The WikiLeaks-mobile parked outside of Fox News. Photo via Flickr
Edward Snowden is currently acting out his own real-life version of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? as he jumps from exotic locale to exotic locale, leaving a trail of American state secrets and public dissent over the whole “the US government is spying on everyone” thing in his wake. Accompanying him as he attempts to evade both the media and the clutches of the American security state is Sarah Harrison of WikiLeaks. Now WikiLeaks has taken the step of announcing that Edward Snowden is safe and sound (and not in the hands of the Russians, as some have suspected), and the international antisecrecy nonprofit is going to continue to help him seek political asylum anywhere that will have him.
Meanwhile, Bradley Manning, who before Snowden's emergence was the most famous government whistleblower associated with WikiLeaks, remains behind bars after pleading guilty to a host of criminal charges stemming from leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents as well as videos, including the infamous “Collateral Murder” video that shows an American military helicopter firing on, and murdering, three journalists. For his WikiLeaks-aided information dumps, Manning spent over three years in prison without going to trial, during which time he was tortured.
Snowden and Manning aren't just heroes if you believe that governments should be in the business of disclosing more information to their publics, they've established WikiLeaks as the go-to organization for those who have something secret they want the world to know or who hear the footsteps of intelligence agencies behind them. For instance, reporter Michael Hastings of BuzzFeed and Rolling Stone—who was killed in a tragic one-car accident early in the morning on Tuesday, June 18—sent a now-infamous email shortly before his death to WikiLeaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson stating that the FBI would soon be interrogating his “close friends and associates.” That panicked email has fueled the conspiracy theory that Hastings's death was no accident and that his car was hacked by intelligence agencies as part of a plot to silence him. There is no evidence that there was any complex foul play like that was at work, but his reaching out to WIkiLeaks proves that the group is trusted by mainstream journalists, not just would-be whistleblowers with nowhere else to turn.
WikiLeaks began as a source for raw classified information that differed from both traditional and new media outlets by avoiding all editorializing—the group simply provided readers with leaked documents with minimal commentary. But now, with the Manning and Snowden cases calling attention to the rights of modern government whistleblowers—and with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange hiding out, very publicly, in London’s Ecuadorian embassy—the organization has evolved into a sort of globalized political party that advocates for freedom of information and whistleblowers’ rights.
The fact that Snowden is being aided and escorted by a staffer from WikiLeaks says a lot about their developing role in the world. WikiLeaks' expertise is undoubtedly playing a huge role in helping Snowden evade capture—they're experienced, after all, having successfully kept their leader from facing trial in Sweden for sexual assault.
With the fates of Snowden and Manning (who has yet to be sentenced) still up in the air, what happens in the next months will affect how whistleblowers will be treated in years to come. And there are other, less publicized cases, like that of Barrett Brown, the journalist who is often mistaken for Anonymous’s spokesperson and is sitting behind bars, facing up to 100 years in prison. (Brown is struggling to come up with the required legal funds to fight his case.) If WikiLeaks continues to develop their role in providing support to these high profile whistleblowers, they have a lot of work to do.
The nonprofit seems to be figuring out its identity as it goes along. A recent poll reported Assange could potentially win a seat in the Australian senate—so perhaps he is moving toward a political career. Or maybe WikiLeaks will become even more like a political party that operates in multiple countries, much like the Pirate Party does, and works on pro–freedom of information issues while simultaneously helping whistleblowers seek asylum, providing legal advice for investigative journalists, and providing legal aid to leakers on trial. With so many of these cases unfolding at once, it will be interesting to see how WikiLeaks handles the workload as their public identity shifts. The world is becoming much more acquainted with the culture of leaks—and their importance—and Assange’s institution is in the center of it all.
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