erik lundegaard

Movie Review: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)


One of the many ironies of Alex Gibney’s “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” is its title. The phrase isn’t said, as one would expect, by Julian Assange or anyone in the hactivist community; it’s said by former CIA and NSA head Michael Hayden. He’s talking about U.S. government agencies but he’s reacting to the Nov. 2010 release of top secret U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks:

Look, everyone has secrets. Some of the secret activities that nation-states conduct in order to keep their people safe and free need to be secret in order to be successful. If they are broadly known, you cannot accomplish your work. I want to be very candid. We steal secrets. We steal other nation’s secrets. One cannot do that above-board and be very successful for a very long period of time.

Thus the organization that steals secrets has its secrets stolen. And thus the organization that publishes those secrets, that is dedicated to revealing other people’s secrets, becomes, itself, secretive. WikiLeaks, a small nonprofit committed to the free flow of information, winds up demanding that its employees sign Non-Disclosure Agreements. Do we all become what we fight? Do we all stare into the abyss and become the monster? Do none of us get the irony?

Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”; “Taxi to the Dark Side”; “Catching Hell”) does.

The lost boys
This is a great documentary, by the way. Most docs are 90 minutes and drag; this thing is 130 and zips. It constructs the story most of us—or at least I—have been paying attention to only peripherally.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)When I became aware of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in the summer of 2010, I had the feeling he’d been on the world stage for a while, but that moment was basically his debut. He’d made a name for himself in his home country of Australia in the early 1990s, and again, among those paying attention, in Iceland in 2009 with the release of internal documents from Kaupthing Bank detailing suspicious loans to bank owners prior to default. But it wasn’t until Pvt. Bradley Manning, a nice, fucked-up kid from Oklahoma, who was stationed in Iraq and wondered what to do about the confidential—and to him, immoral—information he had access to, that we all knew Assange’s name.

More irony: Manning wouldn’t have had access to such documents without 9/11. Because relevant information was not shared between government agencies prior to 9/11, it became imperative to share it after 9/11. To make us safer. Which allowed Bradley Manning access to the information he uploaded to WikiLeaks. Which, according to some, including Hilary Clinton, made us less safe.

Will the irony never end? The first big Manning-related leak is a video of the killing of Reuters journalists by U.S. soldiers in an Apache Warship half a mile above them. They mistook a camera for an RPG, and the men for terrorists, and killed them along with several children as if it were a video game. It’s appalling what happens; the disconnect of the men doing the shooting makes it more appalling:

  • “Light ‘em all up.”
  • “Oh yeah, look at all those dead bastards.”
  • “It’s their fault for bringing their kids to a battle.”

Yet the man who published the video, Assange, is said to have had a similar kind of disconnect—of the digital variety. He grew up interacting with the world through a computer screen.

The three main players in this story are all lost boys: Assange, Manning and Adrian Lamo, a “gray hat” hacker with Asperger’s, who, prior, was most famous for hacking into the New York Times computer network in 2002. Manning contacted Lamo via encrypted email, and the two wound up chatting on, of all things, AOL instant messaging. When Lamo realized the veracity of Manning’s situation, and the gravity of it, he didn’t know what to do. Wasn’t this a national security breach? But how could he betray Manning’s trust? In the doc, he equates his dilemma to the Kobayashi Maru test from “Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan”: the unwinnable situation that tests how Star Fleet cadets deal with defeat. Ultimately he gave up Manning to the authorities, but he cries on camera for having done so. At the same time, he justifies the action with another quote from “Star Trek II”: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” Apparently he didn’t see “Star Trek III” for Kirk’s spin on the phrase.

Even so, the doc suggests that if Lamo hadn’t outed Manning, someone else would have. Manning wanted the world to know The Big Thing he’d done. One wonders, too, if he hadn’t had his own secrets that needed outing—the dawning realization that he wanted to be, or was, a woman—whether he would have outed the U.S. government’s.

Famous last words
In the aftermath of the WikiLeaks revelations, all three men were (more irony) hidden away or went into hiding. Lamo received death threats from those who idolized Manning and Assange. Manning was arrested by the military police and incarcerated in a small cell in Kuwait, then in solitary at the Mariner Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, where it’s alleged he was subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques such as sleep deprivation. When Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley, a former Air Force Colonel, criticized this treatment of Manning, calling it “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid,” he was forced to resign.

