WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange held a press conference Monday to weigh in on Edward Snowden’s actions and comment on his organization’s role in helping the National Security Agency whistleblower seek asylum in Ecuador.
Assange, who himself has been holed up in Ecuador’s British embassy for the past year to avoid prosecution for WikiLeaks work, defended Snowden’s actions. In response to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent characterization of Snowden as a “traitor,” Assange countered, “Edward Snowden is not a traitor. He is not a spy. He is a whistleblower who has told the public an important truth.”
Snowden’s decision to leak information about the NSA’s massive PRISM digital surveillance program has stoked fears that the U.S. government routinely sifts through the average citizen’s e-mails, digital photos and other online files in search of possible ties to terrorism. The Obama administration has defended PRISM by claiming that intelligence gathered through the program has indeed helped thwart numerous terrorist attacks since it was implemented in 2007.
Assange criticized the PRISM program’s indiscriminant monitoring of communications “en masse,” rather than targeting particular terrorist groups. “To my way of thinking there is a larger more significant political problem which is when an organization like the National Security Agency has intercepted nearly the entire world’s communications at such scale and is storing it, indexing it, it leads to a concentration of power which is so dangerous that it must not be tolerated.”
Assange justified WikiLeaks’ involvement in helping Snowden avoid extradition to the U.S., saying, “The Obama administration was not given a mandate by the people of the United States to hack and spy upon the entire world, to breach the U.S. Constitution and the laws of other nations in the manner that it has.” Assange also accused the U.S. of attempting to violate international asylum law by calling for Snowden’s “rendition.”
Assange was in a situation similar to that of Snowden a few years ago, after WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of diplomatic documents on the Internet that included classified information. Although the U.S. government has been unable to extradite Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, it did arrest U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning in May 2010 and is prosecuting him on suspicion of having passed sensitive information to WikiLeaks. Snowden is hoping to avoid Manning’s predicament.
Although WikiLeaks held the press conference to address its role in fostering Snowden’s safe passage, one official said that Snowden’s fate is only part of a much larger issue of warrantless government access to personal information. “What we should be discussing—other than where is Ed Snowden and where is he going—is the massive surveillance system that has been carried out by the United States, the U.K. and perhaps other countries all over the world and the violation of rights of people all over the world,” said Michael Ratner, a WikiLeaks attorney and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
When asked whether he saw any irony in WikiLeaks seeking cooperation from the Chinese and Russian authorities in securing Snowden’s passage to Ecuador, given their questionable track record in respecting their own citizens’ privacy—in securing Snowden’s passage to Ecuador, Assange responded, “I simply do not see the irony. Mr. Snowden has revealed information about mass unlawful spying which has affected every single one of us.”