The first two problems with the new, troubling documentary by Alex Gibney are contained in the title, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.
It comes as a surprise to learn, near the end of the film, that the first part is taken not from the WikiLeaks mission statement, but from an interview with Gen. Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency and later, the CIA, who is a major architect of the modern surveillance state. Hayden, who is an amiable and practiced presence throughout Gibney's film, says, "We steal secrets," as an unapologetic acknowledgment of the business of spying.
Gibney no doubt intends to be ironic here, but instead, he creates a false equivalence between the espionage activities of superpowers and the transparency advocates who would expose the secrets. It's misleading to use Hayden's remark as the title of his film, and then to follow it with the subtitle "The Story of WikiLeaks." It's certainly "a" story about WikiLeaks, but hardly "the" story. Not when his film includes no new interviews with founder Julian Assange (who refused to cooperate) or with Assange's greatest source, Pfc. Bradley Manning (who was held incommunicado for years prior to his trial, which began in February).
A third problem arises before the opening credits. The film sets the scene: Oct. 18, 1989, at the Kennedy Space Center, as the space shuttle Atlantis is preparing to launch the Galileo space probe. There's a last-minute emergency, known only to those on the inside: A computer worm has invaded NASA's computers. The spacecraft takes off anyway, but a later investigation of the bug—known as the WANK worm—led to a pair of hackers in Melbourne, Australia. These two were never named, nor were they charged. The film doesn't accuse Assange of the attack, but the implication is clear as it dissolves to a photo of the young, long-haired Aussie hacker, pouting at the camera, sporting a pinky ring and looking more than a little bit like Dr. Evil.
The result is a slippery film that has been denounced by WikiLeaks partisans, but one that's also quite worthwhile. Gibney, the prolific filmmaker behind Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the extraordinary-rendition doc Taxi to the Dark Side, is too professional to produce a one-sided hatchet job. Indeed, his account of WikiLeaks' first hit, the release of the video titled "Collateral Murder," is quite sympathetic. His film makes the point that the incident itself—a U.S. Apache helicopter attack on a group of men that included two Reuters journalists—was public knowledge. But what wasn't public was the shocking video, complete with gleeful commentary, that Manning supplied.
It was an astonishing coup for what really was just a few radicals with laptops—among them an Icelandic politician, a German activist and a baby-faced English journalist named James Ball. They teamed up with The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel to publish a trove of diplomatic cables. But WikiLeaks' lack of resources, and Assange's alleged journalistic negligence, soon cast a pall over the enterprise.
Assange's fall was swift and steep. Inundated by attention, he was soon wanted in Sweden on sexual assault allegations. Gibney considers the possibility of a "honey trap," but his interview subjects, including one of Assange's accusers, persuade us otherwise. Soon enough, Assange's tainted credibility began to drag down the group he founded—and considering what a shoestring operation it was, lacking the governance structures found in normal non-governmental organizations, it was inevitable. (Ball, who left the group, wrote in The Guardian of his disillusionment in more damning detail than Gibney provides.)
But just because Assange and his most fervent supporters hate this movie doesn't mean Gibney gives a pass to the status quo. President Obama makes one appearance, and it's a deeply unflattering one. At a press briefing, he's asked to respond to a statement made by P.J. Crowley, his assistant secretary of state for public affairs, who called the mistreatment of Manning by his jailers "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid." With his eyes averted, an uncomfortable Obama stammers out a craven assurance that laws are being followed. Crowley resigned, but as he tells Gibney, he stands by his words.
Despite the absence of direct interviews with Assange and Manning, Gibney has plenty to work with. There's some wonderful private footage of Assange posing in front of an Icelandic volcano and dancing to techno in a nightclub. And Manning left behind many, many lines of instant messages—mostly to a hacker named Adrian Lamo, who would betray him—that Gibney deploys effectively throughout the film.
But the filmmaker spends too much time lingering over the personal frailties of the brilliant hackers: Assange's arrogance and narcissism, Manning's gender confusion (as well as the mentally disabled, heavily medicated Lamo). It shouldn't be surprising that it would take unusual—even disturbed—personalities to rattle the cage of the most powerful nation in the history of the planet. By conflating the often unappealing hackers with the unsavory secrets they revealed, Gibney contributes to the sense that the government, with its soothing spokespeople and media enablers, are in the right.
Meanwhile, Assange hasn't gone away. The Edward Snowden affair has brought him back into the public eye, and an essay he wrote recently about Google for The New York Times ("The Banality of 'Don't Be Evil'") is worth a read. But in the end, the agonized figure of Manning hangs over the film. Young, gifted and gay, Manning joined the Army as a way of bringing order to his life. Despite his slight stature, his emotional instability and the torments he suffered at the hands of "ignorant, trigger-happy rednecks," his facility with computers landed him in military intelligence with a security clearance.
Manning's trial is being ignored by the American media; a scan of today's NYT and CNN home pages produces no Manning references. (The Guardian, on the other hand, has a permanent "Manning trial" news tab on its website.) Still, he has some support. Recently, an eclectic cast of notables, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Angela Davis, Russell Brand, Daniel Ellsberg and Roger Waters, recorded a video called "I am Bradley Manning."
It has close to a half-million views. Not a huge number, perhaps, but a significant show of support for transparency and democracy.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stealing in the shadows."