Published on
Common Dreams

A Review of Alex Gibney's 'We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks'

They labeled me an enemy of the state, conducted character assassination, engaged in the politics of personal destruction. - Thomas Drake, NSA Whistleblower

Interviewed twice, Drake was not in Gibney's film.

After transcribing the last pre-trial session of the legal proceedings against Bradley Manning at Fort Meade on Tuesday, I attended a viewing of Alex Gibney's latest film, "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks" in Washington, D.C..

For a year and a half, I've produced the only available transcripts of Manning's secret prosecution. I've provided some of only analysis available on his case, a forensically reconstructed appellate exhibit list, witness profiles, and a searchable database of the available court record.

Because of my familiarity with the proceedings and investigative work, I've been able to 'un-redact' a selection of court documents, which I have subsequently published on my web site.

I have also been at work compiling a database, to launch shortly, containing a data map of the U.S. Government's investigation of WikiLeaks-- the largest criminal probe ever conducted into a publisher and its sources.

I was recently awarded a generous grant by the Freedom of the Press Foundation for my work covering Bradley Manning's upcoming trial, which begins June 3. My work was short listed for the 2013 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, the most prestigious journalism prize in the United Kingdom-- for which I am unspeakably grateful.

I am aware of the escalating war by the U.S. Government on the First Amendment. As a result of my work as an independent journalist covering the Global War on Terror; the 2011 revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa; and my extramural activities helping to organize the original occupation of Wall Street in New York and five other American cities on September 17, 2011, the U.S. Government and private security contractors attempted to falsely link me and a campaign finance reform group, which I helped found, to Al Qaeda and 'cyber-terrorists'.

I subsequently became party to a lawsuit brought against the Obama administration for Section 1021(b)(2) of the National Defense Authorization Act FY2012 with author Chris Hedges and five other plaintiffs. Section 1021(b)(2) allows for the indefinite detention without trial or charges of anyone, who by mere suspicion alone are deemed by the Executive to be terrorist sympathizers.

My testimony and submissions were central to U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest's ruling granting a permanent injunction on Section 1021(b)(2). In June, the 2nd Circuit is expected to rule on the Department of Justice's midnight appeal of Forrest's September 2012 injunction.

Transcripts not Hollywood Scripts

We need public transcripts and in depth reporting on the prosecution of Bradley Manning-- a trial with wide ramifications on the First Amendment-- a trial which is being conducted in secrecy and managed obscurity by the Military District of Washington in the U.S. Army's First Judicial Circuit.

The public needs an accurate accounting of the "facts" concerning the Manning's prosecution and the criminal probe into Julian Assange and WikiLeaks-- certainly more than we need Hollywood scripts by documentarians, like Gibney, or the former editors of major newspapers, like the Guardian and the New York Times, who haven't bothered to show up to the legal proceedings, which are underway for more than a year and a half-- proceedings, I might add, which are now the subject of their creative fancy and economic enterprise.

If "We Steal Secrets" or the subsequent Q & A with director, Alex Gibney, revealed anything, it's that the filmmaker is quite uninformed about the trial of Bradley Manning. He can barely speak on the topic or on that of the largest criminal probe of a publisher and its source in history.

Which begs the question: What was Gibney relying on for his costly 'string of pearls' reportage, beyond his hackneyed entourage of unexamined glory-boats, bearing witness on the silver screen to their privileged punditry-- that is, talking about themselves amongst themselves for their own benefit-- certainly not the public's-- or future generations?

Losing the Plot

Gibney's dramatic ploy is to pit Manning's plight in obscurity against Assange's fame. "All Julian had left was his celebrity," narrates Gibney. Yet, the feeding frenzy of speculation and gossip about Assange was and is the default setting of the majority of our established press-- too impoverished, cowardly, or lazy to cover the content of the leaks or related legal cases substantially or critically.

If Assange avoids the media-- including Gibney's Hollywood documentary-- he is characterized as elusive and cowardly. If he engages, he's a media whore. Which is it? And at what point does the established media, including Gibney himself, take responsibility for their reckless disregard for Manning and their patronizing views of the public's capacity for knowledge and hard news?

'Wanton Publication'

Gibney's notion of Assange as "transparency radical," unversed in the "ethics of journalism"-- or the world-- and the WikiLeaks organization as a ragtag team of foolish and idealistic nobodies, belies an incredulity about the shifting political and socio-economic landscape of the Internet age.