Assange, the main figure here, is probably the least sympathetic. Prior to going global, Assange gave access to Mark Davis, an Australian journalist and documentarian, and Davis lets Gibney use the footage. We see that WikiLeaks, an international, online, nonprofit, was basically two guys: Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German technology activist. We see Assange becoming international front-page news and how he reacts to becoming international front-page news. “I’m untouchable now in this country,” he says. A month later, in Sweden, he was charged with rape.

“Rape,” even in a worst-case scenario, is probably the wrong word. The sex, with two different women, seems to have been consensual; the use of the condom was not. That’s a crime in Sweden and in Britain, where Assange fled, and from which, for many months, the Swedish government attempted to extradict him. Why no condom? Assange has four children from four different women, so some suggest he has this need to propagate. Others call the women CIA plants or “honeypots,” a computer term for a trap set to “counteract attempts at unauthorized use of information systems.” These women, too, have received death threats. Maybe in the future we’ll all receive death threats.

While Assange’s supporters, with their Guy Fawkes masks, rallied around the world, Assange was imprisoned in Britain, released on bail to a posh estate in the English countryside, then took up residence, away from the authorities, in the Ecuadoran embassy. In this manner, like in a “Sex and the City” episode, the story becomes all about him. There is some indication that if Assange had merely agreed to an HIV test, which the women had requested before charges were brought, none of this would have happened. But he was a high-flying figure then, full of hubris, and he refused. Nick Davies, the great investigative journalist with The Guardian, talks about how Assange didn’t even see the point of redacting the names of Afghanis who had worked with coalition forces. “If an Afghani helps the U.S. military,” Davies says Assange said, “he deserves to die.” In 2010, we see Assange being interviewed by a TV reporter, who asks about the charges in Sweden. Assange cuts off the interview, stands up, removes his mike, and calmly delivers what’s supposed to be a cutting remark. It says more about him than her. “You blew it,” he says.

Bringing the nuance
Does Gibney let the story become too much about Assange and not enough about the ways information is gathered and revealed today? He certainly tries to strike a balance. He talks about how the U.S. government now records 60,000 emails and cellphone calls every second. The number is supposed to shock but I felt the opposite. I actually felt safety in the number.

Watching, in fact, I kept thinking of Neil Postman’s dichotomy again. I kept wondering if people like Assange, and Bradley Manning, and maybe even Alex Gibney, believe we’re living in a “1984” world, where the problem is the free flow of information, when we’re really living in a “Brave New World” world, where the problem is too much information, and where “the people,” for whom all of this is done, and who need to know the atrocities its troops commit abroad, and how the U.S. diplomatic corps really views the dictators with whom it conducts affairs, can’t even be bothered.

Be bothered enough to go see this doc. “There is no history without nuance,” Norman Mailer once wrote, and that’s part of the joy of “We Steal Secrets.” There are so many absolutist positions here: Guy Fawkes protests on one side, U.S. government press conferences on the other. And in the no man’s land between them, Alex Gibney arrives, bringing the nuance.

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Posted at 11:31 AM on Sat. May 18, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013  


Arbed wrote:

I see on Twitter that this reviewer has been sent the full annotated transcript of the film leaked by Wikileaks. Can I please ask what he makes of the following specific notes made by Wikileaks?

Where they show that Nick Davies is lying to camera about Wikileaks not using a harm minimisation process to redact vulnerable names from the Afghan War Logs by using his own article in the Guardian - saying they Wikileaks HAD used one - from the first day the War Logs were released?

Where they show that Alex Gibney has deliberately omitted Bradley Manning's evidence to court - available two months before this film came out - where he says no one at Wikileaks pressured him to leak anything, he did it all himself, whereas Alex Gibney in three places in this film tries to suggest Assange “persuaded” him. We can tell that Alex Gibney does know about Bradley Manning's statement to court because the narration includes that Bradley tried the New York Times and Washington Post first before turning to Wikileaks, and that first came out when Bradley testified to it in court. It is a deliberate omission.

Where they show that the torn condom Alex Gibney shows twice in this movie - it is a picture from the police forensics report and it is the condom that the woman Gibney interviews in the film handed in to police - has no DNA at all on it. Gibney would know this information because it is given just two pages later in the forensics report. Gibney uses the DNA-free condom and the interview with the woman to suggest that Julian Assange is only in the Ecuadorian embassy to hide from “charges” (there are no formal charges, Assange hasn't even been questioned yet) that have some basis in truth, and also to suggest that Assange has a history of a “primal urge” to “spread his seed” by deliberately tricking women into pregnancy. What? Without ever exchanging any DNA? Wow, Julian Assange is cleverer than we thought...

