An interview with Sarah Harrison of Wikileaks: Julian Assange’s associate and Snowden’s guardian angel
By John Goetz and Bastian Obermayer
There she sits: the woman who has spent the past four months at Edward Snowden’s side. First in Hong Kong, then in Moscow. The two made history and charted new global politics within this short span of time.
Sarah Harrison, 31, a journalist and Wikileaks staffer, wears black leggings, a dark grey blouse and a wool cardigan as she sits on an old office chair in a basement meeting place, between file folders, tangled cables, blank CDs and computers. The exact location of the meeting may not be reported. “Sorry,” she says, running her fingers through her hair: “Nothing is very easy at the moment.”
Who is this woman, who has spent so much time by Snowden’s side, resisting the pressures of the world power, the United States? Making flight plans and cancelling them again, always on the alert for intelligence agents?
Sarah Harrison closes her eyes. She’ll talk, but on the topic of Snowden and his situation in Moscow, she won’t say anything more than what was released in a statement made by Wikileaks on Wednesday.
A statement? It’s more of a manifesto. A bit celebratory, as most manifestos are, and a little flat, but quite clear and angry. It begins laconically, “As a journalist, I have spent the last four months with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and arrived in Germany over the weekend.” It ends: “When whistleblowers come forward we need to fight for them, so others will be encouraged. When they are gagged, we must be their voice. When they are hunted, we must be their shield. When they are locked away, we must free them. Giving us the truth is not a crime. This is our data, our information, our history. We must fight to own it.” What a mission.
And then just three words: “Courage is contagious.” What a sentence.
The reason for Harrison’s departure from Moscow is simple: Snowden doesn’t need anyone at hand in Moscow anymore. She stayed in Moscow, as she says, as a journalist until it was clear, “he had settled and was free from the influence of any government.” What’s certain is: without Wikileak’s Harrison, Snowden would now be sitting in a U.S. prison. There was simply no one in the world who was willing or able to help him. Not his allies Glenn Greenwald or Laura Poitras. Not The Guardian. No one. Wikileak’s Harrison is the only one, even though Wikileaks apparently hasn’t received a single document from Snowden’s trove.
Back onto the world stage
For Wikileaks, Snowden’s request for assistance was a matter of principle: Whistleblowers should be protected. But the action also helped changed public perception of the organization. You have to remember that Wikileaks was already considered a failure by many. The boycott of the credit card company Visa and the resulting money problems, an extradition battle in Sweden, the internal disputes—all painted a not-so-reassuring image. The fight for Snowden catapulted Wikileaks back onto the world stage. And Wikileaks got a new face, that of Sarah Harrison, Edward Snowden’s mysterious companion, his “guardian angel” as she was called in the newspapers. For four months she was his protector and the liaison for both the most influential digital dissidents of our time: Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.
So, who is Sarah Harrison - Snowden’s saviour, the young woman now living in Berlin?
Firstly, she’s a smart, educated 31-year-old Englishwoman from Kent county. A woman who works as an editor for Wikileaks around the clock, regardless of her location, sending emails and chatting online. Does she ever sleep? “If there’s time,” she says and shrugs.
There was no thought of sleep in June as she sat in Hong Kong with Snowden as they considered whether he should try to abandon Hong Kong— even as he was bracing himself for prison; even as the lawyers were telling him to accept it; even as all others involved had said their goodbyes, as it was considered too dangerous to be involved with the slight, pale Edward Snowden.
But Wikileaks knew then that both Hong Kong and China wanted to get out of the game. They also knew his arrest was nearing.
It was the evening of Snowden’s thirtieth birthday, June 21. In his hiding place - a private apartment in Hong Kong - Snowden, Harrison and a few lawyers consulted over pizza and chicken wings. In the end, the decision was to get out of Honk Kong before it was too late, and Wikileaks and Harrison got started. First gaining an entry clearance from Ecuador and plane tickets, then an informal offer of asylum, they played out all the possibilities. They decided Harrison would fly with Snowden, putting her own safety and future at stake by shepherding public enemy number one.