If Gibney thinks he serves Manning's cause maligning and scapegoating Assange or WikiLeaks, I can tell him, he doesn't. In fact, Gibney's characterizations are at the heart of prosecution's case against Manning for the newfangled offense of "Wanton Publication."

Incidentally, the phrase, the "ethics of journalism", was similarly employed by the spokesperson for the Military District of Washington, while lecturing the press pool about the audio leak of Manning's recent statement onto the Internet. "This media operation center is a privilege not a requirement," said the MDW spokesperson, "Privileges can be taken away."

When I asked the 'legal subject matter expert', how MDW defined the "ethics of journalism," he would not speak to the question.

The language of "wantonly cause to be published on the internet intelligence belonging to the U.S. government, having knowledge that intelligence published on the internet is accessible to the enemy" is an unprecedented charge in military law, and not tied to an existing federal criminal violation or punitive article of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Manning's defense calls it, a "made up offense." Gibney doesn't appear to know it exists.

"Wantonly cause to be published" does not mean that Manning has to be the proximate publisher. The offense, however, is intended to proscribe and chill whistleblowers and publishers empowered by the Internet's low cost, accessible means of distribution-- something any Hollywood director today understands.

Unlike the selective "cooking" of chunks of information by old media, the offense of "Wanton Publication" interdicts the release of large datasets, which can be subsequently mined or modeled for revelations by digital journalists and organizations like WikiLeaks.

The former Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs at the Department of State, Phillip J. Crowley, calls Manning's leaks "industrial scale". In reality, Manning's leaks are proportionate to the information age he lives in. Crowley says elsewhere:


I support more transparency, but the military ceases to function if any #Army private gets to decide what should remain classified.

— Philip J. Crowley (@PJCrowley) February 23, 2013


What is unsaid in Gibney's film is how democratic governance ceases to function when bureaucrats arbitrarily over-classify terabytes of information hiding government waste, fraud, abuse, and crimes.

Over the prosecution's objection, defense sought and obtained the testimony of Professor Yochai Benkler, co-director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, as an expert witness on WikiLeaks, new forms of digital journalism, and the internet. Coombs said Benkler will testify that WikiLeaks was viewed as a respected journalistic organization at the time of the charged offenses and "not viewed as a terrorist organization aiding the enemy."

"In 2009 and 2010 WikiLeaks received numerous awards," said Coombs, "and prior to the charged leaks, was a legitimate journalistic organization, albeit not mainstream." Coombs also said that Benkler will testify that "between 2006 and 2010, WikiLeaks published on a wide range of topics and various governments, corporate malfeasance and ineptitude, and was not bent against the United States and our way of life."

Benkler's testimony goes straight to defending Manning against the 'reckless disregard' language found in "Wanton Publication" and against the charge of aiding the enemy.

"News organizations take steps to verify-- and harm-minimization," said Coombs, "Once [WikiLeaks] received [the information] they collaborated with media partners to ensure the control and safe release." "These media partners put their own teams to work. They selected information that was appropriate, and WikiLeaks published the same information," said Coombs.

Aiding the Enemy

Gibney's exercise discovers nothing, and reveals nothing. His tabloid motion graphic is a regurgitation of stock footage, unsubstantiated innuendo, and unexamined allegation. The ominous and unprecedented prosecution of Manning unfolding in a soundproofed room in the confined wasteland of Fort Meade is a trite remark in the dark space surrounding Gibney's frame.

The charge of "Wanton Publication" dovetails into the more grievous charge of aiding the enemy and is intended to chill whistleblowers, journalist, and publishers alike. Said another way, the language of "wantonly cause to be published on the internet intelligence belonging to the U.S. government, having knowledge that intelligence published on the internet is accessible to the enemy" is linked by "knowledge" to "giv[ing] intelligence to the enemy, through indirect means [or via the WikiLeaks website]."

Prosecutors argue that the so-called "bin Laden evidence" proves their case against Manning for "Wanton Publication", because it confirms that the information was made "accessible to the enemy" on the Internet. They also argue that the "bin Laden" evidence supports their case for aiding the enemy, because it proves receipt via the WikiLeaks web site.

Jennifer Elsea, a legislative attorney who provides policy and legal analysis to committees and members of the U.S. Congress writes that aiding the enemy is "one of two offenses under the U.C.M.J. that apply to 'any person,' rather than those subject to the UCMJ, "which raises the possibility that civilians who are not connected with the military could be similarly charged." "Such a prosecution", writes Elsea, "would likely be subject to constitutional challenge."

