Where's Edward Snowden? As I write this, only a handful of people know exactly the location of the world famous NSA whistleblower, after he apparently ditched his flight from Moscow to Cuba last night. One of those people is Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Snowden is "safe and healthy" and his "spirits are high," Assange told reporters begging for any scrap of information on a conference call this morning. It is this secret knowledge that has paradoxically thrust Assange's anti-secrecy outlet back into the media spotlight after a long period of decline. Now there's hints of another massive leak. Wikileaks is back, God help us all.
So, Mea Culpa: I was premature in dismissing Wikileaks' attempts to insert themselves into Snowden's NSA leak despite having nothing to do with it, having underestimated the electromagnetic pull Julian Assange has on nerdy male tech geeks like Edward Snowden. After Snowden approached Wikileaks for help, the group has come to occupy a central role in Snowden's escapades since he left Hong Kong, fleeing a U.S. request for extradition. Assange has successfully leveraged the connections he's made while attempting to avoid his Swedish rape case in Ecuador's London embassy to secure an asylum bid for Snowden in Ecuador. Now that Snowden's U.S. passport has been revoked, his continuing voyage seems to relies on a special document Ecuador has granted him to travel there, according to the Times. Wikileaks has footed the bill for Snowden's travel arrangements since he left Hong Kong, Assange revealed on the phone call. Assange even sent his ex-girlfriend and personal assistant, Sarah Harrison, along with Snowden on his odyssey.
We are witnessing the next phase of Wikileaks' evolution, from whistle-blowing outlet to a full-service travel agency for people who have pissed off the United States. Ecuador is its sweltering Club Med, and Snowden its celebrity client. In its new form, Wikileak's biggest asset remains Assange's gift for publicity—his ability to turn any story into a thrilling tale of Wikileaks-Versus-The-World, even while he's hampered by his government-mandated staycation in London. When asked today during the conference call how exactly Wikileaks hooked up with Snowden, he said, "As a result of the security situation we cannot talk about communications methods."
For his lack of transparency, he offered this dramatic explanation:
"If we lived in a different world, we would be able to go into those details. Unfortunately we live in a world, as revealed by Mr. Snowden, where most people's communications are intercepted by the NSA unlawfully."
Assange would not rule out the possibility that Snowden, who is reportedly travelling with four laptops replete with NSA secrets, might have provided Wikileaks with some of his unpublished material. (The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald told BuzzFeed he doubted this.)
As far as comebacks go, Wikileaks' is about as useful as Anthony Weiner's. The information ecosystem would be healthier without Julian Assange's spectacle sucking up all the oxygen, and the new excitement will probably further obscure the fact that Assange is a creepy fugitive from a sex crimes investigation whose crippled website is still running on the fumes of Bradley Manning's two-year-old document dump.
If Snowden actually wants to reveal more leaks he'd be better off going with his old media partners at the Guardian, or perhaps the no-nonsense information brokers of Cryptome. Wikileaks has always been defined by absurd ironies—The fact that an organization so devoted to transparency and free speech itself demonstrates extreme secrecy, and litigiousness, for example—which is probably inevitable for such an ego-driven operation. Its spectacular entrance into the Snowden story introduces a new one: Snowden's supporters cry that the focus should be on the massive NSA surveillance operations he exposed, not his personal story. Assange stressed this a number of times on his phone call today. But by aiding in Snowden's comically dramatic escape—and holding frequent conference calls with journalist to boast about it—Wikileaks has done more than anyone to keep the focus on Snowden. At least it will be something to watch.