‘We Steal Secrets’: The new film about WikiLeaks infuriates WikiLeaks

A new documentary about WikiLeaks has put the transparency organisation up in arms.

Alex Gibney
Alex Gibney is the director of a recently released film about WikiLeaks that has sparked some controversey [AP]

Every documentary filmmaker begins with deciding on the story to be told, and, then, on how to sustain audience interest.

If your goal is to inform the public or take a stand on an important issue by explaining its origins and exposing wrongdoers, then, you go one way. If your goal is to entertain and shroud your motives by exploring murky personality contradictions, you go another.

We Steal Secrets, veteran filmmaker Alex Gibney’s latest documentary (or is it a docudrama?), was skillfully made with the backing of a major media company. It tries to do both.

Ironically, that company, Comcast-Universal, owners of NBC, is at the same time having a major success with another movie, Fast and Furious 6, glamorising a criminal gang that relies on speedy cars. 

You could say that WikiLeaks, the subject of We Steal Secrets, also began with a fury – a fury against war and secrecy, and was moving as fast as it could using speedy online postings to challenge media complacency in the digital realm.

Now, it is being ganged up on by a media that invariably builds you up before tearing you down.

Whistleblowing on trial

The docu-tract uses slick graphics to creatively report on the origins and impact of WikiLeaks, the online whistleblower collective, but then, for “balance” and perhaps to pre-empt any criticisms of any bias, especially too much ideological sympathy, opened the tap on endless criticisms by Wiki-dissidents who have turned on founder Julian Assange, as well as the pathetic patriot hacker-turned-informant who ratted out Manning.

The movie revels in all the negatives that surround him, and his chief and gutsy leaker, Private First Class Bradley Manning, who is now being tried tried in a case that could land him behind bars for life under the 1917 Espionage Act.

Bradley Manning’s military trial begins

On June 1, more than one thousand Manning supporters rallied at the Virginia base at which he is being held. His trial, which began June 3, featured testimony from military prosecutor Captain Joe Morrow of the Army, who charged Manning with a dangerous crime.

“This is a case about a soldier who systematically harvested hundreds of thousands of classified documents and dumped them onto the internet, into the hands of the enemy – material he knew, based on his training, would put the lives of fellow soldiers at risk,” he said.

His defence lawyer David Combs challenged the government, contending, “He was selective. He had access to literally hundreds of millions of documents as an all-source analyst, and these were the documents that he released. And he released these documents because he was hoping to make the world a better place.”

Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights that also defends Manning explained: “The Manning trial is occurring in the context of perhaps the most repressive atmosphere for free press in recent memory. It was bad enough that the Obama administration prosecuted twice the number of whistleblowers than all prior administrations combined. Then it went after logs and records of journalists and publishers.”

Manning’s recent and widely unreported statement in Court defending his motives for making the secret documents public is not in the WikiLeaks film.

The film mentions, but does not explore, Manning’s claim that he offered his data first to mainstream newspapers, including the Washington Post, which showed no interest.

Their failure to publish the story was one of the reasons the soldier turned to WikiLeaks. And, it is also one of the reasons that validates WikiLeaks’ claim of having a journalistic mission in publishing the documents.

Juice and secrets

There are two battles underway. One is in the courtroom whose rules are controlled by the military. The other is a media war in the “court of public opinion” with news reports, online battles, websites and twitter feeds as well as high profile documentaries like We Steal Secrets.

So, the stakes are high, with every issue shrouded in controversy.

Inside Story Americas – Punishing the whistleblower?

It is surprising that the film’s very title, “We Steal Secrets” – what many might take as a Wiki-boast – was taken from an interview in the film itself; it was an admission by former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden about what the US government, not Wikileaks, is all about. Balancing his espionage boosterism in the movie is a former Republican Justice Department hack. 

It is very rare for an indy filmmaker to land interviews with top intelligence honchos. It is unclear who had had the juice to get this “get”, as major TV interviews are called in the news world. CIA directors don’t tend to make themselves available to films they don’t control or have a reason to believe they would be treated respectfully.

Supporters of Assange – like civil libertarians, media freedom groups, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, or critics such as Noam Chomsky – are conspicuously absent in the movie.

As a result, “We Are Secrets” seems more like a clever case for the prosecution than the defence.

Let slip the dogs of hype

The film has had a big promotional push and is already playing in three theatres in New York, a success that masks some of its editorial failings, including its in-your-face attempt at “fairness and balance”, the pretext the one-siders at Fox routinely use as their claim to credibility.

The promotional hype for the film initially made it seem like an endorsement of Assange until you read it closely: “Filmed with the startling immediacy of unfolding history, Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks details the creation of Julian Assange’s controversial website, which facilitated the largest security breach in US history. Hailed by some as a free-speech hero and others as a traitor and terrorist…”

So, there you are – the movie’s real question: is Assange a good guy or not? And what about Manning? Why did he do what he did? So, at the outset, Gibney leaves the political plane for a psychological, or even, a psychiatric one. He is out to personalise, and in the process de-politicise a very political issue, for what’s known in the news-biz as “character-based story telling”.

The mantra is stick with people, not their passions; individuals, not ideas.

Yes, there’s lots of information about the goals and methods of WikiLeaks in the film, but it comes in a subtext in a more Shakespearean frame: the rise and fall of idealists who turn into their opposites, or are using politics to work out twisted personal issues.

As a result, there is less time devoted to war crimes and information concealment. In its stead, more time is devoted to juicy stories about sex without condoms, cross-dressing, and gender conflicts that soften the focus.