A heroine? Is that the right word for her? In any case, it was a momentous decision for Harrison and the reason she is in Berlin now and not in London. She has no idea if and when she can ever go home.
When British police took Glenn Greenwald’s partner into custody for several hours of questioning at the London airport the reason given was, “involvement in terrorism”—as was cited in the publically available court documents.
Terrorism? If that’s the accusation used by police for a journalist’s partner, then what accusations await someone who protected a whistleblower?
Harrison thinks for a long moment. She crosses her arms, and then her legs. Julian Assange once said in a TV interview that he doesn’t worry about Edward Snowden much anymore, as Snowden has received temporary asylum. He worries much more about the safety of Sarah Harrison. The lawyers recommend that she not enter the UK any time soon. “There are many legal issues that are still unresolved,” Harrison says cautiously. It’s a difficult topic.
Harrison is even less likely to go to the U.S., where there are active proceedings against Wikileaks. Harrison’s name maybe among them. The prospect of a prison sentence many times over your life expectancy would make anyone afraid. But what drives this young woman to push beyond that fear? She says, “That’s exactly why I don’t want to stop what I’m doing. Because they want to intimidate me.” She sits up straight and concentrates. “If that’s how they react when we shine light on the truth, a truth that concerns them, that makes their transgressions public, then it has the opposite effect on me. Then I will certainly continue. Not without reflection. But out of principle.”
What a speech, in this small basement.
The urge to change things was one she had early on. As a 10-year-old she wrote a desperate letter to then Prime Minister John Major urging him to fix the problem of homelessness in the country. Her idea was: if you pay for homeless people to build houses in which they could live, they would have both a job and a roof over their heads. The Prime Minister politely answered, thanking her for the suggestion.
Idealism meets self-irony
Sarah Harrison comes from a middle-class home. Her mother, Jennifer, committed herself to helping children with learning disorders and her father, Ian, was a successful entrepreneur. They sent their daughter to a private school and later a good university where she studied English literature. Sarah was an excellent student and a talented athlete.
The fact that she has since been on a rather unusual path doesn’t bother her parents at all. On the contrary, they seem quite proud, even if they worry about her a lot. “She has done nothing wrong,” Sarah’s parents wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung in an email, “and we are ready to fight for her rights, if that’s what she wants, and if she needs us.”
Harrison’s parents would be much less afraid if Sarah had stuck with her original plan to become a doctor. “I liked the scientific work, the precise research, the inclusion of data analysis,” she says. But when she realized she could only help relatively few patients as a doctor, she became disillusioned. “That’s not very efficient if you really want to save the whole world,” Harrison says, grinning. Idealism meets self-irony. Even in the dimly lit basement you can see a little mocking pleasure in her eyes.
A global approach to saving the world fits well with Wikileak’s founder Assange and his ideas. And you can’t deny he has already changed the world we live in quite significantly. Sarah Harrison first came to Wikileaks while she worked at the Bureau of Investigative Jounralism in London. “Wikileaks is, for me, the perfect combination,” she says. “Researching, writing, travel, adventure.” She laughs. The greatest adventure of her life may already be behind her; what could beat 39 days in the Moscow airport?
When Harrison arrived in Moscow with Snowden in June, she was no longer a beginner or merely an aide that Assange could easily do without. At that point she was an important member of the editorial team. Assange listens to her advice and the two are friends.
In the last few years Harrison has been involved not only in all major Wikileaks revelations, she led complicated investigations, configured databases for document analysis and dealt with encrypted data.
Harrison already has experience with hasty escapes, asylum negotiations and methods we only know from spy movies. To stave off agents following Assange, she disguised him with make-up and a fake beard, transforming him into his lawyer, and turned his lawyer into Assange, complete with white wig and leather jacket. They switched cars all along the way through London, intermittently walking a stretch to throw off potential followers.