Manning's Statement

When Judge Lind asked military prosecutors if "the nature of WikiLeaks [is] somehow different from the New York Times?" Overgaard responded, it's "not relevant" if "WikiLeaks is a legitimate journalistic organization." Overgaard added that the prosecution intends to call a witness during sentencing and possibly at trial "to characterize the WikiLeaks organization" in its case against Manning for aiding the enemy.

Does Gibney think Assange is a journalist protected by the First Amendment? Apparently not. In like manner to the Obama administration's recent strategy document, he reframes WikiLeaks, by associating the media organization with computer crime and intellectual property theft. Gibney says "Assange went fishing for secrets to publish." Obama's strategy document is an attempt by the U.S. Government to bypass a constitutional challenge to prosecuting publishers.

When Gibney states WikiLeaks and Assange "bait whistleblowers," he is implying that Assange tricked Manning. Gibney spins these innuendos in a montage ending with him wryly stating that Manning's "buddy list" contained the name "Julian Assange"-- implying quite starkly a conspiracy between both.

Manning's recent statement in court regarding his alleged WikiLeaks interlocutor was not in Gibney's film: "Due to the strict adherence of anonymity by the WLO [WikiLeaks organization], we never exchanged identifying information. However, I believe the individual was likely Mr. Julian Assange, Mr. Daniel Schmidt, or a proxy representative of Mr. Assange and Schmidt."

In fact, the most irresponsible omission from Gibney's shadow puppetry is Manning's recent statement in court that "no one associated with the WLO pressured me to give more information." "[D]ecisions that I made to send documents and information to the WLO and the website," said Manning, "were my own decisions, and I take full responsibility."

Stealing U.S.G. Property


Never Miss a Beat.

Get our best delivered to your inbox.

In a stroke of unintended tragic irony in "We Steal Secrets", Gibney's allegation concerning the market value of "an interview with the WikiLeaks founder"-- which Gibney uses to convict Assange in the court of public opinion-- employs the same logic military prosecutors are now using in their own case against Manning for 'Stealing U.S. Government Property'.

Gibney's assertion that Assange demanded $1 Million for an interview is refuted by WikiLeaks, the Huffington Post, and the New York Times.

As Colonel Denise Lind, the presiding military judge, recently explained: "[T]he Government will prove value [for the five Specifications of 'Stealing USG Property'] in a thieves market and expects to provide evidence of the content and context of the charged information and the motives and resources of foreign adversaries." What military prosecutors will likely use as evidence to prove valuation-- and what they have already used-- is the alleged WikiLeaks Non Disclosure Agreement referred to in Gibney's film by James Ball.

Contrary to Ball's statement on camera, he concedes elsewhere, that he "signed an NDA covering WL material".

Manning faces a maximum punishment of 10 years if convicted of stealing, purloining, or knowingly converting four U.S. military databases and another five years for the Department of State NetCentric Diplomacy database-- that is, if each database is proven to have a value of more than $1000.

The selective criticism of Assange for his alleged bad-faith motive for not appearing in Gibney's film is irrational and intellectually dishonest. During a Q & A, Gibney stated that he was unable to secure interviews with Guardian journalists-- save Nick Davis and James Ball. The Guardian, he opined, did not want to thwart their own Hollywood film about WikiLeaks.

If Gibney did not spend his reported $2.5 Million film budget on an interview with Assange or on substantive content, investigative journalism, or fact-checking, where exactly did the money go?

No doubt, marketing and advertising costs for Hollywood films are exploding. It turns out, it is an expensive business trying to market bullshit, lies, and murder in the glutted global marketplace.

The Entertainment Superpower

In an information age the means of production are inside our heads. The question is, of course, "Who owns yours?"

America is the entertainment superpower. By entertainment I mean media and information. U.S. broadcasters benefit from their economies of scale. According to economists Deidre McClosky and Arjo Klamer, persuasion, advertising, counseling, and consulting account for twenty-five percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

In fact, the U.S. media and entertainment sectors are the only American sectors that boast a surplus balance of trade with nearly every nation in the world.