Comment posted on Tue. May 28, 2013 at 03:42 AM

Arbed wrote:

PS. Sorry, I forgot to mention that Alex Gibney didn't even get the number of Assange's children right. He has two children, not four.

And this reviewer clearly missed the note in the annotated transcript Wikileaks has leaked where they show that Gibney has deceptively edited the interview Assange walks out of. They give a link to the full footage of the interview, where you can see Assange walks out because the interviewer refuses to talk about what the interview was meant to be about - 100,000 previously unreported civilian deaths in Iraq revealed by Wikileaks - and insists on talking about allegations that the Swedish police haven't even spoken to him about yet.

Comment posted on Tue. May 28, 2013 at 05:17 AM

Arbed wrote:

PPS. Sorry, another bit that Gibney's film deliberately misrepresents...

“There is some indication that if Assange had merely agreed to an HIV test, which the women had requested before charges were brought, none of this would have happened.”

The annotated transcript of the movie leaked by Wikileaks includes direct quotes from two independent witnesses in statements made to police in Sweden, which show that Assange DID agree to a HIV test and that he was expecting to meet the women the following day to do it, but they went to the police - without telling him - an hour after agreeing this with him and handed in “torn” condoms with no trace of DNA... Make of that what you will, but it is clear that Alex Gibney had all this knowledge and has decided to obscure it in his film. One might wonder why Gibney has chosen to do that, but I doubt “naunce” really comes into it.

I want to say that I don't really blame this reviewer for getting it so wrong. Reporting about Wikileaks in the US so far has been very poor (it might get a little better now the US mainstream press is up in arms about how the DOJ has been going after AP and Fox News journalists) so all the “information” in Gibney's film is relatively new to a US audience and you have no way to know if you are being fed bullshit. I think that's what Wikileaks' annotated transcript was meant to alert you to.

Comment posted on Tue. May 28, 2013 at 05:39 AM

Erik wrote:

1. Nick Davies is one of the most respected investigative journalists in the world. Is there evidence that he lied or are we back to he said/she said?

2. Don't remember Gibney suggesting that Assange persuaded Manning to come forward. If that's it in the doc, it's not relevant to the story.

3. The sexual escapades is definitely a he said/she said, but if the evidence, DNA evidence even, was so much in favor of Assange, why didn't he just return to Sweden? Why hole up in GB?

4. Gibney deceptively edited the interview? Not really. Watching, you get the idea that Assaange wanted it to be about one thing, the interviewer made it about the more prurient matter, and he walked out. Walking out isn't the problem, it's the way he does it. “You blew it,” he tells the interviewer. That's the indicative line to me.

Keep in mind the doc is 130 minutes long. Most docs that get any kind of distribution in the US are 90 minutes long. Only so much can be included.

Since a lot of this is he said/she said, and since Assange didn't agree to sit for Gibney, he got less of a say. But Assange seems to be on one side of a lot of he said/she saids. It could indicate a worldwide conspiracy against him that includes Nick Davies and Alex Gibney, two very respected journalists. Or it could indicate something else.

Comment posted on Tue. May 28, 2013 at 06:38 AM

Arbed wrote:

Oh hello Eric, thanks for taking the trouble to respond. Here are some answers to your questions:

1) Yes, there is definitive 100% proof that Nick Davies lied in that segment. One, Wikileaks has used Nick Davies' own article dated 25 July 2010 - in the Guardian, pictured in one of the most famous photos of the press conference that day - where Nick Davies wrote all about Wikileaks' extensive procedure for redacting the War Logs safely. You can see that photo of Assange holding up the Guardian newspaper with Nick Davies' article on the front page in the film. If you zoomed in you could actually see where Nick Davies says the exact opposite of what he later says in Alex Gibney's interview. Also, Nick Davies reports that Assange “said informants deserve to die” at a dinner in London in July 2010. The annotated transcript includes a signed witness statement from a Der Spiegel journalist who was at the dinner (Nick Davies wasn't), which Wikileaks says they emailed to Alex Gibney on 12 July 2012. But Gibney ignored this witness statement from the also-highly-respected journalist John Goetz.

