Spare a thought for Julian Assange. Having been holed up inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for nearly a year, the lonely WikiLeaks founder appears worried that Edward Snowden, the former NSA consultant who was described by the Guardian as the "individual responsible for one of the most significant leaks in US political history," is going to bounce him from his current perch as king of the whistleblowers.
Interviewed by the ABC broadcaster from his native Australia, Assange was keen to insert himself into the NSA story, claiming that his organization had engaged in "indirect communication" with individuals connected to Snowden. Quite what this means isn't clear, since Assange has never applied the exacting transparency standards he demands from governments and intelligence agencies to the activities of WikiLeaks. But it's not unreasonable to speculate that one of these individuals might be Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian writer who broke the Snowden story. After all, it was Greenwald who breathlessly described Assange as "one of the very few individuals over the past decade to risk his welfare, liberty and even life to meaningfully challenge the secrecy regime on which the American national security state (and those of its obedient allies) depends."
Yesterday, Assange repaid Greenwald's encomium by inadvertently strengthening the hand of those observers who insist that the import of Snowden's claims has been vastly exaggerated. As he told ABC, "What [Mr Snowden] has revealed is what I have been speaking about for years, that their National Security Agency and its allies have been involved in a mass interception program of Google, Facebook, the various telecommunications data." Speaking to CBS about the trial of Bradley Manning, the U.S. army private who supplied WikiLeaks with thousands of classified intelligence documents and diplomatic cables, Assange again conjured up the specter of an all-powerful surveillance state: "People have a right to understand what the government is doing in their name…There's no way that the American or international public was aware, in detail, of these mass spying programs."
Legitimate concerns about privacy and civil liberties are one thing; assertions that data collection programs like PRISM amount to "mass spying" are something else entirely. Over the last couple of days, a number of commentators like Ed Bott and Marc Ambinder have scrutinized the hyperbolic claims of the Guardian and the Washington Post and found them seriously wanting. Assange pushes them regardless because his agenda has always been driven by the sole desire to present the U.S. as the most roguish of rogue states.
Assange's devotion has not gone unappreciated by those countries that really do spy on their citizens without accountability, and who do restrict Internet access and muzzle press freedoms. Russia's official international broadcaster, RT, rewarded Assange with his own television show. Press TV, the English-language mouthpiece of the Iranian regime, bemoaned the "deafening global silence" over the plight of a man who "stood for the oppressed, the usurped." And Ecuador, under the leadership of the leftist autocrat Rafael Correa, dived in to save Assange from the prospect of deportation from the UK to Sweden, where he faces criminal charges of a sexual nature, by offering him asylum in his country's London embassy.
However, as Edward Snowden's star rises, Assange's appears to be falling. Over the weekend, Britain's Independent newspaper revealed that Ana Alban, Ecuador's Ambassador to the UK, was being recalled to Quito because of growing anguish that Assange's status remains unresolved:
Ecuador is understood to be desperate to negotiate a way for Mr Assange to quit its embassy amicably and is growing frustrated with the lack of progress. Quito sources said they believe Britain is happy to leave Mr Assange marooned.
At a meeting last Tuesday between Ms Alban and Hugo Swire, the Foreign Office minister responsible for Latin America, Ms Alban is said to have asked: "What are we going to do about the stone in the shoe?"
Mr Swire's response, according to a source who was in the room, was: "Not my stone, not my shoe."
Correa determined that sheltering Assange would give his government some defense from accusations over its woeful record on free speech. Those concerns remain in the frame–in the last few weeks, Freedom House has called out Correa over is use of lawsuits against government critics, while Ecuadorean journalists have petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on documented examples of state intimidation–but Assange has clearly outlived his usefulness. Edward Snowden (who, as Max Boot pointed out yesterday, has also taken refuge in an authoritarian state which "has far more intrusive electronic surveillance than anything the NSA could possibly dream up") might want to take note.