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Joe Biden has a decision to make about Julian Assange


Not long ago, I received a mysterious invitation to attend a briefing in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Reading between blocks of redacted text, I saw that it concerned the ongoing saga of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who is being held in a London prison while the British authorities decide what to do about an order that Assange be extradited to the US to face charges of hacking and espionage. “Your attendance will not be recorded,” it promised.

The briefing took place on a rainy Monday morning, at “Goals House,” a U.N.-backed development program that had temporarily taken over the Tavern on the Green restaurant. A small group of lawyers and media executives gathered in a well-appointed back room to listen to Gabriel Shipton, Assange’s half-brother. The presence of a booker for the Tucker Carlson Show (now “Tucker on X”), which has hosted Shipton and his father, underscored the ideological extremes that WikiLeaks’ supporters have engaged with as they try to liberate their embattled founder. 

In person, Shipton had none of his half-brother’s grandiosity. He was calm, soft-spoken, and direct. “Usually we’re campaigning on a press freedom angle,” he said. “This time is different. We’re now approaching it as a matter of foreign policy.” 

The Assange delegation had taken out a full-page ad in the print edition of the Washington Post signed by 64 Australian lawmakers. It called for the extradition order to be dropped and Assange to be released. The group, Shipton said, had asked for a meeting with the Washington Post’s editorial board, in hopes of changing their published view that Assange “is not a free press hero” and is “long overdue for personal accountability.” But the board refused to meet.

(Insider was able to verify Shipton’s account; the Post declined to comment.) Shipton, at the briefing, seemed ambivalent about talking out of school about the snub. It was a minor disclosure, but it crystallized the irony of the Australian effort on Assange’s behalf. Assange’s freedom now depended on the same kind of back-room diplomacy that he’d dedicated his career to disrupting.

For years, the Assange debate has been framed as a battle between press freedom and US national security. It has hinged on two questions: Is Assange a journalist? If not, does prosecuting him under the Espionage Act endanger legitimate journalists who receive and publish classified information as part of their jobs?

The DOJ is already intimating to us that they don’t consider him a journalist. It will be interesting to see how they spin that.

But now that Assange’s supporters have won a coalition of friends inside the Australian government, the question of his future is evolving into a diplomatic dispute between the US and a key ally in the effort to counter China’s emerging sphere of influence in the Pacific. The Washington Post can choose to ignore the will of the Australian people; the White House cannot. Anthony Albanese, Australia’s Labor Party prime minister, has said that while he has “some issues” with Assange’s conduct, he feels that Assange has been held for “too long” and that “nothing is served” by his ongoing detention; he has been in British custody for four years after the authorities picked him up and carried him out of the Ecuadorian embassy. The Assange issue is expected to be on the table during Albanese’s upcoming four-day visit to the US, which includes a state dinner hosted by President Joe Biden on October 25. 

“Our prime minister needs to see this as a test case for standing up to the US government,” MP Monique Ryan, part of the pro-Assange delegation, said at the New York briefing. “There are concerns among Australians about the AUKUS agreement, and whether we have any agency.”

If Albanese does press Assange’s case during his trip to Washington, it will present Biden with a hard choice: Refuse a request from a top ally or provoke the anger of the US intelligence community. In their eyes, Assange is a front for what Mike Pompeo called “a hostile non-state intelligence service,” a fugitive Russian asset whose voluminous disclosures put US-aligned personnel in harm’s way. In a bipartisan report, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that WikiLeaks had “actively sought, and played a key role in the Russian influence campaign” to swing the 2016 US election, and “very likely knew” that Russia was behind it.

Then there were the Vault 7 leaks, which exposed a vast swath of the C.I.A.’s custom hacking tools, or “offensive cyberweapons,” as they’re known. Initially, WikiLeaks held back the C.I.A.’s actual source code, but ultimately published hundreds of documents that contained it, rendering many of the agency’s hacking tools useless. In the case of Vault 7, WikiLeaks’ source turned out to be a disgruntled former C.I.A employee. But Assange’s apparent willingness to publish almost anything that any source provides raises fundamental questions about journalism in an age of state-sponsored hacking and high-volume leaks.

Caroline Kennedy, the US ambassador to Australia, has said “there absolutely could be a resolution,” to the Assange case, though she said the matter ultimately rests with the Justice Department. It isn’t impossible to imagine a deal that would have Assange plead guilty to the charge of hacking in exchange for the government dropping 17 Espionage Act charges, which the New York Times, Le Monde, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and El Pais have all said endanger working journalists. Assange could be released based on time served or be remanded to the custody of the authorities in his native Australia, as was David Hicks, another Australian, who the US military held for five years at Guantánamo.

