In this file picture taken on June 21, 2012 Sarah Harrison, WikiLeaks supporter,… (CARL COURT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES )
LONDON — He didn’t have the space for it, but Gavin MacFadyen needed more bodies. The American running a British think tank for investigative journalism had eight staffers crammed into an 15-by-12-foot office in east central London, trying to crack a story on wrongdoing at a multinational company.
Then Sarah Harrison walked through his door.
Within a few years, Harrison would become the intense, 31-year-old emissary of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the mystery woman sent to spirit former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden from Hong Kong to Moscow, where she is now aiding his quest to evade U.S. authorities.
But then, in late 2009, Harrison was an eager 27-year-old applying for an unpaid internship, a graduate of a prestigious boarding school with ambitions to become a journalist.
Harrison had no prior experience, but MacFadyen said he saw a spark that led him to bring her on board — a break that would set her on the path to meeting Assange and eventually bring her into the whistleblower Web site’s inner circle.
“It was an intelligent choice to send her” to Snowden, MacFadyen said. “She’s smart, determined and fully believes in the moral principle of shedding light. This is something she has strong feelings about.”
After being recommended by MacFadyen, Harrison began working with WikiLeaks in August 2010 on the internal vetting of confidential U.S. documents supplied by Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, which the site later released. At some point that year, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Harrison and Assange became intimately involved. They cautioned that the relationship was not Harrison’s prime motivation in championing the WikiLeaks cause.
“She is firmly committed to what WikiLeaks is trying to do; she believes 100 percent in the mission,” one of the people said. “Any suggestion that her relationship with Julian is what has compelled her to do the things she has would be a totally wrong assumption.”
Although those who know her as an Assange confidante describe her as more comfortable behind the scenes, Harrison now finds herself in the spotlight. She has raced across continents to aid Snowden, assisting in his flight from Hong Kong and his search for asylum from Moscow. (On Friday, Venezuela offered Snowden asylum and Nicaragua said it would do so “if circumstances allow it.”) All the while, she has has maintained a low profile and refrained from public statements.
Acknowledgment of her role has come via bare-bones WikiLeaks statements and a comment from one Russian authority. Kristinn Hrafnsson, a WikiLeaks spokesman, declined to comment for this article. Harrison did not respond to an interview request. Assange, who has been holed up at Ecuador’s embassy in London for more than a year, said in an e-mailed statement that “Sarah is spirited, courageous and completely incorruptible,” but did not comment further.
Those who know Harrison say she appeared to blossom under Assange’s tutelage, going from starry-eyed intern to a savvy crusader for the no-holds-barred brand of public disclosure that has come to define WikiLeaks.
Perfect fit for WikiLeaks
Harrison grew up in a privileged British home, her father a retail industry executive and her mother a specialist in treating reading disabilities. In a brief telephone interview, her father, Ian Harrison, 74, said he was not “going to make any further comments about our family and our private life,” citing bad experiences with the British tabloid press.
He referred to an interview the family had given to the Daily Mail, which produced an article last weekend headlined: “The public school girl who fell for Julian Assange — then went on the run with the world’s most wanted man.”
He said he had not spoken to his daughter since her involvement with the Snowden case became known and had been keeping up with her movements largely by following the news. “We are proud of our daughter,” he said. “We just hope she is well.” When asked how his daughter would describe her profession, he said: “I would have said investigative journalist would have summed her view of what she does.”
Still, Harrison’s role within WikiLeaks has taken many forms over the years. A short biography on the WikiLeaks Web site describes her as a member of the group’s “legal defence team.” But Harrison is not a lawyer and studied English while at Queen Mary, University of London.
MacFadyen called her a dogged researcher, one reason he recommended her in 2010 to work on WikiLeaks documents. He believed she was a perfect fit for the work being done by Assange, whom MacFadyen had first met in California in the late 2000s and had since come to know and trust.