Alex Gibney’s new film, “We Steal Secrets,” is about WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. It dutifully peddles the state’s contention that WikiLeaks is not a legitimate publisher and that Bradley Manning, who allegedly passed half a million classified Pentagon and State Department documents to WikiLeaks, is not a legitimate whistle-blower. It interprets acts of conscience and heroism by Assange and Manning as misguided or criminal. It holds up the powerful—who are responsible for the plethora of war crimes Manning and Assange exposed—as, by comparison, trustworthy and reasonable. Manning is portrayed as a pitiful, naive and sexually confused young man. Assange, who created the WikiLeaks site so whistle-blowers could post information without fear of being traced, is presented as a paranoid, vindictive megalomaniac and a sexual deviant. “We Steal Secrets” is agitprop for the security and surveillance state.
Rebels are typically a bundle of contradictions and incongruities. They are often difficult people whom the dominant systems of power abused at a young age. They have the intelligence needed to dissect the workings of power, and to devise mechanisms to fight back. German Jewish intellectuals in the Nazi era such as Hannah Arendt, writers such as James Baldwin, who was gay as well as black, and the revolutionary Frantz Fanon, a black writer and psychiatrist raised in the French colony of Martinique, all were outsiders, even outcasts. Like these three, Manning and Assange rose out of personal troubles to ask the questions traditional rebels ask, and they responded as traditional rebels respond.
“The initial presentation of the story was that Bradley Manning was a pure political figure, like a Daniel Ellsberg,” Gibney told The Daily Beast in an interview in January. “I don’t think that’s a sufficient explanation of why he did what he did. I think he was alienated; he was in agony personally over a number of issues. He was lonely and very needy. And I think he had an identity crisis. He had this idea that he was in the wrong body and wanted to become a woman, and these issues are not just prurient. I think it raises big issues about who whistleblowers are, because they are alienated people who don’t get along with people around them, which motivates them to do what they do.”
Gibney is unable to see that humans are a mixture of hubris and altruism, cowardice and courage, anger and love. There are no “pure” political figures—including Daniel Ellsberg. But there are people who, for reasons of conscience, discover the inner fortitude to defy tyranny at tremendous personal risk. Manning did this. Assange did this. They are not perfect human beings, but to dwell at length, as Gibney does, on their supposed psychological deficiencies and personal failings, while glossing over the vast evil they set themselves against, is an insidious form of character assassination. It serves the interests of the oppressors. Even if all the character flaws ascribed by Gibney to Manning and Assange are true—and I do not believe they are true—it does not diminish what they did.
The film at many points is a trashy exercise in tabloid journalism. Gibney panders to popular culture’s taste for cheap pop psychology and obsession with sex, salacious gossip and trivia. He shows clips of Assange dancing in a disco. He goes through an elaborate ritual of putting a wig and makeup on one of Assange’s estranged paramours, Anna Ardin, to disguise her although she is a public figure in Sweden.
“When the women went to the police to try to force Assange to take an HIV test, their testimony raised questions about possible criminal charges,” Gibney says in speaking about a Swedish case in which allegations of sexual misbehavior have been made against the WikiLeaks publisher. “The police, on their own, decided to investigate further. The refusal to use a condom took center stage: If Assange had HIV and knew it, it could be a case for assault. 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.”
The personal sin is excoriated. The vast structural sin Assange and Manning fought is ignored. The primacy of personal piety over justice is the inversion of morality. It is the sickness of our age. David Petraeus is hounded out of the CIA not because he oversaw death squads that killed thousands of innocents in Iraq or because the CIA tortures detainees, but because he had an extramarital affair. The power elite can draw up kill lists, torture people, wage endless war and carry out massive fiscal fraud on Wall Street as long as they don’t get caught sleeping with their administrative assistants. Assange can lay bare the crimes they commit, but his act of truth-telling is canceled out by alleged sexual misconduct.
Is the most important thing about Martin Luther King Jr. the fact that he was a serial adulterer? Did King’s infidelities invalidate his life and struggle? Do the supposed defects of Assange and Manning negate what they did? Gibney would have us believe they do. Manning, in a just world, would be a witness for the prosecution of those who committed war crimes. Assange would be traveling around the United States collecting First Amendment awards.
