 2010: Private Manning; Thomas Drake, a former N.S.A. official; and John Kiriakou, a former C.I.A. officer now serving a prison term.
Instead of waiting on American soil to be arrested, Mr. Snowden headed to Hong Kong before going public and sought help from WikiLeaks more than a week ago. Explaining his decision to leave the United States, he said in an online question-and-answer session with The Guardian that it made no sense to “volunteer” for prosecution at home “if you can do more good outside of prison than in it.”
Though in one initial comment Mr. Snowden appeared to distance himself from WikiLeaks and Private Manning — suggesting that he had deliberately been more selective in his leaks than the soldier had been — he later said that was a misimpression.
“WikiLeaks is a legitimate journalistic outlet,” he wrote on The Guardian site on June 17, “and they carefully redacted all of their releases in accordance with a judgment of public interest.” Diplomatic cables were later released without redactions, and Mr. Assange and a British journalist have disputed who was to blame, but claims that Private Manning was responsible were a “smear,” Mr. Snowden wrote.
Even among advocates of greater government openness, WikiLeaks evokes mixed feelings. Mr. Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists, called it “an adolescent phenomenon of rebellion against authority.”
“WikiLeaks and Mr. Snowden have elevated issues that have been neglected in public discourse,” he said. “But they don’t offer solutions to the problems they’ve raised.”
Yochai Benkler, a law professor at Harvard who has written extensively on WikiLeaks and is a possible defense witness at the Manning trial, said he found it “tragic” that the interaction of both WikiLeaks and Mr. Snowden with the United States government had become so adversarial. WikiLeaks began as an innovative media venture, he said, but the government’s overreaction has turned it into more of an activist venture.
“It was so easy to portray Assange as an unpleasant weirdo,” he said.
Mr. Benkler noted that a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., is believed to still be looking into the possibility of prosecuting WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange for publishing Private Manning’s leaked documents, a development he said would be dangerous to democracy.
Government employees who leak classified information may deserve modest penalties, he said, but the Obama administration needs to make clear that reporting or publishing classified information will not be prosecuted.
“It’s a big policy decision about relative threats: on the one hand, occasional leaks of classified information; on the other hand, shutting down the Fourth Estate’s oversight of national security,” Mr. Benkler said.
Mr. Assange, from his embassy lair, said the Obama administration appeared intent on criminalizing national security journalism but promised that WikiLeaks would keep revealing secrets. For naysayers who say that since 2010 the group has never come close to publishing anything with the impact of the Manning documents, he offered a riposte.
“As Joseph Heller said when people said he hadn’t published anything as good as ‘Catch 22’: ‘Neither has anyone else.’ ”
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