We Steal Secrets offers a fascinating look at the players in the history-changing WikiLeaks saga. But as director Alex Gibney reveals, the story behind the documentary is almost as fascinating as the film itself.
When Oscar-winning documentary-maker Alex Gibney approached Julian Assange to make a film chronicling his life, he should have been just the man the WikiLeaks founder would hope for. After all, Gibney has carved out a well-earned reputation for exposing the corruption of power, the very purpose for which Assange created WikiLeaks. Instead, Assange turned him down, and the film went ahead without the cooperation of one of its key characters.
It wasn’t for the lack of trying on Gibney’s part. He met Assange several times at London’s Frontline Club and at the Norfolk manor Assange resided in while under house arrest. He even attended Assange’s 40th birthday party. But this was no longer the Assange who set up his authority-challenging website in earnest, Gibney tells me. This was Assange the “international celebrity”, with his entourage of “criminal lawyers, entertainment lawyers, agents”.
Rather than a documentary detailing how he became possibly the most recognisable activist on the planet, Assange had other ideas. “He was interested in using it as part of his propaganda agenda, to the extent that he could convey his message and be a sort of puppetmaster, which I think he sees himself as,” Gibney explains. “I tried to convince him and he said he wanted a lot of money or for me to spy on other interviewees for him, which I found odd for somebody who is so interested in source protection.”
Undeterred, Gibney pressed ahead with We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, weaving Assange’s story together with that of Bradley Manning, the US soldier alleged to have supplied WikiLeaks with hundreds of thousands of classified documents. Footage of Assange as a youthful ‘hacktivist’ and the early days of WikiLeaks reveals a man driven by moral impulse, but as the film goes on he begins to look increasingly egotistical and paranoid. “He’s got a lot of facets, and part of him is an amazing and very powerful person,” Gibney admits. “But his desperate need to place himself at the centre of the story, instead of acting as a publisher where the news itself is the story, became his problem.”
A backlash swiftly followed. Of the 18 user reviews on the Internet Movie Database, eight give the film one star or less, accusing it attempting to discredit Assange. Writing in the New Statesman, journalist John Pilger did the same, while former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges all but accused Gibney of being a stooge of the state. Assange himself even released an annotated transcript of the film, which Gibney says probably came from an audio recording, as it missed a quarter of the dialogue (Manning’s words are taken from his online chats and not spoken).
Without missing a beat, Gibney describes the accusations as “ridiculous”, saying they testify to the cult-like following Assange has engendered. Far from being state-sponsored propaganda, Gibney says his film supports the founding principles of WikiLeaks and the original idea of transparency the website represented. “The first half, maybe two-thirds of the film shows Assange in terrifically positive light,” he counters. “His supporters, who see the world must be a binary place where you’re either for somebody or against them, feel that because there’s criticism of him the film must be denounced. Some of the IMDb reviews give the film a zero rating. What does that tell you? It’s a propaganda campaign that’s not unlike a CIA campaign.”
As the footage of a young Assange shows, in his hacker guise he went under the name ‘Mendax’, Latin for ‘nobly untruthful’. A naïve mission statement back then, it has come to be his undoing, says Gibney. “The way you defeat powerful forces who, as institutions, lie – and I regard the United States’ government as one of those powerful forces – is to speak truth to power, not to speak lies to power and mount disinformation campaigns. This is the great flaw of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. They did something great, but in their follow-up they’ve become more and more like the enemies they despise and oppose.”
Despite what those in the cult of Assange may say of the film, We Steal Secrets actually takes its title from a direct quote by former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden. The irony of one of the United States’ top intelligence officers openly admitting that it is spying, while simultaneously seeking to punish whistleblowers like Bradley Manning by labeling him a spy, is not lost on Gibney. “What’s interesting about Hayden is that when he says ‘we steal secrets’, he’s not talking about taking secrets from other countries and posting them on a trans-national website where everyone can see them, he’s talking about stealing secrets for the advantage of the United States. It’s a power-play.”
Three years down the line, history has repeated itself with the case Edward Snowden’s leak of the NSA’s covert PRISM surveillance operation. Admitting he is deeply disappointed with the Barack Obama, Gibney does not hold back in his criticism of the president. “I think the Obama administration is embarrassed by these leaks, because it shows that the administration is lying,” he says. “And frankly, that’s what Bradley Manning’s leaks showed too – that the US administration is lying about a number of things. This has been the most hysterical, extreme anti-whistleblower administration possibly in history. It looks worse than Nixon.”
Given what Snowden has revealed about the all-pervasive monitoring of the internet by the US, is Gibney at all worried about speaking so candidly for an interview that will be published online? “Perhaps I should be, but it seems to me that the point is to speak out,” he ponders. “I wade into this story in an attempt to hold everyone to account, including myself. There’s nothing worse than what [Guardian journalist] James Ball calls in the film ‘noble cause corruption’ – the idea that just because you’re on what you perceive to be the good side you can behave in reprehensible ways. It’s absolutely not true. You have to hold yourself to broad moral standards.”
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is in cinemas now.