Assange Struggles to Remain Relevant in Snowden Affair

Assange Struggles to Remain Relevant in Snowden Affair

A year after entering the Ecuadorean embassy seeking asylum, Julian Assange is still on the run. Every day he gets on the treadmill given to him by the left-wing filmmaker Ken Loach and runs and runs, logging 744 miles (over 28 marathons), but never getting anywhere. Every day he wakes and goes to work with the police outside his windows. Negotiations between the Ecuadorean government and the British foreign ministry have broken down, so for now he is stuck living out the same day over and over again, the real-life equivalent of Groundhog Day

On Wednesday, the WikiLeaks founder surfaced for a conference call with reporters, lobbing his usual fireballs. Leak investigations threaten to criminalize the act of doing journalism, he argued in his soft-spoken Aussie accent. Once more he rushed to the defense of Bradley Manning, the Army private alleged to have provided WikiLeaks with thousands of diplomatic cables. His prosecution is immoral, threatens all media outlets, and "may spell the end of national security journalism in the United States," Assange said. As for Edward Snowden, the man behind recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s intelligence-gathering activities, Assange said that he feels "a great deal of personal sympathy" for him. Assange also suggested that his legal team has sought to broker Snowden’s asylum to Iceland, though Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald cast doubt on that claim in an email to BuzzFeed. 

Where once Assange could be fiery and combative, now he just sounds tired. Several times he asked reporters on the call to repeat their questions, and often his words were difficult to make out. When asked directly about why he sounded so tired when it was only seven in the evening in London, he mumbled incoherently about the "exciting, demanding work" he is currently engaged in, suggesting that he had spent the last two weeks defending Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, two of the journalists at the center of the leaks provided by Snowden, and that it had drained him. Assange briefly came to life when a reporter implied in a question that Swedish authorities had charged him with sexual assault — technically, they haven’t. "It is an example of extremely poor journalism that we see that sort of reportage," he snapped. 

When asked if his work had been negatively impacted by his stay in the embassy, he said that not being able to meet with potential sources had made running WikiLeaks more difficult — but also deadpanned that he didn’t have much else to do but work. All in all, things are about the same, he maintained. Still, since Assange entered the embassy WikiLeaks hasn’t uncovered the kind of blockbuster revelations that made the organization famous. Asked if WikiLeaks had any big scoops in the pipeline, he demurred, saying it was policy not to discuss specific projects ahead of publication and that "WikiLeaks is always in the process of preparing its next publication."

After a year inside the Ecuadorean embassy, Assange appears somewhat crippled. The media organizations he once worked hand-in-glove with have shunned him, and financial support has largely dried up. Separated from his sources and stripped of his money, he isn’t quite the force to be reckoned with that he once was. The fact that Snowden took his documents to the Guardian and the Washington Post — and not WikiLeaks — speaks for itself. 

But Assange still knows how to create a media spectacle. The whistleblowers Thomas Drake and Daniel Ellsberg joined the WikiLeaks chief on the call, and railed against the NSA programs revealed by Snowden, with ample references to the Nixon administration sprinkled in. "Thomas Jefferson once said that he would prefer newspapers without government if he had to choose [between that and] a government without newspapers. President Obama clearly disagrees with that," Ellsberg said. "What we are seeing is the largest systemic industrial-scale suspicionless surveillance system of all time," Drake added. The New York Times, the Associated Press, and Vanity Fair all had reporters on the line for the conference call.

Even if Assange isn’t setting the agenda with scoops, he clearly wants the world to know that WikiLeaks has changed the rules of the game. Addressing governments uncomfortable with an Internet culture premised on radical openness, Assange posed some questions he’d like answered. "The revelations of Edward Snowden this week lead us to ask the question: Will Glenn Greenwald be granted asylum by Brazil this time next year? Will Laura Poitras find herself in an embassy seeking asylum? Will Edward Snowden be in the same position as Bradley Manning a year’s time from now?" Assange wondered. "Is the United States the type of country from which journalists must seek asylum in relation to their work?" 

Here’s another question: Will Assange ever stage a real comeback?