This story intrigued me. For if (my imagined version) of two elder women’s graceful exit is to be emulated, so is this young woman’s intense, dedicated, purpose-driven life.
October 24, 2013
by Stefania Maurizi
Sarah Harrison? “She deserves massive credit — much more than she’s gotten. So impressed by her bravery”. These few characters were tweeted a few days ago by Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist who broke the first stories about the U.S. National Security Agency’s global spying program based on Snowden files.
Over the last three years she has kept a very low profile, as have all WikiLeaks’ employees, but when on the 23rd of June Sarah Harrison landed in Moscow with Edward Snowden who had fled Hong Kong seeking political asylum, she found herself under the spotlight. Suddenly the international media started wondering about her. A mystery blonde, a Mata Hari, a journalist, a lawyer, one of Julian Assange’s girlfriends? Who is Sarah Harrison, really?
Thirty-one years old, a sunny personality and a very hard worker, she plays a crucial role in the journalistic work of WikiLeaks. Last June, when WikiLeaks tweeted that Sarah Harrison was assisting Snowden, the organisation referred to her as working with its legal team. Newspapers immediately noted that Harrison is not a lawyer, so that story sounded bizarre.
As a general rule, WikiLeaks does not reveal who does exactly what inside the organisation. Sarah Harrison researched many WikiLeaks’ legal cases, but in addition to that work dozens of reporters who have worked with WikiLeaks in the last three years have seen Sarah Harrison in action: she leads research on documents before publication, coordinates the bickering club of journalists publishing files, she was the lead journalist for WikiLeaks’ Syria Files, also conducting the news conference at the Frontline Club, and on more than one occasion, with great patience, she has explained how to deal with encrypted files to reporters who have never heard of encrypted files. Journalists who have worked with her over the last three years have noticed that she has become increasingly techie.
“Her first teacher at primary school predicted that she would be a journalist. Sarah was 5!”, says her father, Ian Harrison, to “l’Espresso”. Now that Sarah is 31 years old, she plays a crucial role in the journalistic work of one of the most loved, hated, attacked and imitated media organisations in the world. Last week the American “Freedom of the Press Foundation” launched “SecureDrop”, a platform which media organisations can install to receive documents submitted by anonymous sources. Sounds familiar? Of course. That is what WikiLeaks did before any other organisation in the world.
A British citizen, from a middle-class family, her father is a former retail industry executive, her mother a specialist in treating children with learning difficulties. She has two younger sisters and received an excellent education. Sarah Harrison studied at the “Sevenoaks School”, a prestigious boarding school based in Kent, whose former pupils include actor Daniel Day Lewis and ironically, as the Daily Mail wrote, Sir Jonathan Evans, the head of the British secret service MI5 until this April.
“From a very early age she worked very hard, always striving to do her best in all subjects and always willing to try something new. We were told that she was always asking questions…” says her father, adding: “she is a self-starter, highly motivated and sometimes obsessive about her current focus. She was always aware of those less fortunate, and that was apparent from very early on. When she was about 10, she wrote to the Prime Minister about the homeless. We still have his reply”.
As a teenager she spent more than one summer in Tuscany. At first she studied science at university, but then she attended Queen Mary University in London to read English literature.
She spent her second year at Melbourne University, “where she stayed on for an extra year working and travelling around Australasia and the Far East”, his father explains, “she has always taken her education seriously, worked extraordinarily hard, determined to do her best and achieve highly, but also to make the most of every opportunity and experience”, says Ian Harrison.
Growing up in a privileged family did not spoil her or make her into that kind of person who takes everything for granted. She does not wear expensive clothing. On more than one occasion, l’Espresso has met with her and other WikiLeaks’ staffers for dinner: Sarah and other group members eat the simple food at their disposal, if they have any. If not, they continue drinking coffee, eating chocolate and sweets as they work very late into the night.
After graduating in English literature at Queen Mary, she was offered a job as an international events manager and she even handled the organisation of the business delegation when PM Gordon Brown went to India. That kind of career did not fulfil her, however, and she decided to join the “Center for Investigative Journalism”, a London-based organisation that champions investigative journalism and is led by Gavin MacFadyen.
