When Edward Snowden fled Hong Kong for Moscow on Sunday, he brought along a traveling companion: Wikileaks legal defense team member Sarah Harrison, described as a trusted adviser to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
“Both are healthy and safe, and are in contact with their legal team,” said Assange on a Monday morning conference call with reporters. “I cannot give further information as to their whereabouts and present circumstances except to say the matter is in hand.”
In fact, Assange was unwilling to provide very much information of any kind regarding Snowden’s current status. When asked to name the country where Snowden and Harrison are currently situated, he demurred. He also declined to name all the countries where Snowden is looking for asylum. Wikileaks, famous for exposing the secrets of governments across the globe, has become extraordinarily tight-lipped in order to protect Snowden from extradition. The international effort to provide the United States’ most-wanted leaker with a safe haven has practically become a covert operation unto itself.
But Assange, who has spent the past year sequestered within Ecuador’s embassy to the United Kingdom in an attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden, was clear on one point: His belief that Edward Snowden is a whistleblower and political refugee who should be granted asylum and protection from prosecution.
“Every person has the right to seek and receive legal asylum,” said Assange. “It is counterproductive and unacceptable for the Obama administration to try and interfere with those rights. It reflects poorly on the United States administration, and no self-respecting country would submit to such interference or such bullying by the U.S. administration in this matter.”
The Ecuadorian foreign minister confirmed on Sunday that his nation’s government had received an asylum request from the NSA leaker, while last week Assange announced that Wikileaks was attempting to broker asylum for Snowden in Iceland. Various reports have also claimed that Snowden would flee to Cuba or Venezuela.
Snowden departed Hong Kong after the United States Department of Justice charged him with espionage and requested that he be extradited. Multiple U.S. public officials from both sides of the aisle have described Snowden’s disclosure of classified materials as treason. Center for Constitutional Rights president emeritus Michael Ratner joined Assange on the Monday conference call to rebuke this claim and argue that Snowden deserved asylum status as a whistleblower.
“Whistleblowers are people who are protected by the UN Refugee Convention under the idea that they are being persecuted for political opinions,” said Ratner. “The United States has recognized that. It has protected people from China, from other countries, from Africa, who are whistleblowers on their own government’s criminality, on their own government’s corruption.”
University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner said that Snowden’s alleged status as a political refugee “seems pretty dubious.” The NSA leaker doesn’t even meet qualifications for legal whistleblower status, he told msnbc, in part because he didn’t take the necessary legal procedures for internal whistleblowing.
“Even if he exposes illegality, he would go to jail,” said Posner. “That would not be a defense in the Espionage Act case brought against him, but people might be more sympathetic to him, and conceivably the court might be more sympathetic to him.”
Assange told reporters that the internal procedures which would have ostensibly allowed Snowden to legally blow the whistle are not functioning properly.
“[Fellow NSA leaker] William Binney has spoken about how internal mechanisms simply serve to identify a whistleblower within an organization and marginalize or prosecute him,” said Assange.
In a Monday press conference, White House press secretary Jay Carney confirmed that Snowden’s whereabouts are currently unknown. While public officials and members of the media continue to speculate about his next move, Assange said the larger issue is the content of what he actually leaked regarding NSA surveillance.
“There is a larger, more significant political problem which is when an agency like the NSA has intercepted nearly the entire world’s communications and is storing, indexing it and reading it, it leads to a concentration of power which is very dangerous and which must not be tolerated,” said Assange.