In Learning to Leverage New Media: The Israeli Defense Forces in Recent Conflicts, U.S. Army Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell IV; Dennis M. Murphy, professor of information operations and information in warfare at the U.S. Army War College; and Anton Mennin, media strategist at the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, write that media and information are now a 'warfighting function' - a euphemism for weapon - in our global theater of war:

Surrendering the information environment to the adversary is not a practical option. [T]he military must seriously consider where information and the new media lie in relationship to conventional warfighting functions. One thing seems sure: we must elevate information in doctrinal importance, and adequately fund and staff organizations dealing with information[...]

[...]During conflict, the same dynamism plays havoc with traditional notions of the media's role in informing, shaping, and swaying public opinion. In 2003, Frank Webster argued in War and the Media that 'the public are no longer mobilized to fight wars as combatants, they are mobilized as spectators - and the character of this mobilization is of the utmost consequence...the familiar industrial model of warfare was giving way to an informational model. The struggle for public opinion retained central importance, but the sheer pervasiveness and responsiveness of new media recast the terms and content of the struggle. There were at least two clear implications. The first was that the military has a commensurately more complex task in winning the information war. The second was that there remains little choice but to engage new media as part of the larger media explosion. Failure to do so would leave a vacuum - the adversary's version of reality would become the dominant perception.

U.S. military surveillance, targeting, and weapons systems use technology developed primarily for motion pictures and entertainment software-- or the consumer electronics market.

The U.S. government, for instance, employs Panavision's 300x compound zoom lens for military surveillance. According to an interview that I conducted with the senior vice president of worldwide sales at Panavision, federal contracts with the U.S. Government are the fastest growing segment of Panavision's business.

More provocative is how Hollywood and video games drive the development of high-speed, high-resolution digital image capture, management, transmission, and display that have implications for fields where these advanced technological applications would be economically unviable to develop on their own.

Entertainment software has led to faster introduction and deployment of processors, broadband networks, and high definition disks like HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. But, "IBM places value on chips made for entertainment software that goes beyond revenue and profits," says Dr. John Kelly, senior vice president and group executive for IBM Technology Group: "These chips help drive technology in other areas."

The Mercury Computer's CELL based blade server, for example, can handle the requirements of sonar and radar computation for military or scientific applications, because of its ability to process real time data streams. "The Cell BE processor was originally designed for the volume home entertainment market," says Craig Lund, chief technology officer of Mercury Computer Systems, "but its architecture of nine heterogeneous on-chip cores is well-suited to the type of distributed, real-time processing that will power tomorrow's digital battlefield."

The U.S. military hegemony is based on the ability of the U.S. Navy to dominate the world's oceans-- due partially to the superior numbers and technology of U.S. naval vessels, which are augmented significantly by U.S. dominance in space-based reconnaissance technology, and made possible by entertainment software consumers and movie goers world-wide.

Journalists and Spies

The Manning prosecution and the federal/military criminal probe of WikiLeaks are part of the government's larger battle for control "over" information in the digital age; It is a battle being waged, in part, against what Mike Rogers (MI-R), Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, calls the internet's "culture of disclosure."

Echoing Rogers' concern, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, declared WikiLeaks disclosures a current and projected counterintelligence threat to the national security of the United States -- on par with corporate espionage, drug trafficking, and climate change. "From an intelligence perspective, these disclosures have been very damaging," he said, warning of their "chilling effect" on the "information-sharing environment".

The "chilling effect" invoked by Clapper typically connotes the immeasurable harm to First Amendment rights and democratic governance caused by prohibitions on speech, association, and publication. Yet, despite the First Amendment prohibition against any law abridging the freedom of the press and the confidentiality of sources afforded by reporter's privilege, information sharing is now encourage and source protection sacrosanct for spooks in what NSA Whistleblower, Thomas Drake calls the "state religion of national security"; for the press and public, information about the workings of government is on a "need to know" basis, or else.

Just, liar.

The unfounded allusions of a government informant, Adrian Lamo, that Manning had leaked top secret material, was a major piece of documentation resulting in Manning's pretrial confinement at Quantico, and led to calls by prominent members of Congress and the Executive for the death penalty for Manning; the designation of WikiLeaks as a terrorist organization; and the criminal prosecution of Julian Assange.

Gibney did not ask Lamo about the role this mistaken information played in Manning's pretrial confinement or how two days of chat logs are unaccounted for based on Lamo's sworn testimony at the Article 32 pre-trial hearing in December 2011.

