Business Technology

Thursday 18 April 2019

'We wouldn't not publish Trump documents or suppress them, but we can only work with what we've got'

Shooting to prominence during the asylum saga surrounding whistleblower Edward Snowden, Sarah Harrison has become one of the public faces of Julian Assange's controversial WikiLeaks. She tells our Technology Editor the organisation has no grudge against Hillary Clinton, but does have Google in its sights

Sarah Harrison, Wikileaks
Sarah Harrison, Wikileaks
Julian Assange
Sarah Harrison at a news conference with NSA leaker Edward Snowden at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Last Sunday, Sarah Harrison stayed up to watch the second US presidential election debate between Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican rival Donald Trump. The organisation she works for, WikiLeaks, got a special mention at the showdown.

"Our intelligence community just came out and said, in the last few days, that the Kremlin... are directing attacks, are hacking American accounts to influence the election," Clinton said. "WikiLeaks is part of that, as are other sites."

It's an accusation that rankles a little bit with Harrison.

"This sort of attack keeps coming against us," she says. "She [Hillary Clinton] is basically saying that the US intelligence community has confirmed this. But in their statements they have used vague language like 'it's the sort of thing we've come to expect from the Russians'. There's no proof it comes from the Russians. We operate on the basis of source anonymity. We don't comment on sourcing."

Julian Assange
Julian Assange

Harrison is becoming one of the better known public faces of WikiLeaks, the organisation run by Julian Assange that has published over 10m documents online from classified military secrets and environmental exposés to political gossip between diplomatic embassy officials.

The British journalist first came to prominence in 2013 when she accompanied the US whistleblower Edward Snowden on a plane from Hong Kong to Moscow as he sought asylum from the US after exposing a widespread digital surveillance programme.

She now works closely with Assange on WikiLeaks projects. Those tuning in to the webcast of the hyped-up 'October Surprise' event last week saw Harrison chairing the event, which combined journalists' questions with comments from Assange on WikiLeaks' tenth anniversary.

While the October Surprise turned out to be more social media hype than revelations, Harris says there is more US political material to be published in the run-up to the US election.

(Within hours of our interview, a further batch of 2,000 hacked emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta were published.)

Why are so many of the current leaks focused on Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump?

"There are a lot of documents about Clinton because we publish what we get," says Harrison. "We rely on our sources for that. People come to us anonymously. We've had a large amount of documents submitted about the Clinton campaign.

"We wouldn't not publish Trump documents or suppress them, but we can only work with what we've got. Critics sometimes say we're meddling in a political way to try and bring some specific outcome per se. But we're just trying to bring as much transparency as we can."

There certainly seems to be considerable tension between Clinton's campaign and WikiLeaks. Supporters of the Democratic nominee charge Assange's organisation with being a gullible enabler of a Putin-powered Trump presidential bid. For its part, WikiLeaks gives it back in spades. A run through its Twitter account shows a much sharper focus on the Democratic presidential candidate than on her Republican opponent.

Much of this, Harrison says, is simply a response to attacks made against WikiLeaks by state apparatus aligned with the US government and Clinton's position therein. Nevertheless, isn't going after one candidate more ultimately handing an advantage, intended or not, to their opponent?

"I can appreciate why certainly people put that point, but it's not an argument against our work. I'm still upset that the two people in this [US election] are both so atrocious."

How strong is the editorial direction in deciding what to publish about someone like Hillary Clinton and when? "We have to make decisions about what to prioritise and when," says Harrison.

"The best time for a public to be informed is when they're electing the person who's going to run their country. We do promise our sources maximum impact. There is also a resources aspect in that we're still on a banking blockade and rely on donations."

Presumably, one of many incentives to leak to WikiLeaks is the notion of "maximum impact". That being the case, could WikiLeaks itself be an incentive to hackers?

"We don't engage ourselves in those sorts of of activities," she says. "We're a media organisation. We rely on sources, we ensure anonymity. We don't really have a position on hacking."

Harrison has another role, though. She is currently the acting director of the Courage Foundation, an organisation that raises money to help with legal costs for whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning, the former US soldier who was convicted of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks.

Irish Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire is on the organisation's advisory board, as is the Russian activist band Pussy Riot.