Worthy reviews

The “worthy” appearance of investigation quickly turns into the nasty reality of exploitation with the focus on their subject’s flaws, not their bravery, a theme I am sure played well in the conservative board room at Comcast.

The Village Voice asks in its review, “is a strong point of view really such a bad thing? The movie may leave you feeling lost and confused. Fix. Please.”

Inside Story Americas – How does the US treat its whistleblowers?

The Washington Post seemed to celebrate its expose, not of government secrets, but of secret-hunter Assange, writing, “At best, Assange comes across as something of a noble jerk, a man who doesn’t care about embarrassing public figures who have done wrong. At worst, he comes across as a callous sociopath, someone who wouldn’t hesitate to publish unredacted details of military operations that might actually get people killed, only to lie about it after the fact by claiming that WikiLeaks had ‘systems’ in place to prevent potentially harmful disclosures. There weren’t, according to several seemingly knowledgeable individuals, including Assange’s former WikiLeaks colleagues.” (Doesn’t this reality of no “collateral damage” caused by the movie show how bogus and exaggerated the oft-repeated fears of many in the media and government were? The prosecutors are still claiming that it outted people at risk without naming any.)

The New York Times was also a bit perturbed – not too much, given the paper’s frequent trashing of Assange (after milking the secrets he gave them) – describing it as a “tale of absolutist ideals that seemed somehow to curdle and of private torment in search of an outlet with drastic results”. Again, the theme is the personal more than the political.

The message: You can’t trust anyone, much less anyone challenging power.

Assange and interviews

No wonder that Assange – who was not interviewed for this movie, perhaps sensing a hit job – has turned against the film. WikiLeaks even got its hands on a script before the film’s release and annotated it to challenge its veracity. You can read it on their website.

WikiLeaks says:

“The film portrays Manning’s alleged acts as failure of character rather than a triumph of conscience. The portrayal of Manning’s alleged relationship to WikiLeaks and to Assange is grossly irresponsible and suggests – erroneously and when evidence is to the contrary – that Assange may be guilty of conspiring with Bradley Manning to commit espionage or similar offences. The film buys into the current US government position that journalists and publishers can be prosecuted as co-conspirators alongside their alleged sources.

“This is a dangerous proposition for all journalists and media organizations – not just WikiLeaks. In the context of the US government’s attempts to prosecute journalists who communicate with confidential sources, Gibney’s film could have been an important and timely project. The film barely touches on the US investigation against WikiLeaks, never mentions the words ‘grand jury’, and trivializes the larger issues, perhaps because the film-maker could not secure an interview with Julian Assange?”

The film reports that Assange demanded millions for an interview – his way, no doubt, of mocking the big bucks behind the production. He knew they wanted a big confrontational Q&A with him, and wouldn’t play the game. 

He says there are two more WikiLeaks films on the way that he has cooperated with.

By setting up a good vs evil duality between Manning and Assange, the filmmakers can aspire to be virtuous by casting the sincere soldier in a positive light and the showman/activist in a negative one – again, so as to be perceived as “balanced” – but whose interest is served by dividing the man who distributed the message from the one who disclosed it?

It might be of some interest to know that this too is a replay of the Pentagon Papers story when critics of Daniel Ellsberg charged that he was getting all the glory while the man who actually expropriated the documents from the Rand Institute think tank, Tony Russo, like Manning, went to jail and was silenced.

The war against transparency

I have been impressed with Alex Gibney’s work. He is a talented pro, and this film is worth seeing (and dissecting). I also admire the daring of Manning and Assange who are faulted for being paranoid, but, given the propaganda and legal broadsides launched against them, you can understand why.

The Times even carried a style magazine puff piece on one of the movie’s executive producers, english socialite Jemima Khan, illustrated with lavish photo spreads. She had backed Assange until he defaulted on some of the bond money she put up and then, like others featured in We Steal Secrets turned on him. Here’s how she was described: “Jemima Khan may live the grand life of an English aristocrat, but behind the famous boyfriends and the important hair is a serious political journalist and a budding documentary film producer. Her latest project? Taking on WikiLeaks.”

“Important hair,”  come on!

Assange speaks from the Ecuador embassy

Remember when the US government sent thugs to break into Vietnam whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office looking for information with which to discredit him?

Making your whistleblowers appear weird and even crazy is an old technique used by the powerful against those who question power.

Kafka couldn’t have come up with a more byzantine legal process than the one that Manning faces (military justice is said to be for justice what military bands are for music). There are, for example, no official transcripts of the pre-trial legal proceedings available. Prominent journalists are calling for more access and transparency.

And while having Assange taking refuge in the Ecuador Embassy seems to many absurd, it is also a sign that there are people worldwide who respect and admire the work that WikiLeaks does.

We Steal Secrets is now a part of the defamation campaign that WikiLeaks is fighting, a campaign that has often put the whistleblower group at odds with the press whose freedom it champions.  

That press insists their approach to journalism is the only legitimate approach and loves to posture as credible while marginalising dissidents as not, especially if they can impugn their personalities.

So, first, there were the newspapers, who initially rejected the secrets of government abuse, and then reported them as wiki leaks, before repudiating Assange as less than a “real journalist”, as they apparently believe themselves to be.

Then, they collectively and arrogantly turned on him en masse.

At the same time, each day seems to bring new evidence not of WikiLeaks spying but government surveillance on an unprecedented scale. Will Glenn Greenwald, the lawyer-turned-blogger who exposed the top-secret PRISM snoop shop become the next Manning?

We will then need a new documentary about him because they too are now part of this contested political terrain.

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org and blogs at newsdissector.net. He is also an independent filmmaker. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org.