WASHINGTON -- On the run from charges of violating the Espionage Act, National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden appears to be pinning his hopes on another fugitive: Julian Assange.
The WikiLeaks founder has dodged estranged colleagues, sexual assault allegations and U.S. investigators from his hideout in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Saving Snowden may be Assange's most daring move yet -- but it is an open question as to whether the 30-year-old Snowden's interests are best served by linking up with Assange, a name-brand, but highly controversial Australian tech wizard, and the group he founded.
WikiLeaks has so far provided Snowden with tangible benefits. The NSA contractor reportedly went from Hawaii to Hong Kong without a long-term plan, but WikiLeaks said it provided him with a ticket to Russia, Ecuadorian refugee papers to board the plane in Hong Kong and traveling companion Sarah Harrison, a journalist who volunteers for the group.
In the long term, said Jonathan Hafetz, an associate professor of law at Seton Hall University, "there are pros and cons" to such a partnership.
On the plus side, WikiLeaks has built up extensive experience in the arcane and highly politicized arena of international asylum and extradition law.
"Charting a course at this juncture is as much a question of political considerations as legal judgments, and Wikileaks is quite aware of the political terrain," Hafetz wrote in an email.
Assange also emphasized this wealth of experience when asked about Snowden's alliance with WikiLeaks on Monday.
"WikiLeak has over six years of experience of dealing with threats to publishing and to whistleblowers," Assange told The Huffington Post. "Specifically, we have three years of experience in dealing with a precisely analogous situation to what Mr. Snowden found himself in."
Over those three years, battling for asylum and against prosecution, Assange has assembled in his defense a cadre of experienced lawyers, including Center for Constitutional Rights President Emeritus Michael Ratner and Australian human rights advocate Jennifer Robinson.
On Wednesday, WikiLeaks also announced via its Twitter account that it had "acquired" a U.S. lawyer for Snowden. Ratner told HuffPost he wasn't that attorney, but added that he was "glad to hear this."
Another benefit for Snowden of teaming up with Assange: he has the ear of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. And the backing of a sovereign nation with the power to mint its own passports is very useful in the game of international politics. If Correa ignores the risks to his country's export market that may come with irritating the world's superpower, he could grant Snowden asylum in a matter of weeks.
On the other hand, WikiLeaks is the same organization that President Barack Obama called "deplorable" after its release of classified U.S. State Department cables. Its participation in the Snowden saga certainly will not win him any leniency from the U.S. government if he is ever returned to his home country for prosecution.
"It's often advisable in a high-profile and sensitive case like Snowden's to have a legal team that does not add fuel to the fire and itself become the subject of further debate," Hafetz said.
After the dump of the State Department cables, WikiLeaks saw its funding crippled by a blockade from U.S. credit card companies. A separate organization, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, has raised $30,000 to start a legal defense fund for Snowden. PCCC's Matt Wall said the group has not been in touch with Snowden or his lawyers yet.
Whatever happens on Snowden's asylum quest, American University law professor Steve Vladeck said WikiLeaks' participation now probably would not make Snowden's legal situation in the U.S. any worse -- unless he teams up with the group to drop more documents.
"At most, I think it’s atmospheric from Snowden’s perspective -- that it won’t necessarily look good to a jury, if he ever does end up in a U.S. courtroom," Vladeck wrote in an email. "But it’s hard to see how it would affect any of the underlying legal considerations."