On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Mr. Assange confirmed reports that WikiLeaks is helping Mr. Snowden’s effort to gain asylum in Iceland.
“We have been in contact with Snowden and have been helping him,” he said. “I feel a great deal of personal sympathy with Mr. Snowden.”
Assange also implied that WikiLeaks may well publish future revelations that Snowden says are forthcoming. WikiLeaks is best known for making public vast amounts of classified information provided by US Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is now in the midst of a court-martial for the largest leak of classified documents in US history.
“As a matter of policy, we don’t speak about investigations or upcoming publications,” Assange repeated several times Wednesday, refusing to say whether he had spoken directly with Snowden. But, he hinted, “significant material will be published in coming weeks.”
For his part, Assange is marking the one-year anniversary of being holed-up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in order to avoid questioning about alleged sexual offenses in Sweden. Rather than hampering his WikiLeaks work, he said, his self-imposed isolation means that he has nothing else to do but continue with the controversial whistle-blower organization’s efforts.
Assange was joined in the 90-minute phone conference by prominent whistle-blowers and their advocates, who are highly critical of the Obama administration’s crackdown on government leakers as well as its recently reported secret probing of the phone records of Associated Press journalists and a Fox News reporter.
Snowden’s more recent revelation that the NSA has been collecting vast amounts of metadata on phone records and Internet use means the Obama administration has taken government spying on Americans further than any previous administration, said Daniel Ellsberg, who gave the top secret Pentagon Papers to the media in 1971 when Richard Nixon was president.
“President Obama has gone farther than any of the others in using the power of the government,” Mr. Ellsberg said. “What’s new is not only prosecutions under the Espionage Act but criminalizing the process of investigative journalism.”
But Ellsberg also said he remains hopeful that the examples of Manning, Assange, and Snowden will prompt others to become leakers and whistle-blowers.
“This is our last chance, I think, to keep our press and thus our democracy from becoming like China’s or the Soviet Union,” he said.
For critics of domestic spying, FBI Director Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony Wednesday, acknowledging that his agency has been using surveillance drones over American soil, came as a matter of suspicions confirmed.
"I think the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans is the drone and the use of the drone and the very few regulations that are on it today and the booming industry of commercial drones,” CNN quotes Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California as saying. (Senator Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has defended the NSA’s electronic-surveillance program.)
As reporters and government officials try to track down Snowden – last located in a hotel in Hong Kong – the debate over the benefits and dangers of the NSA’s surveillance programs continues.
In a USA Today interview earlier this week, three former NSA whistle-blowers – Thomas Drake, William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe – were said to “feel vindicated” by Snowden’s revelations.
“They say the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old former NSA contractor who worked as a systems administrator, proves their claims of sweeping government surveillance of millions of Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing,” USA Today reports. “They say those revelations only hint at the programs' reach.”
“We are seeing the initial outlines and contours of a very systemic, very broad, a Leviathan surveillance state and much of it is in violation of the fundamental basis for our own country – in fact, the very reason we even had our own American Revolution,” said Mr. Drake, a former NSA executive who was charged under the Espionage Act. (The most serious charges were dropped, and he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of misuse of a government computer.)