A very middle class enemy of the State: How DID an ex-pupil of £30k-a-year Sevenoaks School in Kent end up in exile in Berlin… clutching a laptop of UK state secrets… via a ‘romance’ with Julian Assange?
- The former public school girl led Edward Snowden to Moscow
- If she returns to UK she fears she will be detained and interrogated
A very middle class enemy of the State: How DID an ex-pupil of £30k-a-year Sevenoaks School in Kent end up in exile in Berlin…clutching a laptop of UK state secrets…via a ‘romance’ with Julian Assange?
Like all the best characters in a Cold War thriller, Sarah Harrison – currently exiled in Berlin – is hiding in plain sight. Muffled in a knitted beanie hat and a fake fur jacket against the slicing cold of the German winter, she is lost among the capital’s crowds.
Yet for 40 days and 40 nights – ‘pretty biblical’, she jokes – she was the woman most wanted by both British and American secret services.
Harrison, 31, is the public school girl from the Home Counties who led American National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to Moscow after he revealed the most extraordinary cache of Western secrets ever seen.
The WikiLeaks journalist, and rumoured former lover of its boss Julian Assange, remained by Snowden’s side in the transit area of Russia’s Sheremetyevo airport for those 40 days until President Putin granted him temporary asylum.
A month ago she relocated to Germany where she remains in a stand-off with our intelligence agencies, a self-proclaimed enemy of the British State.
Harrison cannot return to the UK for fear of being detained and interrogated under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, and surrendering the contents of her encrypted computer. She has been ‘spat out’ as she sees it, by her own Government.
And while expatriation is the traditional price of treachery, it’s not one she believes she deserves to pay.
‘Whistleblowing and publishing should not be seen as a crime and certainly not as terrorism. I should feel welcome to come home without the risk of detention,’ she told me, in her first interview since that June flight from Hong Kong to Russia which stunned the world.
‘I’m not in an airport any more but I am still in transit and I find that very sad since I have done nothing wrong. As a British citizen I would like to come back to the UK to see my family and friends, but I have no idea when that will be possible.
‘It’s crazy that the Terrorism Act is being used for this. It’s making terrorism any act designed to influence government behaviour but that’s journalism or activism, not terrorism.
This is a terrible betrayal of the last 200 years of freedom of the press but the Government doesn’t seem to care about that or the rule of law. It’s launched a brutal attack on both.’
She is building a new – albeit she hopes temporary – life in Berlin. It’s a city which historically stood on a fault line between two worlds, one a place of state surveillance and popular repression, the other of individual liberty. This metaphor for the conflicting demands of national security and freedom of information is not lost on her.
The myth around Harrison is one of a zealous, unafraid, intelligent but enigmatic blonde. What is true is that she has devoted the last three years of her life to forensic analysis of the classified material leaked to WikiLeaks.
Whether that makes her a naive idealogue co-opted by those willing to compromise Britain’s national security or a very contemporary heroine depends on your politics.
Faced with accusations that she orchestrated the flight of a man who betrayed secrets harmful to Britain’s national interests – including the names of live foreign agents – she is unrepentant.
It was confirmed last week by Guardian newspaper Editor Alan Rusbridger, when he appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee, that those names had been sent to US journalists by his newspaper in the course of its reporting of the Snowden files.
But Harrison says: ‘The UK government is embarrassed because journalists have done their job properly while the government has failed to do its job.
The government originally sent these documents to the US where they were made available to the tens of thousands of contractors in US companies who do more than 80 per cent of the NSA’s work.
‘It is because of journalists that we now know what the State does with our privacy.
‘The UK government has a responsibility to keep secrets in some circumstances. It also has a responsibility not to abuse that power for other purposes. It failed both. Our job is to document how governments go wrong, not to cover up for them.
‘It’s precisely because I believe what we’re doing is right that I don’t want the British Government to take my laptop. It would interfere with the public’s right to know about the important abuses we are researching.
‘The Guardian let GCHQ destroy its computers. We fought the Second World War to prevent the UK becoming a state where the government could seize journalists’ notebooks – it’s time that such behaviour stopped.’
In person she is funnier and franker than you might expect for someone whose life’s work is dealing with secrets and lies. She’s also contradictory.
She’s not in it for the money. She declines to say how much she earns but confirms that she took a 40 per cent pay cut when WikiLeaks was subject to a global banking blockade.
Nor is she in it for fame. With her slim figure, long ringlets of dark blonde hair and a foxy gap-toothed grin, she could easily trade on her looks in an otherwise geeky world she inhabits but she doesn’t. She is ‘too busy’ for a relationship but does have a loyal core of friends who are planning to visit her in Berlin.
She was in Melbourne on a WikiLeaks project in June when Snowden, in her words, ‘reached out’ to the organisation. For legal reasons she will supply only the scantest detail of the following days.
‘It was early in the morning in Australia for me when Julian got in contact. He said, “Wake up, we’re busy with Snowden,” and I thought, “What’s happened to the mountain in Wales, then?” Once I’d established the mountain was all right I realised he meant the NSA guy.
