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Snowden affair puts Wikileaks back into spotlight

Journalists pursue Edward Snowden at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on 23 June
Image caption As the world's media - and US authorities - pursue Edward Snowden, Wikileaks is at his side

The whistleblowing organisation Wikileaks has become closely embroiled in the story of Edward Snowden - the US intelligence leaker accused of espionage in the US who is currently believed to be seeking a safe haven from the transit zone of Moscow airport.

The affair has given fresh prominence to an organisation whose profile had waned since its headline-grabbing release in 2010 of hundreds of thousands of US state department diplomatic cables along with secret documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Its reputation has been dented by allegations of sex crimes levelled at its founder Julian Assange - who has now spent a year inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London, avoiding attempts to extradite him to Sweden.

He claims the allegations are part of a witch-hunt against him by the US, where there is an ongoing investigation into Wikileaks and Mr Assange by the US justice department.

The assistance Wikileaks has given Mr Snowden has thrust it back onto the front pages and its representatives back into the TV studios.

According to Elias Groll of Foreign Policy magazine, the two parties were not associated at the start of this saga - as evidenced by the fact that Mr Snowden took his revelations to the Guardian newspaper, bypassing Wikileaks "when this is Wikileaks' natural territory".

So how has Wikileaks assisted Mr Snowden, and how do their interests coincide?

'Two fronts'

Edward Snowden was first publicly identified by the UK's Guardian newspaper as the source of leaks about US surveillance programmes on 9 June, at which point he had been in Hong Kong for three weeks since fleeing from his Hawaii home.

Wikileaks' involvement in the affair first began to be reported more than a week later, when it emerged that it had made an ultimately unsuccessful bid to secure asylum for him in Iceland.

Wikileaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told the BBC on 24 June that "we have been helping him on two fronts: on one side, our legal team has been in contact and consultation and advising his legal team - for obvious reasons our legal team has vast knowledge in matters of extradition so it's quite natural that they could assist in many ways.

"Secondly we have been a go-between, carrying messages from Mr Snowden and his team to officials and governments."

Mr Assange claimed he had helped secure a refugee document of passage from the Ecuadorean government after the US revoked his passport, though Quito has since denied authorising any such document.

It is unclear whether Mr Snowden used an Ecuadorean document, authorised or unauthorised, to enable his passage to Moscow - where, Mr Assange confirms, Wikileaks has paid for Mr Snowden's plane tickets, lodging and legal counsel.

Image caption Wikileaks activist Sarah Harrison - shown here in a file image - is said to be accompanying Snowden

Wikileaks confirms that Sarah Harrison - a member of the Wikileaks legal team - "assisted Mr Snowden with his lawful departure from Hong Kong" and is "escorting him at all times" while in Russia.

Ms Harrison, who is still thought to be with Mr Snowden in Moscow, is - London's Evening Standard claims - Julian Assange's "powerful lieutenant and his principal link to the outside world from his room in the Ecuadorean embassy in Knightsbridge".

Baltasar Garzon, the former campaigning Spanish judge and now Wikileaks' legal director, is heading a team advising Mr Snowden on strategies to keep out of the grasp of the US. In a recent tweet, Wikileaks said it had hired a US attorney to represent him in the longer term.

Since Mr Snowden left Hong Kong and disappeared from public view, key Wikileaks figures have taken to the airwaves to explain why he should be hailed and not hounded for his disclosures.

'Riding to the rescue'

So Wikileaks' best and brightest have been at the heart of efforts to protect Mr Snowden - why?

Asked whether he felt "any feeling of satisfaction or vengeance" at helping Mr Snowden thwart the US government, Mr Assange replied: "I have personal sympathy with Mr Snowden, having lived through a very similar experience, but the Wikileaks organisation more broadly exists to defend the practical rights of whistleblowers to bring their information to the public."

There may be other benefits from Wikileaks' association with Mr Snowden, in the face of a boycott from major financial companies and dwindling public sympathy because of Mr Assange's personal travails.

It has issued multiple appeals for donations since Mr Snowden flew to Moscow, though the BBC has been unable to obtain any comment on how successful those have been.

For Mr Groll, association with Mr Snowden can only be a boon for Mr Assange. "Assange hasn't been much of a success lately - before he was a valiant fighter for transparency, now he's holed up in an embassy.... But now he's riding to the rescue."

The association is a riskier one for Mr Snowden, he says.

"The dangers for Snowden is that he ends up being discredited - Assange is a hate figure in the US... so by associating with him, he's risking his reputation.

"Of course, he doesn't have much choice. We've seen an immense smear campaign against Snowden and Assange - and this is another way they can tarnish [Snowden's] credibility."

Wikileaks has confirmed that "there are more revelations to be expected" from Mr Snowden - but it remains to be seen whether, in light of the assistance he has received from them, Mr Snowden will change tack and release the new information through his new allies.

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