In New York, Gabriel Shipton, Assange’s half-brother, declined to rule out the possibility of a plea deal. “What is the alternative?” he asked, referring to concerns raised by Assange’s lawyers about their 52-year-old client’s health and the risk of suicide. “Julian dies? Or he’s in prison for the rest of his life?”

Shipton was raised by John Shipton, Assange’s biological father. John was absent from Julian’s life beginning at age 3. Julian grew up apart from Gabriel and took the surname of Brett Assange, his stepfather. The film “Ithaka,” which Gabriel produced, explores the complexity of the family’s dynamics. John opens up about his reemergence in Julian’s adult life as a crusading activist but angrily declines to discuss his absence during Julian’s childhood.

Insider caught up with Shipton and Australian Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, another member of the delegation, a few days later for lunch in Washington. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity, with some author notes on context included in brackets.

Insider: Are you sympathetic to people who work for the US government and say: “This guy broke a lot of rules. He made our job a lot harder. He put our sources and methods at risk. We’re the good guys, and he screwed us. If that goes unpunished it will encourage further disclosures.” Does that hold any water?

Shipton: Look at the flip side. What was actually exposed? How did that reveal how these human institutions operate? This is the antagonistic relationship between institutions and journalists, right? I’m sure every institution would be, “Oh shit, we did something bad. Let’s classify that.”

Insider: It’s a bounded tension, and Assange broke the normal bounds of that tension. But you’re right — he did reveal some things that were important.

Shipton: We’ve heard in court from [Brig.] Gen. Robert Carr in Chelsea Manning’s trial — the Obama administration spent millions looking for harm that was caused by these leaks. And they couldn’t find any. They couldn’t find one person who came under physical harm.

Whish-Wilson: We’re talking about our defense personnel as well as yours that were involved in the Iraq conflict. The WikiLeaks disclosures show the risks that Iraqi civilians faced in that conflict. We know that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died in that conflict, if not more. I think there’s a fair public interest in asking: well, don’t their lives matter as well? So there’s a lot of sympathy out there for those disclosures as being the right thing to do. They led to the Iraqi parliament telling the US to pull out, and not renewing the status of forces agreement.

Insider: When did people in Australia start caring about the Assange case? How did you elevate this to the head-of-state-level as an issue?

Shipton: Julian has been demonized for many years. We had to get his story out there and educate the public directly. My father John has been going on the road around Australia for five years or so and going around the country, building an activist network.

Whish-Wilson: This might sound inflammatory, but the attempt to extradite Assange is not something I’d expect from the world’s exemplar of democracy but rather, from a totalitarian state. We have a case in Australia where an Australian journalist, Cheng Lei, is imprisoned in China on allegations of revealing state secrets. Espionage. Every time the Australian government raises this issue, the Chinese government puts out a statement about Julian Assange. And now you have an American journalist being held in Moscow. This is a slippery slope.

Journalism and its limits

Insider: I want to talk about whether Assange is a journalist. As a journalist I read the indictment and see that a lot of what’s charged under the Espionage Act is what I do, and what journalists generally do. Talking to people —

Whish-Wilson: — soliciting information —

Insider: — trying to obtain things. But then there’s the hacking charge. From where I sit, that’s something I would never do. It’s nothing my colleagues would do. If any of them did, they’d expect to go to jail for it if they got caught.

Shipton: We call the hacking charge ‘the PR charge.’ They revealed that charge initially. It only carries five years. And then after they got Julian out of the embassy, then they dropped the 17 Espionage Act counts. So they used the hacking charge to frame this whole thing. But what does the charge allege? It alleges that Julian was having a chat with Chelsea Manning about cracking a password hash so that Chelsea Manning could hide her identity. So it wasn’t even cracking into a system. Chelsea Manning already had access to the documents.

Insider: But wasn’t it a password hash to get Manning more access to a Pentagon system?

Shipton: No, that’s not what’s alleged. What’s alleged is that it’s a hash that would allow her to hide her identity. She already had access to the whole thing. And she’d already delivered most of it to WikiLeaks. [The indictment alleges that Assange tried to help Manning crack an encrypted password hash that, had they succeeded, could have given Manning the ability “to log onto computers under a username that did not belong to Manning.”]

Insider: But even that — I don’t think I would ever do that. If someone’s inside of a foreign government’s military system, and you’re transmitting information to them to assist them in hiding their tracks — if I did do that, it wouldn’t be journalism.

Gabriel Shipton

Gabriel Shipton, Julian Assange’s half-brother, traveled to the US with a delegation of Australian lawmakers to lobby for the WikiLeaks founder’s release.

John MacDougall/AFP via Getty

Shipton: How do you protect your sources? How do you encourage your sources to keep their identities secret?

Insider: That’s up to them.

Shipton: Would you say ‘call me from a public phone’? Or would you say ‘let’s use an encrypted messaging app’?

