With friends like WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, Edward Snowden might not need enemies.
The silver-haired Assange appeared Sunday on ABC News to defend Snowden, who leaked classified information to The Guardian and The Washington Post about massive electronic surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency.
Snowden—a high school dropout who became an NSA contractor living in Hawaii—was charged on June 21 with violations of the Espionage Act. After initially fleeing to Hong Kong, the 29-year old is reportedly holed up in the Moscow airport, as apparent attempts to receive asylum in Ecuador hit a snag.
“He has acted in a manner to draw attention to a very serious problem in the United States where without the will of Congress, without the will of the American population, we now have a state within a state, we have the transnational surveillance apparatus,” Assange told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos.
U.S. intelligence officials insist these operations have helped to thwart terrorist attacks, most notably a failed plot to blow up a New York City subway car in 2009.
The Australian computer whiz who founded WikiLeaks noted that among the latest scoops from material obtained through Snowden is an NSA plan “to intercept one billion mobile phone calls a day.”
“No one signed up for this, Obama does not have a mandate for that,” said Assange, who added that more program details will continue to be published despite Snowden’s uncertain status.
German officials are investigating whether the United States broken any of that country’s laws, according to the Associated Press, after it was reported based on information from Snowden that the listening devices were placed in European Union offices.
Assange is a controversial ally, after having published military intelligence and State Department cables in 2010. He told Time magazine later that year that he hoped the transparency would cause the "total annihilation of the current U.S. regime," although its impact appears to have been merely a profound series of embarrassments for U.S. officials rather than an end to the monitoring of phone calls, emails, and other electronic communications.
Assange dismissed his statements to Time on ABC News as the product of an outdated establishment media.
But after the revelations by WikiLeaks, Assange was quickly enmeshed in his own personal soap opera, after a Swedish woman accused him of sexual assault. Rather than face trial in Sweden—where he could then be extradited to the United States, Assange has received asylum in the Ecuador embassy to the United Kingdom, where he spoke to Stephanopolous from a safe room.
The source for the 2010 WikiLeaks material—Army Pvt. Bradley Manning—was indicted on 22 counts. Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of the charges and is currently in the middle of a trial for the others. Snowden’s case is before a grand jury in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Virginia, just outside of Washington where Assange insists that is a “rocket docket” and a “99.97 percent chance” of indictment.
Assange asserts that Snowden cannot receive justice in the United States, but by moving to China, Russia, and now courting Ecuador—which has cracked down on freedom of the press—the political motives for the leaks seem to be compromised.
Vice President Joe Biden called the president of Ecuador last Friday to request that asylum be denied. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa is currently weighing his options. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY ) threatened Ecuador in a Sunday interview with the loss of foreign aid and trade agreement if it offered amnesty to Snowden
The situation has worried Snowden’s father about WikiLeaks’ intentions. Assange said his organization has made contact with a lawyer for Snowden’s father to put any concerns to rest.
Jesselyn Radack, who successfully defended NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, told ABC News that “Snowden’s outlook is bleak here.” But she said that “instead of focusing on Snowden and shooting the messenger,” the emphasis should not be on whatever laws he broke that are “infinitesimally small compared to the two major surveillance laws and the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution that the NSA's violated.”
Of course, the difference with Snowden is that Drake was a senior NSA executive who after providing to the public details about the “Trailblazer” program to cull digital communications stayed in the country. Federal prosecutors dropped their charges, after Drake agreed to a misdemeanor for misuse of a government computer. Incoming National Security Adviser Susan Rice downplayed the consequences of the Snowden leaks, even as the government has taken some unique steps to bring him back to American soil.
This is dilemma for both Assange and Snowden. Their critiques of government surveillance will only succeed if they change the politics of this issue. Rice indicated in an interview to The Guardian published Saturday that they hadn’t.
"I think the United States of America is and will remain the most influential, powerful and important country in the world, the largest economy, and the largest military, [with] a network of alliances, values that are universally respected," she said. "I think the Snowden thing is obviously something that we will get through, as we've gotten through all the issues like this in the past."