The persecution of Manning and Assange is not an isolated act. It is part of a terrifying assault against our most important civil liberties and a free press. Manning and Assange are the canaries in the mineshaft. They did not seek to sell the documents that WikiLeaks published or to profit personally from their release. They are part of the final, desperate battle under way to stymie the security and surveillance state’s imposition of corporate totalitarianism. They and others who attempt to expose the crimes of the state—such as Jeremy Hammond, who admitted in a plea agreement last week that he had hacked into the private intelligence firm Stratfor and who faces up to 10 years in prison—will be ruthlessly persecuted. And the traditional media, which printed the secret cables provided by WikiLeaks and then callously abandoned Manning and Assange, will be next.
The Associated Press recently saw the state seize two months of its emails and phone logs, and the government has admitted seizing Fox News reporter James Rosen’s phone records. Half a dozen government whistle-blowers have been charged by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act. It is becoming harder and harder to peer into the inner workings of power. And once there are no Mannings or Assanges, once no one is willing to take risks to expose the crimes of empire, there will be no freedom of the press.
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The fundamental conceit of “We Steal Secrets” is that Assange’s concern about the possibility of being arrested by U.S. authorities is a product of paranoia and self-delusion. The vast array of intergovernment forces—at least a dozen—dedicated to arresting Assange, extraditing him and destroying WikiLeaks is, Gibney would have us believe, fictional. I detailed these forces in “The Death of Truth.” The refusal to acknowledge the massive campaign against Assange is the most disturbing aspect of the film. There are numerous indications, including in leaked Stratfor emails, that a sealed indictment against Assange is in place. But Gibney refuses to buy it.
“Had the secret-leaker become the secret-keeper, more and more fond of mysteries?” Gibney asks in the film. “The biggest mystery of all was the role of the United States. Over two years after the first leak, no charges had been filed by the U.S. Assange claimed that the U.S. was biding its time, waiting for him to go to Sweden, but there was no proof.”
The sage-like figure in the film is former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who in 2001 lied when he told reporters that the National Security Council was not monitoring U.S citizens without court warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. He represents, for Gibney, the voice of reason.
“You’ve got this scene, somebody evidently troubled by the scene—frankly, I’m not—but I can understand someone who’s troubled by that, and someone who wants the American people to know that, because the American people need to know what it is their government is doing for them,” Hayden says of the “Collateral Murder” video released by WikiLeaks that shows a U.S. helicopter shooting to death civilians, including two Reuters journalists, in an Iraqi street. “I actually share that view—when I was director of CIA there was some stuff we were doing I wanted all 300 million Americans to know. But I never figured out a way about informing a whole bunch of other people that didn’t have a right to that information who may actually use that image, or that fact or that data or that message, to harm my country.”
Adrian Lamo, who worked as an FBI informant, faking a friendship with Manning to sell him out, is given a perch in the film to wring his hands like Judas over how agonizing it was for him to turn in Manning. He did it, he assures us, to keep the country safe, although no one has ever been able to point to any loss of life caused by the leak of the secret documents.
“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,” Lamo says tearfully. It is one of the most cloying moments in the movie.
Assange, by the end of the film, is the butt of open ridicule. Bill Keller, when he was executive editor of The New York Times, published material from WikiLeaks documents and then trashed Assange, calling him in a 2011 article “elusive, manipulative and volatile” as well as “arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous.” In the Gibney film, Keller adds to his condemnation of Assange by saying: “He looked like a bag lady coming in. Sort of like a dingy, khaki sports coat, old tennis shoes, with socks that were kind of collapsing around his ankles and he clearly hadn’t bathed in several days.”
Keller was one of the most ardent cheerleaders for the war in Iraq.
Two of Gibney’s previous films, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side,” were masterful explorations into the black heart of empire. This time, Gibney was commissioned by Universal Studios—owned by Comcast—and paid to make a motion picture on WikiLeaks. He gave his corporate investors what they wanted.
WikiLeaks has published a line-by-line critique of the film’s transcript at http://justice4assange.com/IMG/html/gibney-transcript.html.