Controversial personalities explored in WikiLeaks doc ‘We Steal Secrets’
I’m a combative person—I like crushing bastards.” So says Julian Assange, founder of the international whistle-blowing website, WikiLeaks, in Alex Gibney’s investigative documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. Not exactly the definitive film on the WikiLeaks phenomenon, Gibney’s doc functions as a character study of some of the complex personalities involved in the complicated issue of national security vs. the public’s right to know.
From a young Australian geek hacker and anti-nuke activist, Assange parlayed his notion that “Information should be free” into a website devoted to exposing private political maneuvering to public scrutiny. Soliciting items from anonymous tipsters through its secure software, WikiLeaks prides itself on not knowing who its sources are. Denounced as a “traitor” giving aid to “the enemy,” and praised as a hero working for the greater good, the enigmatic Assange wryly describes his work as, “Lights on—rats out.”
What put WikiLeaks on the map was the release in 2010 of an anonymously obtained video of a 2007 air strike by U.S. helicopters against forces on the ground—many unarmed civilians—in Baghdad, Iraq. Titled “Collateral Murder” by Assange, it made him a “rock star” overnight in antiwar circles. Portrayed as equal parts idealism and hubris, Assange is so eager to get out a wealth of subsequent documents called the Afghan War Log, he doesn’t have time to delete all the names of sensitive allies on the ground. (Although the Iraqi War Log that followed was fully redacted for publication.)
Meanwhile, Pfc Bradley Manning, a young, much-bullied Army intelligence analyst with gender-identity issues, finds himself in Iraq “with a bunch of hyper-masculine, trigger-happy rednecks.” Deeply disturbed by the U.S. mission in Iraq, he admits to sending thousands of documents to WikiLeaks to an Internet hacker he meets online, Adrian Lamo—who ultimately turns him in to the FBI.
Assange’s star quickly tumbles with an accusation of sexual assault in Sweden that his outraged supporters are certain is a set-up by his enemies. Gibney tries to investigate from all angles, including an interview with one of the two women involved, and while nothing in his film is absolutely conclusive (except for the brutal way these women have been reviled online), Gibney follows Assange’s logical attempts to divorce his personal life from the impact and reputation of WikiLeaks.
It should be noted that Gibney was unable to interview either Assange or Manning. Their appearances in this film are archival (Manning’s words are reconstructed from his emails), while their stories are supplied by former WikiLeaks honchos and employees, colleagues, politicians, military strategists and journalists.
Everyone seems to agree that the national security calamity predicted should this information come to light hasn’t happened. It’s kind of discouraging how little the U.S. government, and, by extension, the military (or vice versa), has apparently changed its method of doing business since these exposés have become public. That sanctioned “collateral murder,” torture, and detention without trial, among other abuses, are not only illegal and immoral, but continue to be standard operation procedure, indicate how little reforming effect these revelations have had domestically.
On the other hand, Wiki partisans in the film argue that the release of the War Logs led directly to the U.S. (finally) pulling out of Iraq. And the publication of diplomatic cables suggesting corruption in high places prompted the ongoing “Arab Spring” in Egypt, Tunisia, and some Middle Eastern nations where protestors against the old regimes are surging toward political democracy. In this respect, Assange’s “crushing bastards” philosophy appears to be bearing fruit.
Gibney pays attention to the way the U.S. government has positioned Assange to be the fall guy, using his apparent personal fall from grace to discredit WikiLeaks and divert scrutiny away from the secrets his group exposed. Ditto the way the military has isolated whistleblower Manning as an unstable rogue rather than address the issues raised over how it operates. (Gibney points out there has been no counter move to investigate Army policy that allowed someone so “unstable” to have access to so much sensitive information.)
This complicated story is not over yet, but Gibney’s film serves as a useful scorecard for keeping the players straight as the WikiLeaks saga plays out.
WE STEAL SECRETS:
THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS
★★★ (out of four)
A film by Alex Gibney. A Focus Features release. Rated R. 130 minutes.