erik lundegaard

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

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 nations’ 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.

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: The Wrath of Khan”: the unwinnable situation that tests how Starfleet 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.

—May 18, 2013

© 2013 Erik Lundegaard