Plenty of women are whistleblowers, and plenty more work for the organisations that aid them. So why do we rarely hear about these women? And who are they?
In 2010, British journalist Sarah Harrison, then in her mid-20s, began working for WikiLeaks, the website created by Julian Assange to help expose large-scale injustices and cover-ups. It was the year that the site received and published some of its most explosive information to date; the Iraq War Logs, the Afghan War Diary and Cablegate were a collection of classified documents that were leaked out of the American military by Chelsea Manning, including a video showing the killing of civilians in a 2007 Baghdad airstrike. It was also the same year that Julian Assange was accused of sexual assault by two women in Sweden.
Harrison’s job was to assist in verifying the documents in the Afghan War Diary but she quickly became a permanent member of staff, working on Cablegate and later, the NSA scandal, the 2013 leak that revealed how the US government was spying on its citizens. Harrison was even sent to help NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden avoid arrest in his escape from Hong Kong to Russia, but was dubbed in several newspaper reports not as a successful journalist but as Snowden’s “assistant” or “friend”. She now works with the Courage Foundation, an organisation to support whistleblowers and hacktivists who are being persecuted.
A new book, Women, Whistleblowing, WikiLeaks, asks why we don’t hear more about women like Harrison, who have played key roles in uncovering conspiracies and advocating for freedom of information. Presented in the form of a three-way conversation between theatre director Angela Richter, human rights lawyer Renata Avila and Harrison, the book provides a platform for women working with whistleblowers to share their expertise in the area. Below, we talked to Harrison about WikiLeaks, working for Julian Assange after he was accused of sexual assault, and how we need to rethink whistleblowers in the West.
Hi Sarah, to start with, what did your job at WikiLeaks involve on a daily basis?
How WikiLeaks works is that, unlike a lot of media that goes and finds the stories, it’s done from the concept of this secure anonymous drop box. Julian felt there were a lot more people who were potentially whistleblowers than were coming forward to the press, and was the first person to come up with this as a technical solution, although it’s now used in certain newsrooms. We were sent large data sets of documents, and would have to check they were verified. Because they’re anonymous and you don’t get the source, there is a lot of work to go through, making calls researching stories in there, cross-referencing what you find in as many ways as possible – sometimes in traditional journalistic styles, but there are also technical things you can do. Then we’d ask: How do we publish this? Which media will this be relevant to? I would do work prepping those partner organisations, like which stories we would lead with.
It’s not as glamorous as we think, is it, going through all of this data?
Ha, no. It’s funny, there’s a feeling from the outside that it must all be secret and exciting but emails for example can be technically difficult to work with. Of course I loved the work we did, but when stories came in, I have to admit that a little bit of me would think ‘Oh, now we’ve gotta go through this whole thing!’ and I’d want to throw my computer out the window.
You did help NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden get out of Hong Kong though...
I’d been following the news stories as they were coming out and thought it was amazing. He’s explained that his main goal at first was to get the documents into journalists’ hands, then he outed himself. He wasn’t reckless, he did things like start the process from Hong Kong rather than America, to make it less easy for them to arrest him, but by the time he came forward there was a massive US manhunt. That’s when he started reaching out to people who might be able to help. One group was WikiLeaks. He knew from Julian taking asylum that we had some expertise, knew a lot of international lawyers, how asylum claims for these sort of free press situations could work and that we’re all trained at technical operational security. I was sent because I know Hong Kong very well as I have family there. Once I arrived, I was able to not use my passport or credit card, I could essentially disappear and not be followed.
From there, a lot of it was working out: What is the situation? What are the legal issues? He had a local Hong Kong lawyer who helps with asylum requests but had never helped with extradition requests and had no idea how the two would interact. As you can imagine, there’s not a million of these cases going on around the world so there’s a lot of research that needs to be done. The US government cancelled Snowden’s passport while we were en route to South America, and we were stopped in Russia on transit. We were then stuck in the airport for a month. We tried applying to countries in Europe for political asylum but they rejected our requests. We were lucky that the country we touched down in was eventually favourable to the situation, and that Snowden was given asylum in Russia.
How did it feel to see the reports calling you a “friend” or “assistant”?
I found that really annoying! The ones where it really annoyed me was where it was by journalists I had worked with! We’d had meetings talking about stories! I was described as a “companion”, very good at washing socks and making phone calls. These sorts of things. Sadly we get used to that as women. We shouldn’t but we do. At that time there was a desire to sensationalise the story in the press and make it more James Bond-like, planes going down and an international fugitive. A “pretty blonde assistant” seemed to fit with those stories, not a hardworking journalist looking at politics and law to sort the situation out.
I like how in the book Renata jokes that women are less visible in the world of whistleblowing because they’re more cunning.
