In his director’s statement, Oscar winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney says that he was initially attracted to the story of Julian Assange and his “David and Goliath story: one man, armed only with a computer, against the world”. However, what he uncovers in the making of his documentary is much more than simply one man’s story. We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks reveals a complex web of truths and lies, involving many other players.
In his clear, chronological history of Wikileaks’ conception, Gibney begins with Assange, the Melbourne teenage hacker with the tag “Mendax”. In 1995, Assange pleads guilty to 25 charges of hacking. Among other things, he is believed to be one of those responsible for having hacked into the computers of the Pentagon USAF 7th Command Group in 1989. From 2006, Assange is editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, an electronic “drop box” where people can drop secrets anonymously, without fear of having their identity exposed. “We try hard to not know who our sources are.” Thus, many unjust and illegal corporate and government activities are exposed and investigated, without the whistleblowers being identified.
Then, in 2010, an anonymous soldier begins to feed classified documents to WikiLeaks. These include the “Collateral Murder” video of a 2007 Baghdad air strike, video of the 2009 Granai air strike in Afghanistan, 250,000 US diplomatic cables and 500,000 army reports, later known as the Iraq War logs and the Afghan War logs. Although the New York Times is complicit in the 2010 publication of the original classified information, the newspaper withdraws its support after Private Bradley Manning is identified and charged with a variety of offences including treason.
Meanwhile, Assange is facing extradition to Sweden to face charges of sexual offences against two women. Convinced that this is a ploy to extradite him to the US, in 2012 he seeks and is granted political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he still resides.
By this stage in the film, Gibney’s interviews with Assange’s former WikiLeaks colleagues, including his two Swedish accusers, have definitely altered one’s perception of the man and his situation. Just as he created WikiLeaks, has he also destroyed it? While Assange appears to be suffering from hubris, it is Bradley Manning whose situation evokes most sympathy.
A slight, effeminate man, whose sergeant recommends three times that he not be deployed, Manning is nevertheless posted to Iraq in 2009. Already clearly distressed by his gender-identity crisis, this insomniac “computer nerd” now finds himself “actively involved in something I was against”. Because of his highly emotional state, Manning’s superiors take away his gun, but not his intelligence clearance, allowing him unrestricted access to sensitive classified information.
Unfortunately, Manning has developed an online relationship with Adrian Lamo, a fellow hacker. When he confides to Lamo what he has done, Lamo goes to the FBI. Manning’s subsequent imprisonment and alleged torture is clearly a politically motivated act of vengeance. Manning is “the real risktaker, the real whistleblower”, yet this “broken soul” appears to have become the recipient of the abusive behaviour that he sought to expose.
By the end of the film, one has an abundance of sympathy for Manning. Especially when Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, candidly admits that “we steal secrets”. It is estimated that the US government monitors 60,000 telephone calls and emails per second. Yet Manning faces the death penalty for what he has done. Gibney poses the question, “Was it not once considered patriotic to stand up to your government when you know it’s wrong?”
Manning’s trial commenced on June 3. And now we have Edward Snowden blowing another security whistle. The case continues.
We Steal Secrets opens for general release in Sydney on July 4. How’s that for timing!