William Bennett Turner
(The scene: Late 2014, the mess hall at the federal prison in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Edward Snowden, inmate No. 14-1357, cuts the line, maneuvering to sit with Julian Assange, inmate No. 14-1359. The posted menu for the day features borscht and empanadas. Both choose peanut butter and jelly. Not having met before, they sit side by side at the metal table. The following is a transcript of their conversation, surreptitiously recorded by federal authorities and leaked to the author.)
Assange: Snowden, you idiot. You don’t understand the craft of leaking. You snitched on yourself. Like Manning. If you thought that stuff was so important you should have used WikiLeaks encryption, not talked to Greenwald, and they never would have known it was you.
Snowden: The NSA broke your encryption a long time ago. Actually, I’m amazed to see you here. How did they catch you?
Assange: I couldn’t stand to eat another empanada. I sneaked out of the [Ecuadorean] embassy to a pub, disguised as Benedict Cumberbatch. The video surveillance at the pub – it’s all over London -- picked me up when the waitress came on to me. She sounded Swedish, and I ran out without paying. A bobby stopped me and the wig fell off. You could have seen the video at the NSA if you had hung around a bit longer.
Snowden: Yeah, well, we have a lot in common: we showed Americans what their government is really up to, we hid out in weird places – try the so-called couches in the Moscow airport -- and martyrdom.
Assange: But, chump, the Espionage Act got you because you contracted with the NSA, took an oath, got paid by the government, and then betrayed your trust. You expected them to treat you like a savior? I never made any promises, had no security clearance, didn’t live in the U.S., not a citizen, and had no duty to keep anyone’s secrets. I am the Fifth Estate. When does your biopic come out?
Snowden: They haven’t decided the title yet; it’s either The Trickle or The Deluge, and they’re still dickering with Justin Timberlake (sounds like Cumberbatch) about playing me. And don’t get on your moral high horse in here. I told the people what they needed to know and the government was hiding. They didn’t need to know the names of the poor shlubs who cooperated with the U.S. in Iraq, the ones you exposed. I did it to wake people up; you did it because you could. Anyway, what, exactly, are you doing time for?
Assange: Not telling.
Snowden: I thought you were all about transparency.
Assange: The government’s, not mine. I’m the decider about who knows what about me.
Snowden: I heard they got you on the Espionage Act too.
Assange: Yeah, you nitwit, but I’m gonna win my appeal, because I’m like the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case, and you’re not. You’re like Ellsberg. No publisher has ever been charged under the Act.
Snowden: If they think we’re such a danger to national security, why do they put us in a minimum security prison?
Assange: No laptops. We don’t have access to secrets anymore. We went from access to everybody’s secrets to access to none at all. We’re harmless eunuchs. Maybe we could get a laptop smuggled in in a cake; instead of a file, we’d have files. Hey, who’s that new guy just came in, who actually took the borscht?
Snowden: That’s James Risen, the Times guy who refused to testify and finger a CIA leaker. He’s in for committing journalism. He actually interviewed me by what he thought was “encrypted online communications.” That’s how I got caught.
Assange: Speaking of journalism, with no laptop, what are you reading?
Snowden: Sartre’s No Exit.
Assange: Oh, yeah. Hell is the other people you have to do your time with.
Snowden: That’s us. Hey, maybe we can be cellmates.
(Guard: “Chow time’s up!” The inmates leave, walking single file.)
William Bennett Turner teaches First Amendment courses at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of Figures of Speech: First Amendment Heroes and Villains.