WikiLeaks once again seized the global spotlight Sunday by assisting Edward J. Snowden in his daring flight from Hong Kong, mounting a bold defense of the culture of national security disclosures that it has championed and that has bedeviled the United States and other governments.
Accompanying Snowden on the Aeroflot airliner that carried him 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 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,” 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 Assange’s account, the group helped obtain and deliver a special refugee travel document to Snowden in Hong Kong that, with his U.S. passport revoked, may now be crucial in his bid to travel onward.
The group’s assistance for Snowden shows that despite its shoestring staff, limited fundraising from a boycott by major financial firms, and defections, 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 Snowden’s flight. “It’s an extraordinary turn of events.”
Even among advocates of greater government openness, WikiLeaks evokes mixed feelings. Aftergood called it “an adolescent phenomenon of rebellion against authority.”
Yochai Benkler, a law professor at Harvard who has written extensively on WikiLeaks, said the group began as an innovative media venture, he said, but the government’s overreaction has turned it more of an activist venture.
“It was so easy to portray Assange as an unpleasant weirdo,” he said.
Government employees who leak classified information may deserve modest penalties, Benkler 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,” Benkler said.