"With my Courage hat on, as it were, we have some beneficiaries that are within the hacktivist community. In that sense, I would have other comments about it. There are some very interesting trends coming out in this so-called hacktivist environment. For example, one of our beneficiaries is Jeremy Hammond, an alleged WikiLeaks source. It's a very interesting case with regard to ethics and the political thinking behind his alleged actions. Whether it's Ed Snowden or Jeremy Hammond, these are all people of a certain generation with a love for the internet, freedom of information and an exchange of information that comes of that."

One other criticism WikiLeaks has faced in recent times is that its data dumps inadvertently exposes the personal details of innocent people, sometimes even putting their lives at risk. This was one of the claims made by US authorities after the so-called 'cablegate' releases in 2010, where thousands of classified emails and documents between US embassies were published.

"We do look at our documents and we do have a strong validation and research period into them to look into any harm minimisation," says Harrison. "The US did try to spin that harm would come from publishing in cablegate. But if you take that as an example, there isn't not any proof. There is only rhetoric that we 'got blood on our hands' which was a bit rich when it was about the tens of thousands of deaths on their hands."

"When it came to the Manning trial, they became desperate to do this and threw everything at it. But even the US, who may even have wanted to find someone proven to be harmed by it all, couldn't find any. We're not willy-nilly dumping documents around, that's not how we operate. We do have expertise at large data sets as well as being a big media organisation. We're not reckless at all, we're very careful. We often work in big media partnerships. Nobody has come to any harm from our publications and we do treat these documents in a careful and proper way."

WikiLeaks isn't just interested in US and international politics. At its ten-year anniversary this month, it warned that it has Google in its sights.

But why Google? "We're in a time now where corporations are getting huge," says Harrison. "The advancements in technology bring bad sides as well as good ones. We now have these huge monolithic companies that can operate quite secretly whether it's in technology or agriculture or whatever. And in this set-up, many of these companies are getting involved in government. Google is a big one."

Harrison says that the search giant, which famously has a motto of 'don't be evil', has become too cosy with controlling government interests. She even goes so far as to accuse it of "censoring results" and limiting information flows "at critical times" and in "a dishonest and secretive way". Harrison claims to have personal experience of tight connections between Google and the US government. She says that a years-ago query that she submitted on behalf of Julian Assange with the US State Department was instantly 'fact checked' by US officials with Harrison's WikiLeaks colleague who had been dealing with Google's boss, Eric Schmidt. Harrison took this as an indication of close communication between the US government and Google on apparently unrelated issues.

"She was confirming for the State Department that I was legit on behalf of Julian Assange. First off was the fact that the State Department knew they [Harrison's colleague and Google] had met. And then using that to verify who I was. There are documents showing links between Google and State Department.

"It's clearly a close one. When so much of our lives these days goes through the internet, when so many of us have Google accounts, what might Google be doing on the government's behalf? Of course it's of interest."

Other organisations of special interest to WikiLeaks include oil companies.

While Harrison says she is still in touch with Edward Snowden, she is not optimistic about a pardon or a return for Snowden to the US.

"Since the beginning he has said that he would go back if he could get a fair trial," she says. "But is that even possible? Ed would not be able to bring a public interest defence. He couldn't explain why he did this. He would likely be subject to harsh retaliatory treatment such as long periods in solitary confinement. Or maybe, like Chelsea Manning, torture, such as taking away her glasses. I hope he gets pardoned, but the chances are slim. It's possibly more likely that he'd get asylum in other countries, maybe in Europe."

Meanwhile, she is in very close contact with Julian Assange, who she works with on WikiLeaks projects. Having only recently returned to Britain after a threat of arrest was lifted from her, she got to visit him in his makeshift quarters in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

"That was a bit sad," she said. "But he occupies himself with work and keeps himself busy with his own legal case and WikiLeaks work."

Assange remains in the Ecuadorian Embassy under pain of arrest in the UK on foot of an extradition warrant to Sweden, where he is wanted in connection with sexual assault charges. A UN working group recently declared that Assange's circumstances amounted to "arbitrary detention". However, critics say that he should return to Sweden to face the serious charges.

Meanwhile, Harrison says that there is more to come concerning the US election but that she can't say any more about it for now.

"We'll be doing publications each week for 10 weeks, which started last week with the Podesta emails," she says. "There are more of these to come. But that's as much as I can tell you."

Sarah Harrison will be a guest speaker at Dublin Info Sec 2016 in the RDS. See for full line-up and more details

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