Insider: Sure, I’d have them use the encrypted app. But that’s different from helping them obtain information without revealing their identity to their own organization on their own organization’s internal systems.

Shipton: If it were true, what the government’s alleging, then journalists who encourage their sources to protect their identity using encryption or other methods — they could face problems down the track.

Insider: That strikes me as a slippery slope argument. I think you can draw a distinction between using an encrypted app to communicate with me and ‘here’s some advice on how to conceal your own identity on your own system, hide it from your own people.’

Shipton: By the way, the allegation also says that they failed.

Insider: Yes, I saw that. But a core part of the case that you’re making is that Julian is a journalist. The hacking charge and the Vault 7 disclosures make me skeptical about whether that label should apply.

Shipton: What about Vault 7?

Insider: I know Vault 7 isn’t charged in the indictment. But publishing the source code of another country’s offensive cyberweapons…

Shipton: Vault 7 was published differently. It wasn’t just put out there. It was more analysis than a straight dump. The thing with these hacking tools is that they were on the loose already. That was part of what embarrassed the CIA so much — that they’d lost control of these tools. What WikiLeaks and Julian did is point that out.

Whish-Wilson: Julian won the highest journalism award in Australia for the rules of engagement disclosures. That’s what he’s being extradited for.

Insider: Those were important disclosures. 

Whish-Wilson: The DOJ is already intimating to us that they don’t consider him a journalist. It will be interesting to see how they spin that. [The Justice Department declined to comment.]

Shipton: This premise that WikiLeaks is just dumping things and putting sources at risk is false. People who have worked with Julian saw him spending hours redacting documents. The State Department cables were released in full by WikiLeaks only after they were published by John Young from Cryptome. There’s a scene in Laura Poitras’s WikiLeaks movie where Julian is calling the State Department and trying to warn them that the cables have been posted in full, and that they might have a problem. [The unredacted cables were first published by John Young, who was able to access them due to a failure by WikiLeaks and the Guardian to adequately secure them. WikiLeaks was the first site to make the unredacted cables searchable and widely accessible.]

The DNC hack and the 2016 election

Insider: The US government has concluded that Assange assisted a foreign government in interfering with a US election.

Shipton: I don’t think that’s the case at all. The Mueller report — the unredacted Mueller report — vindicated Julian. [A less-redacted version of Robert Mueller’s report shows that the special counsel investigated WikiLeaks in connection with the leaked trove Democratic National Committee emails. They decided not to charge Assange.]

Insider: Well, it’s true that WikiLeaks published John Podesta’s emails during the Democratic National Convention in 2016.

Shipton: Yes. Certainly.

Insider: How is that not an attempt to interfere in a US election?

Shipton: The DNC actually sued WikiLeaks in the Southern District of New York. That judge in that case found that the information was actually in the public interest, and that what WikiLeaks revealed was actually corruption in the DNC, the DNC rigging the vote against Bernie Sanders. [Judge John Koeltl ruled that while WikiLeaks obtained the hacked documents from agents of the Russian Federation, their actions were protected under the First Amendment.]

Insider: But if you have reason to believe that information came from a hacking operation carried out by the Russian government, what do you do with it? It’s a hard decision.

Shipton: Good journalists look at information and ask if it’s in the public interest. If it is, what do you do with it? Some people ask instead, does it suit my political affiliation?

Insider: Or they ask, ‘who is my source and what is their motivation’?

Shipton: Why?

Insider: From where I sit, the identity of the source is the mix. In 2016 I got blind emails from some anonymous account in broken English offering what sounded like hacked materials. I asked them who they were, if they could even verify that they’re in this country.

Shipton: But no one ever said the DNC information is false.

Whish-Wilson: The business model of WikiLeaks is if the information is given to them, and it can be verified, then they owe it to their sources to publish it. They’ve said that if they were given a file on [Donald] Trump that they could verify, they’d publish that.

Insider: There are reports that WikiLeaks took the opposite approach when they received files about the Russian government.

Shipton: There are files about the Chinese government, the Russian government, the Syrian government. All of those are on WikiLeaks.

Insider: The reporting says WikiLeaks’ with Novaya Gazeta involved holding back a lot of material that would have embarrassed the Russian government.

Shipton: Well, I’d like to see that reporting. I haven’t seen it. This is something we’ve had to fight. A lot of people still have this in their mind, that Julian is responsible for Trump. So because he’s not perceived as a political ally, they think it’s okay for this Espionage Act prosecution to go forward. But this prosecution isn’t about him. It’s about what he released. The precedent affects us all.

Insider: What do you make of the claim that Assange does bear some responsibility for Trump’s election?

Shipton: What that release revealed is that Bernie Sanders was ahead in the polls. What about [then-FBI Director] James Comey? When do you say, oh, Hillary Clinton is responsible? At what point do you look back at your own party and say ‘hey, did we fuck up here’?

