LONDON — They made the most obvious of bedfellows: Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks.
When the former NSA contractor who leaked top-secret details of U.S. and British surveillance operations landed in Moscow on Sunday, Snowden disembarked from Aeroflot Flight SU213 with Sarah Harrison, a member of the WikiLeaks legal team, by his side. His arrival in Russia en route to a third country, in search of asylum from a U.S. extradition request, came after what appeared to be a Hollywoodesque plan to spirit him out of hiding in Hong Kong that was orchestrated with the aid of the whistleblower Web site.
On Sunday, WikiLeaks said in a statement that Snowden would petition Ecuador for asylum. The government in Quito — which has granted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum at its embassy in London — confirmed that it had received an official request for asylum from Snowden.
“This was an obvious thing for us to do, to support him in any way we can,” said Kristinn Hrafnsson, an Icelandic journalist and WikiLeaks spokesman. “His revelations have been explosive and extremely important, and we’ve offered our full help and assistance.”
The behind-the-scenes machinations once again shined a spotlight on WikiLeaks, the crusading organization that has become a thorn in the side of Western governments with its occasionally damaging, almost always embarrassing revelations of official secrets.
The brand of assistance offered by WikiLeaks in legal cases is well documented and potent, with the group displaying an uncanny ability to tap assistance from countries hostile to the West and particularly the United States. For more than a year, for instance, Assange has defied the odds against the British and Swedish legal systems, holing up at the Embassy of Ecuador, a stone’s throw from Harrods in opulent Knightsbridge, as he fights extradition to face allegations of sexual assault in Stockholm.
The marriage between Snowden and WikiLeaks is a natural match, both sharing an ideology of disclosure and a contempt for official secrecy. WikiLeaks has also been linked to Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, the source of a trove of classified material passed to the group and whose case has close parallels to Snowden’s.
Hrafnsson said he personally established contact with Snowden last week while the American was in Hong Kong. He was vague about the operational details of their contact, saying only that “I used means that any journalist would.”
Arrangements were then made, Hrafnsson said, for Harrison — a member of the WikiLeaks legal defense team who works under former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon — to meet Snowden in Hong Kong and accompany him out of the autonomous region. Harrison, a British citizen, a journalist and a legal researcher, is not a lawyer. But she is considered a close confidant of Assange and a high-level member of WikiLeaks, and her presence suggested the direct involvement of the group’s founder in the decision to aid Snowden. On Sunday, Harrison was still with Snowden in Moscow, Hrafnsson said.
WikiLeaks had for days been in the process of trying to find a friendly government willing to grant Snowden asylum, Hrafnsson said. He said he had made contact with the Icelandic government on Snowden’s behalf, but had been told by officials there that asylum-seekers first needed to be present and within that nation’s jurisdiction before any claim could be processed.
In a statement posted Sunday on its Web site, WikiLeaks said Snowden was heading to Ecuador. “Mr. Snowden requested that WikiLeaks use its legal expertise and experience to secure his safety,” the statement said. “Once Mr. Snowden arrives in Ecuador his request will be formally processed.”
Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, confirmed Sunday that his government had received a formal request for asylum from Snowden but did not elaborate.
Garzon, the legal director of WikiLeaks and lawyer for Assange, who once famously issued an international arrest warrant for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, said the group’s legal aid for Snowden arose from a need to protect him.
“The WikiLeaks legal team and I are interested in preserving Mr. Snowden’s rights and protecting him as a person,” Garzon said in a statement. “What is being done to Mr. Snowden and to Mr. Julian Assange — for making or facilitating disclosures in the public interest — is an assault against the people.”
WikiLeaks’ involvement in aiding Snowden seemed to propel his image among a certain segment of the global population as a crusader aligned with the anti-establishment forces that have rallied from Istanbul to Rio de Janeiro in recent weeks.
“WikiLeaks have a strong interest in protecting and promoting the activities of whistleblowers, so I hope they are able to help him,” said Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, a Britain-based organization that campaigns for civil liberties. “We all owe Edward Snowden an enormous debt of gratitude. . . . Not everything whistleblowers do is legal, but their actions are absolutely vital when governments stretch the boundaries of the law.”