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.
What About All the Questions Around Misconduct by Swedish Police in Handling Sexual Allegations Against Assange?
The misconduct of Swedish police in handling the case does not enter into the film at all, even though this is a prime factor in Assange’s decision to resist being extradited to Sweden. For that information, viewers will have to view the Australian documentary produced by Four Corners called, “Sex, Lies & Julian Assange.” Swedish defense lawyer for Assange, Per Samuelson, appears in the film asking why the Swedish police leaked contents of his interview and confirmed his name to the press when Assange specifically asked that they not do this. He asks why the case was dropped and then reopened.
Gibney incorrectly states in his film that, “Prosecutors permitted Assange to leave Sweden on condition that he reappear for questioning.” When he left Sweden, there would have been no reason why he would have to reappear. According to journalist Andrew Fowler, “On September 15th, the prosecutor told Assange he was permitted to leave Sweden. Assange, back in England, would later offer to return within a month. The Swedish Authorities said too late – a second warrant had already been issued for his arrest.” He also fails to note that there is an internationally recognized process that would have allowed the Swedish authorities to interview Assange on the sexual allegations by now so they could decide whether to charge him, but the authorities insist on having him in their custody, which has also factored into Assange’s decision to resist extradition.
Then, there’s this section of the film, where Gibney says, “The testimony of the women raised another issue: did he refuse to use a condom because he wanted to make the women pregnant? Some pointed to the fact he had already fathered four children with different women around the world.” It sounds like something one would hear on Fox News (except not even Fox News has made these kinds of allegations). He shows a clip of Iain Overton, former executive editor of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who suggests, “This is a man who is elusive, he’s always flying around the place, he doesn’t have any roots and he’s got a number of kids. There may be some sort of primary impulse in him to want to reproduce, to want to have some sort of bedrock in his life. You know, this is the ultimate digital man and actually you can’t just live in a digital world.”
It is such a wildly lunatic suggestion to be making. It only serves to reinforce concerns that aspects of the film are intended to assassinate the character of Assange.
Creating the False Impression That Manning and Assange Communicated About the Leaks
No incontrovertible proof has been presented to suggest Assange and Manning were working together on the leaks. Gibney says Manning used Jabber to chat with Assange “about the progress of the uploads.” He indicates the Manning’s buddy list included an address “under a familiar name”—Julian Assange. However, what his source is for this critical detail is not apparent.
During the Article 32 hearing in December 2011, as I wrote in the book I co-authored with Greg Mitchell, Mark Johnson of the Computer Crime Investigation Unit testified that he had found “chat logs” between a Jabber user account, “dawgnetwork,” associated with Manning and a Jabber user account, “pressassociation,” associated with Julian Assange. The account associated with Assange had once been associated with “Nathaniel Frank.” The chats had been deleted but were uncovered in unallocated space. They contained an exchange that mentioned an upload, probably of classified information, on March 5, 2010. But, this was far from proof that the person using the “Nathaniel Frank” account had been Assange.
In fact, on February 28 of this year, Manning stated in military court:
Almost immediately after submitting the aerial weapons team video and the rules of engagement documents I notified the individuals in the WLO IRC to expect an important submission. I received a response from an individual going by the handle of ‘ox’ ’office’– at first our conversations were general in nature, but over time as our conversations progressed, I assessed this individual to be an important part of the WLO.
Due to the strict adherence of anonymity by the WLO, we never exchanged identifying information. However, I believe the individual was likely Mr. Julian Assange [he pronounced it with three syllables], Mr. Daniel Schmidt, or a proxy representative of Mr. Assange and Schmidt.
As the communications transferred from IRC to the Jabber client, I gave ‘office’ and later ‘pressassociation’ the name of Nathaniel Frank in my address book, after the author of a book I read in 2009. [emphasis added]
Manning thought Assange could be using this account to talk to him, but he did not know for certain.
In at least one instance, messages between Manning and Lamo appear on screen and create a conversation for the viewer that never occurred. Lamo types “keep typing <3.” This comes after Manning has poured his heart out, describing personal problems he is having, but this message from Lamo was actually sent because Lamo wanted to know more information after Manning wrote, “Hilary [spc] Clinton, and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and finds an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format to the public.”
Bradley Manning’s Supervisor Shares Details Given in Closed Session of Manning’s Article 32 Hearing
Additionally, Gibney managed to interview Spc. Jihrleah Showman, who was a supervisor of Manning when he was stationed at FOB Hammer. She shares details about an incident that did not come out in his Article 32 hearing because the defense convinced the investigative officer to close the hearing.
I was off shift and I had to come in to find something that he should have been able to find, and he was pacing back and forth saying smart comments to me, and I blatantly said: “Manning, how about you fix your shit before you try to fix mine?” And he screamed and punched me in the face, while I was sitting down. My adrenalin immediately hit overload. I stood up, pushed my chair back. He continued to try to fight me but I put him in, you know, what UFC would call ‘guillotine’ and, you know, pulled him on the floor and laid on top of him and pinned his arms, you know, beside his head. At that time, I can’t believe that he’d mess with me. I literally had 15-inch biceps. I was the last person he probably should have punch.
His defense lawyer, David Coombs, argued if the testimony was given in open court it could prejudice Manning. It would have been appropriate to highlight this in the film, especially since in retrospect one wonders if the military approved of her participation in the documentary.
Overall, the film makes the choice to be about the personalities of Assange and Manning rather than a film that truly explores what it has been like for those involved in the release of over a half million documents to be targeted by the most powerful country in the world.
WikiLeaks forced state secrets revealing corruption, crimes, fraud, misconduct, etc, into the open for the world to see, but, rather than telling a lesser known story about the backlash led by the US government against the organization, Gibney opts to highlight Manning’s struggle with his gender identity and how Assange’s egotistical personal battles have been a drag on WikiLeaks, which have been covered extensively by establishment media.
A reporter with the Washington Examiner at the end of the screening said to Gibney she thought the film was “about a lot of awfully troubled people.” She asked Gibney if he learned anything about human nature from making the film because many of the characters in the film all appeared to have personal and psychological issues.
This reaction is likely to be a common one among Americans who see the film. That is unfortunate, because if this is what they walk away with, they are unlikely to appreciate the contributions to humanity that both Manning and WikiLeaks have made. They are not likely to grasp the extent of the secrecy state in America and the nobility of WikiLeaks’ efforts to confront it and continue to operate, even while under a secret grand jury investigation.
WikiLeaks had a tremendous impact on journalism. It has inspired other news organizations to begin to consider how to operate their own leak submission portals. It would have been worthwhile to broach this aspect. Unfortunately, none of this appears in the documentary.
What audiences get instead—from a director who has made excellent documentaries like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side—is an unsatisfactory film that appears to unpack every human flaw of Assange because he would not appear in the documentary. Manning’s story serves to take off the edge created by some of the spitefulness in the sections on Assange, but it is impossible to escape the reality that Gibney wants viewers to see that Assange is much more of a scoundrel than a hero.
Here’s annotated transcript of the documentary.