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Julian Assange Reclaims the Spotlight

Just like that, Julian Assange is back on the world stage. After Assange and his WikiLeaks colleagues helped mastermind Edward Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong to Moscow on Sunday, the Australian, who has been cooped up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for the past year, decisively reinserted himself into a story that bears all ...

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

Just like that, Julian Assange is back on the world stage.

After Assange and his WikiLeaks colleagues helped mastermind Edward Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong to Moscow on Sunday, the Australian, who has been cooped up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for the past year, decisively reinserted himself into a story that bears all the hallmarks of an Assange-affair — geopolitical intrigue, intense media interest, and allegations of government wrongdoing at the highest levels. In a conference call with reporters on Monday, Assange revealed that Snowden is in "a safe place" and "his spirits are high," while also implying that an Assange advisor, Sarah Harrison, remains with him. WikiLeaks, Assange said, has footed the bill for Snowden’s travel expenses and his legal fees. As for Snowden’s National Security Agency documents, Assange assured that they had been secured by "the relevant media organization."

Where once Assange seemed like a sad bit-player looking on at the Snowden affair from the sidelines, the WikiLeaks founder has now recaptured the spotlight. Cut off from his sources, deprived of money, and facing a deeply skeptical media, Assange still managed to poke Uncle Sam in the eye to spectacular effect. But Assange isn’t gloating. Asked whether he is enjoying a moment of vengeance, Assange deflected the question, saying that his organization "exists to defend the practical rights of whistleblowers to bring their information to the public."

Snowden’s whereabouts remain a mystery, and Assange wouldn’t even name the country to which he’s fled. Snowden and Harrison reportedly checked in to seats 17 A and C on a flight to Havana, but they never made it on the plane. Assange, for his part, seems happy to have it this way. "If we lived in a better world we would be able to go into those details," he remarked at one point when a reporter pressed him for more information.

But the mystery surrounding Snowden’s escape is also raising questions about his credibility — and Assange is clearly aware of the problem this poses for the former NSA contractor. Responding to allegations that Russian and Chinese spies have debriefed Snowden, Assange said Snowden had not divulged information to any foreign spy agencies and denied the allegations outright. Additionally, Assange pushed back in his opening statement on efforts to smear Snowden. "This morning the U.S. secretary of state called Edward Snowden a traitor," Assange said. "Edward Snowden is not a traitor. He is not a spy. He is a whistleblower who has told the public an important truth."

Not unlike Assange, Snowden now appears to be transitioning from media darling to international outcast, and his choice of allies in eluding U.S. authorities only exacerbates this perception. Snowden’s possible itinerary — China-Russia-Cuba/Venezuela/Ecuador — reads like a who’s who of reliably anti-American states, and the irony of standing up for freedom of expression while relying on a coalition of dictatorial states for protection has become a key talking point in the United States.

But Assange said he isn’t particularly bothered by Snowden’s bedfellows. "I simply do not see the irony. Mr. Snowden has revealed information about mass unlawful spying which has affected every single one of us," Assange said. "The U.S administration has issued a series of bellicose unilateral threats against him and others who are attempting to support his rights. That is a very serious situation, and any country that wishes to assist in upholding his rights must be applauded for doing so."

But Assange also went to great pains on Monday to present his cause as not strictly anti-American. Whereas ordinary Americans may be upset about having their own communications intercepted, Assange and his generation of Internet activists are concerned with privacy violations everywhere, a nuance that hasn’t been discussed much in the recent debate over the NSA surveillance leaks. "There are not multiple types of human beings — American human beings and other human beings," Assange said when asked if he thought American cyber attacks on foreign nations were more or less harmful than violations of Americans’ civil liberties. "There is only one type of human being, and that is why we speak of human rights."

Like him or not, Assange doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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