When Edward Snowden revealed the scope of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance programs earlier this month, he seemed more than comfortable speaking for himself. Just days after the first of his secret documents hit newsstands, Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian published Snowden's identity at his request, along with a lengthy Q&A in which he explains his motives and speculates about his future (“Q: What do you think is going to happen to you? A: ‘Nothing good.’”). Before the week was out, Hollywood was optioning the rights for a mega-drama about the young whistleblower, and Facebook was overflowing with “Save Edward Snowden” pages. Two weeks ago, Snowden didn’t seem to have any intention of going dark. But now, all our information about his whereabouts—and the further NSA bombshells he is rumored to be carrying—is coming through a spokesman who’s well versed in the role of media ringmaster: Julian Assange.
This morning, the founder of WikiLeaks staged his second international conference call about Snowden’s plight, holding forth for an hour and a half with journalists representing every outlet from The New York Times to The Washington Post to ABC and NBC on the line. He said Snowden is “healthy and safe,” and professed “a great deal of personal sympathy” for his fellow leaker, underscoring the parallels between the two men, who have provoked the ire of governments in service to similar ideals. But Snowden and Assange have also faced similar criticism: that they’ve allowed intrigue surrounding their own motives and biographies to upstage the information they set out to share.
Asked if Snowden should have held off on publicizing his identity until he’d been granted asylum, so that the Obama administration’s Orwellian practices wouldn’t be overshadowed by the fugitive’s country hopping, Assange defended not only his new ward, but his own taste for the media’s spotlight. “I was in a very similar situation just a few years ago,” he began. “In a situation where the United States government has perceived, wrongly or rightly, that eliminating Mr. Snowden would eliminate the exposure of its worldwide spying program, the kidnapping or incapacitating of Mr. Snowden must have been considered. So I believe Mr. Snowden was well advised to go public at the time that he did in order to protect his personal safety and the safety of the journalists involved.”
This doesn’t align with the way the press has presented Snowden’s unveiling until now: as a self-sabotaging—if, in the eyes of some, courageous—move that is almost certainly making it tougher for him to find safe haven. “I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong," Snowden is often quoted as saying. But Assange may be right that by broadcasting his identity, Snowden, perhaps unwittingly, made a bid for freedom: If it manages to extradite Snowden, the U.S. is now obligated to grant him something resembling due process. The world is watching.
The famously enigmatic Assange has declined to explain how he became Snowden’s champion—he has said only that the former NSA contractor “requested our expertise and assistance,” since Assange has experience seeking asylum abroad. But assuming this role was, very clearly, the best PR decision the polarizing Australian journalist and activist has made since his group had its last game-changing scoop in 2010. Since then, the site has failed to make headlines, though it continues to dump millions of emails and other documents onto the web. For the past year, Assange has been largely out of sight and out of mind, evading extradition from the confines of the Ecuadorian embassy in London—not extradition to America, to answer for his revelations of government secrets (though the U.S. has called him a “high-tech terrorist”), but extradition to Sweden, where he is accused of sexually assaulting two women.
“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,” The New York Times wrote yesterday, in a piece titled “Offering Snowden Aid, WikiLeaks Gets Back in the Game.” On this morning’s call, Assange confirmed that not only did WikiLeaks secure Snowden a refugee document of passage when the U.S. revoked his passport, and chaperone him on his flight from Hong Kong to Moscow; the group is also paying for his flights and lodging and providing him with legal counsel.
WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said Snowden has applied for asylum with his home country, Iceland, and Assange’s benefactor, Ecuador, along with other nations he declined to name. Michael Ratner, an attorney for WikiLeaks, said the legal team might also advise Snowden to approach Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Cuba. He said Snowden's advisors had originally hoped for help from China or Russia, the obvious choices since they are “strong enough to stand up to the U.S.” Rebuffed by those powers, they are most likely to turn to South American countries that have proved they are “not intimidated” when the U.S. has pressured them to allow extraditions in the past. When a reporter asked Assange if he was troubled by the incongruity of turning to Russia, China, and Ecuador for aid in an effort to promote free speech and transparency, he responded, “I simply do not see the irony.”
Before the press call ended, Assange hinted that the disclosures are far from done. He said Snowden has more documents, which have been “secured by the relevant journalistic organizations prior to [his] travel”—though whether that means WikiLeaks has them, or some other outlet like The Guardian, he did not say. “What has come out so far is largely the bird's-eye view, and that is the most important way to see what is going on,” he said. “But I think it is now necessary to move into looking at specific violations on individual organizations, and parliaments, and individuals. I believe such information is likely to appear.” Assange didn’t have to say anything more: He knows that if he holds another call, it will surely have an audience.
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @ncaplanbricker.