Insider: Is it possible that the DNC materials did come from the Russian government?

Shipton: Julian has been on the record saying that the source was not the Russian government.

Insider: But how could he possibly know who the ultimate source was?

Shipton: I can only take what he said. He’s said it wasn’t a state actor. I don’t know where they came from.

Insider: I’m not asking what you know, but what you think. There’s plenty from US intelligence agencies concluding that it was a Russian government operation that hacked these materials.

Shipton: Julian has the most knowledge about it. I have to go with what he says.

Insider: If it were the Russian government, why would they ever give him proof that it was?

Whish-Wilson: Unless he knows it was someone else.

Insider: We published stories based on a trove of documents from Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group earlier this year, with our German partners. The sources, as our story describes, claim to be Ukrainian hacker activists. We have no idea who they are. It’s very possible that the documents came from a state actor. Now, that’s a much easier call to make than the DNC emails. We’re not out on some limb because of the dynamics of the Ukraine conflict, and judgements that I happen to share about Prigozhin’s character and Putin’s character. But anonymous hack-and-leak publication is not a question that begins and ends with Assange. It will be a persistent question for journalists in years to come.

Whish-Wilson: Yes. As part of my senate work, I’ve looked at money laundering and other foreign investment issues. And it was put to me, during a TV program about the Panama Papers, that the release was from the CIA and intended to embarrass Russian oligarchs.

Insider: Putin has alleged the same thing. It’s plausible. Hard to disprove.

Whish-Wilson: Who knows. I just said I don’t care. Whoever got it, it didn’t involve me. There’s evidence here of a parallel universe of money laundering. I’m going to comment on it because it’s an important issue.

Insider: The Guardian reported that there were talks to exfiltrate Assange to Russia from the Ecuadorian embassy. Is that accurate?

Shipton: False.

Insider: That never happened?

Shipton: No, no, no. I think there was a suggestion by the Ecuadorians but Julian said “no way.”

Insider: So the Ecuadorians were talking to the Russians about it, but Julian wasn’t interested?

Shipton: I don’t know if there was communication between the Ecuadorians and the Russians. I recall that there was a suggestion. But Julian said no.

Insider: Why not?

Shipton: Julian is extremely principled. He also had an offer from Trump that was communicated by Dana Rohrabacher that if he revealed the source of the DNC material, he’d get a pardon. And he refused.

Insider: Rohrabacher has denied that.

Shipton: Jennifer Robinson, Julian’s lawyer, issued a statement that she was present at the meeting and this is what happened. That statement was used in court proceedings in London.


Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, right, was part of a delegation of Australian officials in the US to press for the release of Julian Assange.

Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, right, was part of a delegation of Australian officials in the US to press for the release of Julian Assange.

Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

The vibe in Washington

Insider: How have things gone for you here in Washington?

Whish-Wilson: On [Capitol] Hill, we saw sympathy across party lines. There was surprise that we’d come together as a bipartisan group, and that an official who was embarrassed by the WikiLeaks cables was now lobbying for Julian’s release. Some were quite horrified when they found out who else we’d met, Congressman Marjorie Taylor-Greene, for example.

Shipton: Overall, positive. The meetings we had with the administration, I can’t really comment on those, but they didn’t go so well. [A State Department spokesperson confirmed that there was a meeting with the delegation. The Justice Department did not immediately return a request for comment.]

Insider: Are you optimistic that this will be resolved without a trial?

Shipton: I’m personally not. I’m optimistic about the support in Congress, but I guess there are some people inside the administration who want to keep pushing this. [Secretary of State] Antony Blinken has said publicly that Julian is accused of serious crimes and we’re going to keep pursuing him. At the moment, it just looks like revenge.

Insider: I’m not sure Biden is personally hellbent on revenge. If Biden were to do what you wanted, he’d get hell from a large group of people who he has to work with every day.

Shipton: I’m convinced that the constituency that is against his prosecution is much larger.

Whish-Wilson: If you extradite Julian and bring him here, it becomes a trial about press freedoms. We’ve already had the editors of key newspapers write to the DOJ and ask them to drop this based on First Amendment principles. Why would you want to have a messy international trial on the issue of whether, essentially, the DOJ is criminalizing journalism? As a politician, I can’t see any upside. You might win, but you still lose.

Shipton: If he’s extradited, there will be a cost. There will be a global outcry and there will be a domestic backlash from the press.

Insider: Is there a part of Assange that would welcome a trial? Wouldn’t this give him a massive stage to air his views and a public showdown with the bear he’s been poking for a decade?

Shipton: We’re talking about someone who hasn’t seen a blade of grass for eleven years. He is strong but he is not invincible.

Mattathias Schwartz is chief national security correspondent at Insider. He can be reached at



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