It was MacFadyen who “saw the spark”, as he said to the Washington Post. He understood that she was a dogged researcher, a quality that made her perfect for the hard and obscure journalistic work of going through the massive databases of the WikiLeaks documents.
“She talked to us about her decision to give up everything to join an organisation that she believed was going to make a difference,” says Ian Harrison, “at that point we did not know what organisation she was referring to. She was very excited at the prospect of being part of something that was very new”.
What made her interested in journalism? we ask him. “We would like to make a distinction – she was and is interested in investigative journalism and in exposing the wrongs in the world”, says Sarah’s father, “she is extremely tenacious, a quality that is useful in all research”, and she “has always said she wanted to make a difference in the world” and “it would be hard to disagree with the fact that WikiLeaks has changed the media landscape”.
As for Julian Assange, he holds her in high regard. “Sarah is spirited, courageous and completely incorruptible”, he told the Washington Post a few days after Harrison and Snowden arrived in Moscow, days which Assange spent sleepless, exhausted but definitely proud of the work by “our Sarah”, as he told l’Espresso at that time.
According to the Washington Post, at the beginning of her work with WikiLeaks Sarah Harrison and Julian Assange “were romantically involved”, but both defend their privacy when it comes to their families and loved ones. WikiLeaks strongly supports transparency for public matters, but defends the right to privacy of individuals.
What drives her?, many journalists have wondered in recent months, as Sarah Harrison has come under the spotlight. What motivates a skilled person like her to work almost without pay for an organisation whose work involves serious legal risks? It is well-known that ever since the credit card companies choked off WikiLeaks donations, Julian Assange’s group has had difficulty paying salaries to the WikiLeaks staff. All of those who know Sarah Harrison give the same answer: she believes in what she is doing.
Last year Assange explained the WikiLeaks “manifesto” to l’Espresso in these terms: “”If we were to become a mainstream media organisation, then we would have all the limitations of such organisations, and one of those limitations is a limit on the ability to communicate the truth. If such organisations didn’t have a limit in their ability to communicate the truth, there would be no need for WikiLeaks. We are in this business because existing organisations have failed and they are not necessarily to blame for their failures, but it is for various historical reasons that they have come to that juncture and they cannot easily be reformed. We want to do one very simple thing: we want to collect, publish and defend information about the world that it is of significance, that helps people to lead their lives. You would not think it would be so hard, but it is, because there are many powerful institutions and individuals who derive their power from keeping other people ignorant about their activities”. This is a manifesto in which Sarah Harrison believes 100 percent.
Did you ever fear for her, during the publication of some of the most sensitive documents by WikiLeaks?, we ask her father. “Not fear exactly”, Ian Harrison says, “We have worried that she may have cause for regret in the future because her involvement with WikiLeaks has meant that she has and is giving up so much. Now I realise that it gives her what she is looking for”.
Four months after Sarah Harrison arrived in Moscow with Edward Snowden, she is still there with him. Two weeks ago, Snowden was awarded the “Sam Adams Award” by a group of former US intelligence and government officials which includes Thomas Drake, an ex Nsa senior executive who exposed Nsa abuse before Edward Snowden ever did. Drake too was charged with espionage for blowing the whistle, as happened to Snowden. “The Sam Adams award is awarded to those demonstrating integrity in revealing intelligence that informs the public”, Drake tells l’Espresso, adding that the prize “is not awarded exclusively to intelligence professionals”.
WikiLeaks published the video of the Sam Adams Award ceremony. In that video, Drake gives Snowden the prize: a candlestick with the candle lit, symbolizing the bringing of light into darkness. Both Sarah Harrison and Edward Snowden smile in that video, though no one knows what will happen next.
Where is Snowden going to end up after the one year of temporary asylum granted by Russia? And will Sarah Harrison be able to travel back to Britain and live and work without particular problems? Her father seems confident: “Yes, she should be able to return, she hasn’t done anything wrong. However, we know that at present the legal advice is that she should not return, since an investigation is in progress. But when she does decide to return, if there are any problems, we feel confident that she is equipped to deal with them and that they will only be short-term. We are willing to fight for that right, if she wants us to and she needs us”.