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‘We Steal Secrets’ Documentary Focuses on Personalities of Assange, Manning Over Significance of WikiLeaks

Film director Alex Gibney

Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney held a special screening for his new documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, in Washington, DC, on May 21. Gibney also participated in a question and answer session after the film that was moderated by POLITICO‘s Josh Gerstein.

The opening of the film charts the rise of WikiLeaks—why editor-in-chief Julian Assange was “obsessed” with secrets, how the organization took on bank corruption in Iceland and who worked together to release the “Collateral Murder” video showing a 2007 Apache helicopter attack that killed two Reuters employees in Iraq. The expansion of the surveillance state after the September 11th attacks and the rise of what William Arkin and Dana Priest explored with their “Top Secret America” project provides a bit of context.

Pfc. Bradley Manning, who provided information to WikiLeaks, is introduced through what he said in his chats with hacker and government informant Adrian Lamo. Lines from the chat are typed across the screen. It becomes apparent that Lamo invited Manning to confide in him.

The film highlights Lamo’s decision to turn Manning into federal authorities, how he was viewed by others in the military, who he was socializing with in Boston, how he considered becoming a woman and some of the mental issues he was confronting while stationed as an intelligence analyst in FOB Hammer in Iraq.

Chat logs, suggestions and descriptions of Manning’s outbursts in the military are not particularly endearing to whatever contribution he has made to global society as a whistleblower, but Gibney never outright suggests that Manning’s mental health issues led him to leak classified information. He does include chat logs that show how Manning challenged the handing over of detainees to the Iraqi Federal Police, who would be tortured, because they had done nothing wrong and were just opponents of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Manning’s arrest and his confinement at Quantico are highlighted as well, with Gibney taking the story of Manning all the way up to his court martial.

In the second half of the film, Gibney broaches the issue of the sexual allegations that Assange has faced. It focuses on what led individuals that had worked with him to become alienated. His personality and ego, according to Gibney, along with a desire to keep his own secrets while trying to force the release of secrets from government and corporations, transform him into a character that drags WikiLeaks downward. And, as the film comes to an end, arguments are introduced that one of the downsides of WikiLeaks for Manning was not being able to communicate with the organization and explain what he was doing so he could not feel isolated. Loneliness is apparently the hallmark of a whistleblower and, as this can make one unstable, WikiLeaks bears some level of responsibility for not being able to comfort Manning.

As someone who has extensively covered the story of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, there are multiple aspects of the film that happen to be misleading, disingenuous or seem to be the product of a director who has an axe to grind. [cont’d.]

CommunityThe Dissenter

‘We Steal Secrets’ Documentary Focuses on Personalities of Assange, Manning Over Significance of WikiLeaks

Film director Alex Gibney (Creative Commons-licensed Photo by azipaybarah)

Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney held a special screening for his new documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, in Washington, DC, on May 21. Gibney also participated in a question and answer session after the film that was moderated by POLITICO‘s Josh Gerstein.

First, the title reinforces widespread perceptions created by the United States government that the WikiLeaks organization is out to “steal” secrets. Gibney has claimed that the title is “ironic.” Actually, the US government steals secrets. Former NSA director Michael Hayden says this in the film, but this aspect of US government operations takes up only a few seconds of the film. He does not explore how US government agencies are actually the ones engaged in stealing so the “irony” does not come through at all.

The opening of the film charts the rise of WikiLeaks—why editor-in-chief Julian Assange was “obsessed” with secrets, how the organization took on bank corruption in Iceland and who worked together to release the “Collateral Murder” video showing a 2007 Apache helicopter attack that killed two Reuters employees in Iraq. The expansion of the surveillance state after the September 11th attacks and the rise of what William Arkin and Dana Priest explored with their “Top Secret America” project provides a bit of context.

Pfc. Bradley Manning, who provided information to WikiLeaks, is introduced through what he said in his chats with hacker and government informant Adrian Lamo. Lines from the chat are typed across the screen. It becomes apparent that Lamo invited Manning to confide in him.

The film highlights Lamo’s decision to turn Manning into federal authorities, how he was viewed by others in the military, who he was socializing with in Boston, how he considered becoming a woman and some of the mental issues he was confronting while stationed as an intelligence analyst in FOB Hammer in Iraq.

Chat logs, suggestions and descriptions of Manning’s outbursts in the military are not particularly endearing to whatever contribution he has made to global society as a whistleblower, but Gibney never outright suggests that Manning’s mental health issues led him to leak classified information. He does include chat logs that show how Manning challenged the handing over of detainees to the Iraqi Federal Police, who would be tortured, because they had done nothing wrong and were just opponents of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Manning’s arrest and his confinement at Quantico are highlighted as well, with Gibney taking the story of Manning all the way up to his court martial.

In the second half of the film, Gibney broaches the issue of the sexual allegations that Assange has faced. It focuses on what led individuals that had worked with him to become alienated. His personality and ego, according to Gibney, along with a desire to keep his own secrets while trying to force the release of secrets from government and corporations, transform him into a character that drags WikiLeaks downward. And, as the film comes to an end, arguments are introduced that one of the downsides of WikiLeaks for Manning was not being able to communicate with the organization and explain what he was doing so he could not feel isolated. Loneliness is apparently the hallmark of a whistleblower and, as this can make one unstable, WikiLeaks bears some level of responsibility for not being able to comfort Manning.

As someone who has extensively covered the story of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, there are multiple aspects of the film that happen to be misleading, disingenuous or seem to be the product of a director who has an axe to grind.

In the End, Assange Refused to Grant Gibney an Interview

Gibney recounts in the film that he tried “over many months to get an on-camera interview with Assange.” He says, “After meetings and emails, I was finally summoned to the Norfolk mansion for a 6-hour negotiation. But Julian wanted money.” He states that Assange said the market rate for an interview with him was $1 million for an interview or he wanted Gibney to “spy” in his “other interviews and report back to him.”

This makes it seem like Assange demanded $1 million or else he would not appear in the film. As the New York Times noted in a correction, “While [Gibney] says that he rejected the demands, and that the market rate for an interview was $1 million, he does not specifically say that he rejected a demand from Mr. Assange for a $1 million fee for an interview.” Also, the “spying,” according to WikiLeaks, which claims to have a recording of a meeting with Gibney, was a request to inform Assange of any details he might come across related to the United States’ investigation into WikiLeaks.

A “Most Wanted Leaks” list compiled by WikiLeaks is presented as an effort to “bait whistleblowers.” Cast in this manner, audiences might think WikiLeaks was doing something wrong, but WikiLeaks was committing no crime by compiling a list of documents or recordings it thought deserved to be in the public record.

It was not only put together by WikiLeaks. This tweet from May 15, 2009, shows the organization accepted nominations. These apparently came from human rights groups, lawyers, historians, journalists and activists. As highlighted in the film, it reinforces arguments military prosecutors have made that this is evidence the organization “solicits” leaks in order to criminalize the organization. Nothing in the film indicates that Gibney is aware of this.

Gibney made the decision that he would show the allegations against Assange were not ridiculous. There is nothing wrong with that, except the people who speak about the allegations are providing hearsay. He highlights a torn condom that was pictured in a Swedish police report released to the press. What Gibney neglects to mention is “two forensic laboratories were unable to find conclusive evidence of Mr Assange’s DNA” on this condom, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. (more…)

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."