A few years later, Harrison is now the connection between Assange and Snowden—two men who find themselves in strikingly similar circumstances: Edward Snowden somewhere in Russia and Julian Assange in a room in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Only one character is missing from their virtual rebel house (they have contact through encrypted chats), and that is whistleblower Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning. But she will not be able to log on from her U.S. prison cell anytime in the foreseeable future. Manning acts as a living memorial to Assange, Snowden and Harrison; a permanent reminder of how serious the U.S. is.
What an absurd situation we have here: Russia on the right side of an international moral issue.
And Germany? If Snowden made his way to Germany, he would probably be extradited within days if the government had its way. In Moscow, Harrison was the only one who knew Snowden from before. She was also the only one he could trust from the beginning. She was his “shepherd, friend, protector and constant companion, all at the same time,” says Jesselyn Radack, a U.S. lawyer who has also written a whistleblower story and who visited Snowden and Harrison in Moscow. The German delegation led by German lawmaker Hans-Christian Ströbele met an alert Sarah Harrison who had eyes and ears on everything. Harrison made sure not one wrong word left the room. Because one wrong word can destroy everything and put Snowden in even more danger. She explained concepts Snowden mentioned to the less technically savvy, patiently rephrasing: “As Edward just said…”
But Harrison is just one of the protagonists in the Snowden saga. Better known characters are Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian columnist, Laura Poitras, the upstanding filmmaker, and of course Edward Snowden, the courageous whistleblower. They are the three dissidents. The material Snowden procured and Poitras and Greenwald distributed has shaken the world. Leaders from France to Brazil are now calling for apologies from the U.S. Even Germans, after a lot of struggle and discussion, find the whole thing outrageous.
Poitras and Greenwald have determined the course of events. Snowden handed them his entire trove of material and they decided what documents to publish, where and when. Poitras and Greenwald, at least in the public eye, have disconnected themselves from Snowden. Though they are in contact with him, and publically support him, they have gone their own ways.
It was just announced that they are both involved in Internet multimillionaire Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture. The eBay founder plans to create a $250-million portal for independent journalism, with Greenwald and Poitras as its stars.
Snowden was, however, their ticket.
No accusations. The world just continues to turn, unless you’re stuck somewhere in Moscow. His former allies’ agendas could very well support those of the whistleblower. But his agenda has changed. His agenda, above all, is not to be locked up for life. To find a country that will take him for the long-term. A country where he can stay alive.
Sarah Harrison was the only person left after those hectic days in Hong Kong. The last woman standing. And in the past few days that period has come to an end.
Of course, Snowden knows many are on his side; among them Assange and the millions of fans worldwide. But none of that helps much when you’re alone, and need someone you can really talk to about thingsabout all the crap that passes by the window looking out onto the world.
Sarah, what’ll happen now? Sarah?
Sarah Harrison will continue the fight, as she writes in her statement. If she has doubts about her actions, or her means or the meaning of it all, she hides it well. Or maybe she hasn’t yet found herself. “I firmly believe this is the right thing to do,” she says in the dim basement just before the conversation ends. It’s still unclear where she will live or work in the long run. Berlin would make sense. Berlin is where Poitras met with Greenwald’s partner for a document hand-off. Berlin is where a large faction of the hacker community is established, where the computer nerds of the Chaos Computer Club, the Wau Holland Foundation, the Telecomix activists and the hacker and political activist Jacob Appelbaum all are.
But will they remain there for long?
Only one thing is certain: Harrison will not fall back into line as an anonymous Wikileaks staffer. Anyone who saw her in action in Moscow—polite, cautious, yet determined—would have no doubt about that.
For many reasons, Assange’s people remain mostly unseen. Not only because the press shines such a strong light on Assange—the tall charismatic one who has made many enemies—but also because it’s usually more comfortable to live in his shadow. It’s less dangerous there, but also quieter.
“In fact, the media attention is new for me,” says Harrison, but, “I’m trying to get used to it.” She smiles. She’ll need that in order to keep sane; get used to it, and smile.