2. The implications of Assange supposedly “persuading” Manning to leak are extremely relevant to the story - both in terms of the “aiding the enemy” by “wanton publishing” via “indirect means” (ie Wikileaks) charges which Manning is about to go on trial for, and in terms of the “conspiracy to commit espionage” charges the Grand Jury in Alexandra, Virginia has been investigating since September 2010 (the Grand Jury is still empanelled, by the way).

3. Sweden has no system of bail so usually holds people in jail for an indeterminate length of time - at the whim of the prosecutor basically (all they have to do is tell a judge every two weeks “no, not ready yet” - under the investigation is over and the case is ready to go to trial. Given that the prosecutor has turned down multiple offers from Assange to be questioned (including during the five weeks he stayed in Sweden in order to get things cleared up) and you know that that prosecutor is trying to get you extradited in the full knowledge that the evidence she has - the “torn” condom with no DNA at all on it - indicates that the allegations are fake, wouldn't you think that something was not quite right about her motives for insisting on a jail cell before she will even ask you for your side of the story? Come on, given that Wikileaks cablegate revelations had plenty in them which also hugely embarrassed powerful figures in the Swedish government too.

4. Ok, we take a different view of this interview. But would you be convinced if I told you I had personally met this lady interviewer and she told me she later apologised to Assange about it and said her bosses had made her take that line of questioning. She's the London-based CNN correspondent and she attended all Assange's court hearings in the UK. Assange must be a forgiving sort because he later agreed to another interview with this lady in the Ecuadorian embassy, which I believe is also available on CNN somewhere. Perhaps you could take a look at that one - it may change your mind.

Thanks again for taking the time to engage on this, Eric. Much appreciated.

Comment posted on Tue. May 28, 2013 at 08:21 AM

Arbed wrote:

Sorry Erik (spelt your name right this time!), didn't make myself quite clear in 1)

John Goetz, the respected Der Spiegel journalist, signed a witness statement saying Assange did not say “informants deserve to die”. Given that Goetz was actually present at the time, and Nick Davies was not, what do you make of the fact that Alex Gibney has ignored Goetz's witness statement, which was emailed to him back in July 2012, in favour of Nick Davies' simply making an allegation about something with nothing to back his allegation up? Frankly, I'm disappointed because I too thought that Alex Gibney was a good documentarian - but a good documentarian is never this cavalier with the facts.

Comment posted on Tue. May 28, 2013 at 09:05 AM

Cal wrote:

Gibney truly relies on his audience to be ignorant of the situation, and I'm glad that at least one person fits the bill. For the sake of whatever critical integrity you wish to retain, please research documentaries a little bit before you review them. A quick google search would have revealed this little gem of truth in the pile of lies and spin that is this poor excuse for a documentary:

Oh, and nice going peddling your reviews on IMDB message boards, real professional.

“WikiLeaks, a small nonprofit committed to the free flow of information, winds up demanding that its employees sign Non-Disclosure Agreements.”

An unprecedented grand jury was assembled in 2010 to investigate WikiLeaks. Even if that weren't the case, WikiLeaks' goal is to protect its sources and its employees. There's nothing ironic about this.

“Which allowed Bradley Manning access to the information he uploaded to WikiLeaks.”

This is not how WikiLeaks works. They're not “youtube for the unpatriotic”. They're an online publication.

“Ultimately he gave up Manning to the authorities, but he cries on camera for having done so.”

If you'd read the annotated transcript, you would know that Lamo was hardly reluctant in the matter, and aggressively exploited Manning for personal gain.

“the dawning realization that he wanted to be, or was, a woman.”

Why did this warrant inclusion in the documentary, when so many facts were left out?

“We see that WikiLeaks, an international, online, nonprofit, was basically two guys,”

Didn't you JUST describe WikiLeaks as a 'small nonprofit' in the introduction?

“While Assange’s supporters, with their Guy Fawkes masks, rallied around the world”

Those people are members of anonymous, an entirely separate group.

“Assange cuts off the interview, stands up, removes his mike, and calmly delivers what’s supposed to be a cutting remark. It says more about him than her. “You blew it,” he says.”

The reason why Assange walked out is because “it had been arranged to discuss the disclosure by WikiLeaks of 100,000 previously unreported deaths”. This is one of the documentaries 'plot holes', Assange is seen here, unwilling to answer any questions about his rape charges, yet later on in the documentary he speaks freely about them.

This is because, as a Journalist, Assange recognizes that the interviewer has no journalistic integrity.

Comment posted on Thu. Jun 06, 2013 at 07:52 AM
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