Agent testimony at the Article 32 casts doubt on Lamo's own account of their content, order, and completeness, but what is most worrisome is how Gibney uses Lamo's unchallenged statements to emotionally manipulate his ignorant audience:

Lamo testified that he turned bradass87 in on the first day, after this short exchange containing a hypothetical question:

(1:40:51 PM) bradass87 has not been authenticated yet. You should authenticate this buddy.
(1:40:51 PM) Unverified conversation with bradass87 started.
(1:41:12 PM) bradass87: hi
(1:44:04 PM) bradass87: how are you?
(1:47:01 PM) bradass87: im an army intelligence analyst, deployed to eastern baghdad, pending discharge for "adjustment disorder" [...]in lieu of "gender identity disorder"
(1:56:24 PM) bradass87: im sure you're pretty busy...
(1:58:31 PM) bradass87: if you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months, what would you do?
(1:58:31 PM) : Tired of being tired
(2:17:29 PM) bradass87: ?

By the end of that exchange, Lamo contacted law enforcement through an intermediary. The first mention of the Department of State cables, said to be Lamo's motivation occurs on day two (if you trust the Wired logs and and day three if you base it on Lamo's sworn testimony).

The ethical and factual issues surrounding Lamo are boundless. They are broken down elsewhere.

At the climax of Gibney's film, before fading to an image of our "pale blue dot" sits Lamo, tears crawling down his face: "I care more about Bradley than many of his supporters do [...] And I had to betray that trust for the sake of all of the people that he put in danger."

Gibney casts Assange as a "bad faith" actor, the sociopathic globe-trotting impregnator Mendax, a moniker the film director mistakenly translates as "noble liar".

Adrian Lamo, however, the U.S. Government's confidential informant, who is best described as 'just a liar' is Gibney's voice of empathic consciousness, risk management, and the constitutional test between Executive privilege and the public's right to know.

Even sick human beings, like Adrian Lamo, who can't handle the truth, deserve empathy, but "facts matter". What Gibney has done here is not art; it is a cheap trick.

Reformation for Secular Age of Information

The distributed denial-of-service 'sit-in' on the PayPal website by Anonymous activists in response to the company's extra-legal financial blockade of WikiLeaks, Gibney calls a a "cyber-attack".

The iconography of Gibney's Internet is devoid of intelligence and awareness, because he himself has no insight to offer us. The shifting political and socio-economic landscape of the information age remains unarticulated in the film, because it is obscured by the bare knuckled entrenched interests of his corporate politic.

Whether he wants to admit it or not, a generational shift is underway between Gibney boomers who organize with heavy social capital, and the Internet generation's myriad but equally important weak social ties.

The total size of the Internet generation is already "greater than the baby boom ever was," notes John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade in their study of the game generation's influence on organizational values, and the Internet generation, "simply approach the world differently than their predecessors."

We are more transient and diverse than our predecessors. We take globalization for granted-- from the point of view of the valley, not the mountaintop. And, we organize around information.

WikiLeaks and Manning do not spring from a vacuum or a pathology. They belong to us. They are our future.

When the notion of property applies to the genes in our bodies and the ideas in our heads-- then an 18th century philosophy, 19th century institutions, 20th century outlook, and 21st century problems present many of us with a vision we cannot afford to bank on, build on, or believe in. In fact, it is leading us into the dark ages.

This is a reformation for the secular age of information; old media, like Gibney, have exposed themselves as priests selling favors.

The reformation underway will not be led by organization like Apple or IBM (see the film's transcript) or by Hollywood directors, like Alex Gibney.

This so-called reformation is being led by disruptive innovations like WikiLeaks. It is being led by the bravery of publishers like Julian Assange. It is being lead by the acts of conscience afflicted young whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning. It is being lead by a multitude of individual actors and hard working nobodies.

Asymmetry isn't merely a threat, it is our only opportunity.

Alexa O'Brien

Alexa O'Brien's work covering Bradley Manning's trial was recently short-listed for the 2013 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, the most prestigious journalism prize in the United Kingdom.

Our pandemic coverage is free to all. As is all of our reporting.

No paywalls. No advertising. No corporate sponsors. Since the coronavirus pandemic broke out, traffic to the Common Dreams website has gone through the roof— at times overwhelming and crashing our servers. Common Dreams is a news outlet for everyone and that’s why we have never made our readers pay for the news and never will. But if you can, please support our essential reporting today. Without Your Support We Won't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

Share This Article