Fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is now traveling and lodging at the expense of WikiLeaks, according to the group’s founder, Julian Assange—a move that lawyers say could expose the whistleblowing organization to new legal charges.
WikiLeaks paid for Snowden’s travel from Hong Kong to Moscow, his lodging, and also his legal counsel, Assange said on a call with reporters Monday in response to a question from The Daily Beast.
“It is correct we paid for those arrangements,” said Assange, who declined to specify Snowden’s current whereabouts. “No government or other organization assisted."
Asked who is currently paying for Snowden’s travel and lodging, Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter whom Snowden contacted earlier this year, told The Daily Beast Monday morning, “Last I talked to him about it, he was paying for it [while in Hong Kong] with his savings and credit cards. I don't know who is now.”
The acknowledgement from Assange that his group is aiding Snowden could place WikiLeaks and its founder in new legal jeopardy for aiding and abetting a fugitive, according to Harvey Rishikof, the chair of the advisory committee at the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Law and National Security. Earlier this month the Justice Department filed charges in secret against Snowden on two counts of unauthorized disclosure of classified information as well as theft of government property.
Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer who has represented whistleblowers in the intelligence community, concurs, saying, "WikiLeaks is entering a fray where the United States government is looking for every and any possible criminal charge it can bring against the organization. They are possibly crossing the line into criminal culpability now by providing assistance to a fugitive."
On Friday the Justice Department formally asked the Hong Kong government to send Snowden to the United States. The government of Hong Kong, however, responded that there were errors in the U.S. request for extradition and allowed Snowden to board a plane Sunday for Moscow. The State Department is now asking countries to assist in the apprehension of Snowden.
WikiLeaks, says Rishikof, is “potentially leaving themselves open to be treated as aiding and abetting an individual who is wanted by the authorities.”
Michael Ratner, a lawyer who represents Assange and WikiLeaks in the United States, scoffed at the idea the group was exposing itself to legal jeapordy by aiding Snowden, who reportedly flew from Hong Kong to Moscow accompanied by Sarah Harrison, a British citizen working with the WikiLeaks legal defense team. “There is no international arrest warrant at this point for Snowden,” says Ratner. “There is the United States’ bullying of countries. But there is only a leaked criminal complaint.”
He adds: “I don’t think this is the same as someone running into my house and saying the cops are after me and then I give them safe haven.”
Assange has remained inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he’s claimed asylum, for over a year in a bid to avoid being deported to the United States. He is believed to be the target of a grand-jury investigation for conspiring with Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army soldier who leaked hundreds of thousands of documents he downloaded while working at a secure classified facility in Iraq. Manning’s court martial began this month at Fort Meade, Maryland, the same facility that hosts the NSA headquarters.
WikiLeaks solicits donations through its website and Twitter account, though those efforts have been hindered since December 2010, when several of the world’s biggest payment providers refused to transfer money to the organization. On Sunday WikiLeaks tweeted a request for donations to help its legal team. But Snowden’s name is not on the list of people a donation would benefit, which currently includes both Assange and Manning.
Assange also hosts a talk show that is licensed and broadcast by Russia Today in English, Spanish, and Arabic.
A Justice Department spokesman contacted Monday declined to comment on whether WikiLeaks was considered to be aiding and abetting a fugitive from the law.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Assange is an employee of Russia Today. The story has been updated to correct the error.