Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

The whistleblowers and me

How a middle-class woman from Kent became confidante to Edward Snowden and Julian Assange

With a modest smile, Sarah Harrison is describing her role in the WikiLeaks network: "I'm not Snowden or Assange; I'm just a blonde girl." But despite appearing to be a normal woman from Kent, "with the most boring name ever", Harrison, aged 34, is at the centre of a powerful global group of activists working to uncover what they believe are government cover-ups and data breaches.

When NSA leaker Edward Snowden had his passport blocked by the US and was stranded at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport for 40 days in July 2013, it was Harrison who was by his side, working around the clock to get him asylum and not leaving the airport either. She "lived off horrible coffee and Burger King, which I still can't eat".

Before that she was Julian Assange's personal assistant and girlfriend, spending a year holed up in Norfolk when he was under house arrest there in 2011, facing allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, and then visiting him every day at the Ecuadorian embassy.

The public latched on to the fact that a woman who went to the private Sevenoaks School in Kent was involved with Assange. Harrison is slim and tanned, with scraped-back curly hair and a gap-toothed smile. At first she is on edge and jumps when I say her name, but after that she relaxes and her manner is more like a friendly teacher than a hacker on the fringes of society.

This is her first time in London since 2013, when lawyers advised that her links to whistleblowers made it too risky for her to return home from Moscow, where she was with Snowden. She feared that if she returned she would be stopped by Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which gives police the power to detain people entering or leaving the country: "I risked three months in prison, which isn't the end of the world, but they can also put you on no fly lists." Instead she settled in Berlin. But following an appeal ruling in January journalists are now effectively exempt from Schedule 7 and Harrison is "delighted" that she can come to visit family and "Julian", whose name she says with affection.

We've met to discuss Oliver Stone's film Snowden, which is due to hit cinema screens here shortly. Unlike previous whistleblower film The Fifth Estate "based on a book by people who didn't like us", Harrison is "excited to see a good film about my friends" and is full of praise for Joseph Gordon Levitt, who plays Snowden.

She advised Stone on the section about Snowden's escape, a period which she remembers in forensic detail. After Snowden leaked the NSA documents he contacted WikiLeaks for support and they sent Harrison to meet him in Hong Kong. From there she planned to take him to safety in Latin America, avoiding the US. "I first met him en route to the airport. He was a calm mix of resigned and hopeful, dealing with a tense situation," she says.

"You don't leak that many documents and think you'll get away with it. He assumed he would be in prison or dead but we had a flight out so there was some hope."

They pretended to be a couple on holiday. "I never realised there were so many stages to getting a flight. I remember holding my breath while they checked his passport. I lost perspective of time because it was so nerve-racking."

Once they made it to Moscow they went to check in for their flights to Cuba but Snowden's passport had been blocked. So began 40 days living in confinement with a man she had only just met, hiding from the world press in a tiny, windowless room that the "nice" airport staff gave them.

Harrison says that she "could have left at any time" but has a strong sense of duty. "You can't abandon someone in that scenario," she says. "At each step there were more risks and it became more exciting so you keep going, but by that stage it was more that there was this great guy sitting next to me who needed help."

When Snowden was eventually granted asylum in Moscow, Harrison stayed with him for three months "to make sure he was settled". Now he has made a new life there, even though he was originally not keen to stay, and his girlfriend, a dancer, has come to live with him. "Their love story features heavily in the film," says Harrison sweetly. "It's romantic. She must be a strong lady. He kept her in the dark so she wouldn't be implicated. Imagine waking up one day and seeing your boyfriend all over the news. But she stuck by him."

Snowden is "not somebody who complains" and that stopped Harrison from "whining". "It's like complaining that it's raining to Julian Assange, who can't leave the embassy."

She thought of Assange while she was there. "It gave me new-found respect for Julian. When I finally left the airport my eyes hurt focusing on long distances and I had bad headaches. I thought 'imagine what it'll be like for Julian when he hasn't seen the horizon in four years'."

Are they still a couple? She laughs. "We've never talked about that to the press. He's my friend and I haven't seen him for three years until this summer so draw your own conclusions." There is more laughter.

She puts some of her public image down to sexism. "So much of the press has tried to sexualise my role or play it down. I grew up with a strong mother and two sisters so never experienced any sexism until this." Assange is "keeping strong". "It's hard. The United Nations says he should be released and the US government ignored that. You do wonder how this scenario can be resolved."

She now focuses on an organisation called Courage, which provides practical support for people who have spoken out against the government, including British hacker Lauri Love, who has a hearing soon over extradition to the US. "Working with Snowden, we noticed that nobody was able to help in the immediate need of these politicised cases."

The cases she's worked on with Courage have put her off wanting to come back to the UK. She is hopeful about Theresa May after the Prime Minister stood up to the US when they wanted to extradite British hacker Gary McKinnon, though she finds the Snooper's charter "sad". "You wouldn't expect a 50-year-old politician to know about cutting-edge encryption but they don't seem to get informed."

But Harrison has been "excited to visit". "I got to see my parents' house renovations. The first thing I did when I came back was fall over a new step in their house and cut my chin. I still have the scar - it's ridiculous."

Her father works for Burton and her mother works with children who have difficulty reading. She has two younger sisters who live in Hong Kong and "for their own protection I've kept them out of the picture". Her family heard about Snowden, "when most people did. Someone phoned my Mum and said Sarah's on the news".

It wasn't a surprise to them and they have met Assange. "I've always been headstrong, idealistic and ready to fight. When I was eight I wrote to John Major about homelessness so my family always assumed I'd go into something quite idealistic. They approve, although I'm not saying they don't get nervous."

Living off-grid, not knowing what country she will be in next, isn't too hard for her. "I've never had a phone anyway." Did it bother her family? "They just had to learn some encryption if they wanted to speak to me."

The whistleblowers she's met share a certain mindset. "It's not just seeing illegality that seems to push them over the edge. It's the hypocrisy they can't stand. That's why you see so many from the US - it makes these beautiful statements and is held up on a pedestal but working behind the scenes you see the lies, which enrages people to the point where they have to do something."

Britain's former counter-terrorism chief Cressida Dick has warned that Snowden's leak made the world a more dangerous place and "handed the advantage to terrorists". What does Harrison make of this argument? "This stems from propaganda spun by the government," she says, speaking quickly, suggesting that this is a well-rehearsed rebuff. "They make these great rhetorical points but there's nothing to back it up. You see it with Chelsea Manning. The government was at great pains to try and find any harm that had come from the releases yet they couldn't find one person that had been harmed so came to the conclusion themselves that no harm had been done."

Does it ever feel as if she's in the middle of an insurmountable challenge fighting against global governments, especially with Assange now in his fourth year at the Ecuadorian embassy? "It does. But once you've learned something you can't unlearn it. If I were to walk away now I'd be abandoning friends I respect and that's not in my nature. If I didn't care about the work there are many other things I could be doing. I wake up every day and hear about people in prison for years, hiding in rooms, seeking asylum and you don't walk away from that. My life is charmed compared to theirs."

She adds: "People always wonder how I do such a risky job but it is living out my ideals. In many ways it is an incredibly exciting and privileged existence. I can't imagine doing anything else."

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph