There is much to be said for the biblical injunction ”You shall know them by their fruits”. The warning is appropriate to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, who profess to be trail blazers in advocating the right to know and in opposing government interference in the lives of citizens.
Yet, right now, the Australian-born Assange remains a guest in the Ecuador embassy in London, from where he provides statements to the media. Assange is a particular favourite of the ABC, with recent appearances on Lateline, The Drum and 7.30. As Human Rights Watch has documented, President Rafael Correa has recently subjected journalists in Ecuador to public denunciation and retaliatory litigation.
The American-born Snowden remains a guest of Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia. Journalists are less safe in Russia than any other European country. Moreover, Putin’s administration has a ruthless attitude to opposition.
Yet Assange and Snowden continue to use the territory of intolerant regimes to lecture the world on freedom. Assange refuses to travel to democratic Sweden to face questions concerning allegations that he sexually assaulted two women.
Not long ago, Assange and his supporters were anticipating success in this year’s Australian election. His WikiLeaks Party ran candidates for the Senate in Victoria (where Assange headed the ticket), NSW and Western Australia. On June 10, Assange said on Lateline the WikiLeaks Party had nationwide support of ”between 25 and 28 per cent”. On June 15, The Australian reported Assange’s intention to take his new party to the US, Britain, India and more.
First, there was Assange’s self-delusion about his support base. This was followed by the evident delusion of some of the Assange Fan Club, who realised he was intolerant and stubborn. This led Leslie Cannold to quit the Senate ticket in Victoria.
The WikiLeaks Party won a mere 88,077 votes across the nation on September 7. WikiLeaks got 1.2 per cent of the vote in Victoria and 0.8 per cent in both NSW and Western Australia. It was a drubbing. Assange and his colleagues were out-polled by Family First in Victoria, the Christian Democratic Party in NSW and the Shooters and Fishers Party in Western Australia.
In mid-June, Assange asked the rhetorical question: ”Can the lessons of the Australian campaign be applied to these other countries as well?” and added ”our economic and political problems are global”. Judged on the election results, Assange is unlikely to be able to transport his concept to Tasmania, which is a long way from India.
Evidence suggests Snowden is moving relatively freely in Russia. He seems untroubled that it is deeply involved in spying on individuals and governments alike. Like Assange, Snowden’s essential target is the English-speaking World War II allies – the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – which have shared intelligence for more than half a century.
Speaking to the Royal United Services Institute in London on October 8, MI5 director-general Andrew Parker criticised The Guardian for publishing the confidential files acquired by Snowden when contracted to the US National Security Agency and subsequently leaked by him. Snowden’s stolen documents included material from the Government Communications Headquarters in Britain.
The MI5 head accused The Guardian of handing a ”gift” to extremists in Britain and declared Snowden’s leaks harmed Britain’s intelligence services.
It is unlikely Snowden and Assange will bother too much about Parker’s criticisms. Yet Assange in London and Snowden in Moscow benefit from the intelligence they are intent on undermining.
Like Assange, Snowden has considerable support among the left intelligentsia.
However, if Snowden contested an election in the US, he would surely self-destruct in the manner of the Assange-led WikiLeaks Party in Australia.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.