‘On a basic human level, I wanted to help someone who was potentially going to prison for the rest of their life. I knew what I risked. I did it in the knowledge it would upset the governments of the USA and the UK but believed it was the right thing to do.’
She met Snowden in Hong Kong and travelled with him to Moscow en route to Ecuador. But on arrival in Russia they discovered the US had revoked his passport. Did she not want to quit then? ‘No,’ she says adamantly, ‘I could have continued but I didn’t feel it was the ethical thing to do.’
That decision left her stranded for almost six weeks in the transit area of Sheremetyevo, administering her day-to-day life from there and surviving on burgers and pizza. She was able to see the outside world through a window but not re-join it.
She had an internet connection so was able to follow news of the face-off between President Obama and President Putin and the forced landing in Austria of a plane carrying President Evo Morales of Bolivia in the mistaken belief that the fugitive Snowden was on board.
She made 21 asylum applications on behalf of Snowden without expecting them to be granted, more to stress test global government reaction.
‘Very few countries stood up in support although in the end Russia did the right thing,’ she says. ‘Saving Edward Snowden from prison is one of WikiLeaks’ achievements of which I am most proud.
‘I am fascinated to see how it ends. He is safe now but the United States will seek revenge for decades to come,’ she said.
She believes so many more intelligence secrets will have been spilled by the close of Snowden’s year in Russia that world opinion – he has faced caustic criticism for endangering the work of the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ – will have softened.
She cites as an example the fury in Germany over the revelation that American listened in to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone.
So what’s her opinion of Snowden? ‘I think he is hugely courageous and he will be well judged by history.’
And if she’d known she’d be trapped in transit with him for 40 days and 40 nights and then indefinitely exiled in Berlin would she have made the same decision to help? ‘Yes. Absolutely.’
I believe her, although she’d be the first to admit she’s an unlikely candidate for this kind of life.
Born into an upper middle-class family and raised in a large home near Sevenoaks, she attended the £29,600-a-year Sevenoaks school before enjoying a gap year backpacking and skiing.
She is the eldest of three daughters of Ian and Jennifer Harrison, a retired Burton executive and a reading support teacher.
Her sisters Kate, 29, and Alex, 23, live and work in the Far East, moving in the glamorous worlds of fashion and PR respectively.
Harrison describes her family as ‘traditional; normal and loving.’ Her parents delighted her by publicly articulating their faith in her judgment and tellingly, will be visiting her over Christmas.
She was a deeply moral child who perpetually looked beyond her own good fortune, volunteering to help blind and disadvantaged youngsters.
So motivated was she by the television programme Challenge Anneka that, as a ten-year-old, she wrote to the then Prime Minister Sir John Major telling him that if he used Britain’s unemployed to build houses for the homeless he’d solve two social problems simultaneously.
This anecdote is instructive because it reveals she was born rather than inculcated with a belief in her own ability to create real strategic change.
It was this belief which drove her to dump her early ambitions to become a doctor, quitting a degree in Biological Science at Edinburgh University for an English Literature degree at Queen Mary, University of London. She switched her focus to investigative journalism but the cool scientist’s brain is still at work.
It’s there in her love of data, her ability to be dispassionate when necessary and the quick, clean analysis of complex legal issues which has made her one of Assange’s most trusted advisers.
She took a position as an intern at the Centre for Investigative Journalism at London’s City University and then moved across as a junior researcher at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which is also affiliated to City. She was seconded to WikiLeaks and then joined its staff three years ago.
‘I was finally able to fulfil the things I wanted in a job – this was work on a massive scale.
‘With my logical scientific background I have to know how something works. The work of WikiLeaks is with principal documentary evidence, that’s where the truth lies.
‘It gets to the heart of the matter. It educates people and in turn empowers them.’
But that career devoted to empowering others has made her vulnerable, as evinced by her European exile. She refuses to have a mobile phone on the assumption that all her communications are monitored.
She won’t discuss her personal security but says she does not feel threatened physically although she believes her movements are watched.
So does she share Assange’s view that the world is sleepwalking towards a dystopian future?
‘To know we are being spied on by our own Government, and to have someone else’s government collaborating on that, to know that data storage is so cheap your information can be kept for years and used to create any kind of story, to me that’s a grave attack on human rights. The question is where is it all going to end?
‘People don’t yet fully understand the repercussions of this, they are not outraged. Not yet.
‘The Government is behind in its understanding that the internet is everywhere, it doesn’t see that this generation grew up online and that accessing information freely and being connected is now part of their psyche. It needs to catch up.
‘Its response to the revelations made by Edward Snowden made me ashamed. He stands accused of treachery – but who has truly betrayed whom?’
I spoke to Harrison in an office off Wilhelmstrasse in central Berlin. Beneath a railway bridge in perfect English someone has spray-painted the slogan: ‘Better to be a lion for one day than to be a sheep your whole life.’
For all the controversy she courts and has caused, no one can deny that Harrison has seized her moment to live as a lion roaring at the rest of us to wake up.