Being a woman can mean people aren’t looking at you, so it can be easier to do things under the radar. But there is a flipside to that in that there is some protection in visibility. Not to be too paranoid and I don’t think this is going to happen tomorrow but say the US ordered an indictment and I was to be extradited, I would want there to be journalists at the hearing, and people trying to make sure it was done with due process. I think Renata’s point is that there are a lot of whistleblowers that have been caught that people don’t know about. That is something that we try to work on, to give them a public defence.
How do you know Angela and Renata?
I’m in awe of them! Angela got in contact with us because she’s a theatre director and she wanted to raise awareness of stories in this sphere. She goes away and interviews people, spends hours with them, then she puts her scripts together from the transcripts. Renata was a friend of Julian before I knew either of them. I met her at WikiLeaks because she’s a legal advisor to the organisation and we formed a friendship. She works a lot on technical rights regarding data but also on cases regarding indigenous people’s rights.
I want to talk for a moment about the accusations against Julian Assange. Do you get asked about that often? What do you tell people about why you chose to work with him?
They do ask me a lot and I explain the facts that have come out that I’ve been able to corroborate with documentary evidence. When I joined WikiLeaks, there was an original prosecutor who took the case up, investigated it and then said there’s nothing here and dropped it. It blew up [publicly] later on when a different prosecutor in a city Julian’s never even been to picked up the case – that seemed a bit weird to me. I wasn’t in Sweden and I don’t know what happened on those nights but bits of the police report got leaked. When you hear that a torn condom was found, for example, you think that sounds awful. Then when you read the police report and it had not one person’s DNA on it, that changes the situation slightly, or how one of the women who was interviewed said, no, he didn’t rape me, can you stop the interview, the police railroaded me into that.
If you don’t know the facts of the case you might also be forgiven for thinking, ‘Well he should have just gone to Sweden to clear his name’. But I was there when he was saying to his lawyers: ‘Can’t they come here, they do this all the time, I’m making myself available to them, we could do mutual assistance where the British ask questions.’ It’s so normal, it happens all the time, and therefore completely abnormal that they didn’t come for six years. An Italian journalist, Stefania Maurizi has been doggedly chasing lawyers and getting all of their correspondence. There are very interesting things she has got. The Swedes did try and come, but the UK stopped them. The US were being brought into it, but they won’t release any US communications on it because they don’t want Julian tipped off on anything to do with an indictment. I could see this wasn’t being treated as any other case at all.
What’s the latest?
Now Sweden have dropped the case but Julian doesn’t get to clear his name. From everybody’s point of view, it’s a complete failure from all the governments involved. It’s a sad and angry thing for me that he’s branded as a double rapist, which isn’t even the comments made at the beginning; that he is vilified and trapped in this room, and nobody has got any justice at all. For me, personally, as a woman, it’s upsetting – any question of these things happening is very upsetting to any woman but it’s clear to me that this has been dealt with in a very political way.
Is anything likely to change regarding Julian’s situation? What’s the ideal outcome?
The ideal outcome for me is that the grand jury [US indictment] charges get stopped and that they realise it’s a wrong thing to target the media and journalists and he could be freed. I don’t think that’s about to happen. People ask me – and this is the one I have no answer to – why the UN has twice said to the UK and Sweden, ‘This is not on, you need to let this man go, this is arbitrary detention’. Twice. And the UK just ignores them. What do you do then? The UK is clearly violating international agreements that it joined up to of its own accord. When a country like Egypt ignores the UN we all get up in arms but no one seems to care about Sweden and the UK doing it. Julian is in very bad conditions, one room. It’s not good.
Renata also mentions in the book how, in the West, whistleblowers aren’t really seen as political dissidents, just villains. Do you agree?
Yes, but more and more things are coming to light. Take this recent story with Cambridge Analytica, these are the kinds of things we think of as happening in totalitarian societies. I think there is a dangerous and concerning situation we have in Western countries where people I very much see as political dissidents are seen as traitors who should be locked up, they’re seen as national security issues. If someone from Russia came out as a Snowden, the West would be applauding them, saying ‘Come and stay here, would you like a palace, what else do you need?’ Whereas Snowden gets ‘Is he a traitor or a hero?’ That’s a dangerous precedent we’re falling into in the West because dissent is a large part of what makes a democratic society keep functioning in a democratic way.
So a final question: How can we pay women in whistleblowing more credit where due?
At the moment someone to be watching is Reality Winner, a whistleblower in the US awaiting her trial. It was due to start and it’s been postponed again. She’s been in jail a year, allegedly the whistleblower of intelligence documents that were write-ups regarding Russian actions in the US election. She’s not been given the normal rights in prison, she’s been in solitary, with no access to books or the meals that she needs for her dietary requirements. She didn’t arrive in the world with videos on front pages of websites, as Snowden did. She attempted to stay anonymous, but she was caught out by the journalists she went to. They fucked up and accidentally gave her away. She’s in a terrible situation with nowhere near the media coverage [of others], and we’re trying to keep her plight in the public domain. So there are women. They’re not known as well as the men unfortunately. But we can change that.