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Issue #1599      June 26, 2013

Film Review

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is promoted as a documentary about WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing group which released hundreds of thousands of classified US diplomatic cables two years ago. Since its formation in 2007 WikiLeaks has hit the headlines on numerous occasions with its leaks exposing the truth behind wars, killings, torture, detention, corporate activities, corruption, abuse, suppression of free speech, cults and other cover-ups. WikiLeaks and one of its founders, Julian Assange, are now being subjected to the largest criminal probe ever.

The film’s writer, director and narrator – Alex Gibney.

The content of the cables and the serious breakdown in security involved proved extremely embarrassing to the US military, the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

With their long list of previous exposés and the fallout and actions that resulted from them, the promise of a documentary telling the story of WikiLeaks was exciting. Unfortunately, We Steal Secrets does not tell the story of WikiLeaks.

The title of the film is a good indicator of the inaccuracies and innuendo that permeate the film. WikiLeaks does not steal secrets. Nowhere in the film is this even suggested. It is US General Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA, who confesses.

In one of numerous interview segments with the former CIA head, he says, “Now look, I’m going to be very candid, alright? We steal secrets. We steal other nations’ secrets. One cannot do that aboveboard and be very successful for a very long period of time.” The activity of those who lie and steal secrets is not investigated.

The film is written, directed and narrated by award winning US documentary and film maker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; Client 9, The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer; Taxi to the Dark Side). Gibney gives it mainstream credibility and, along with its title, it may attract large audiences.

The film relies heavily on the ignorance of its audience who are in no position, without some research, to query what they are being told. It has the feel of a Hollywood contribution to the US military’s information war.

It starts with the appearance of a worm (self-replicating program in computers) which spreads through NASA’s computers just prior to the launching of the nuclear powered spacecraft Galileo on its way to Jupiter. It then, by innuendo, via a Midnight Oil song from Australia, links the worm to Julian Assange.

Gibney selectively extracts segments from old media footage of Assange to make his points. He also relies heavily on Hayden and several media commentators including Mark Davis who early in the film says, “I see this story entirely as one man against the world.”

WikiLeaks’ goals

There are interviews with some of those involved in or on the fringes of WikiLeaks. Nick Davis provides an apt description of the group:

“WikiLeaks is a not-for-profit media organisation. Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists (our electronic drop box). One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth. We are a young organisation that has grown very quickly, relying on a network of dedicated volunteers around the globe.... We also develop and adapt technologies to support these activities.”

Stock footage of Assange also provides an indication of their objectives: “So this is what you’ll see if you go to the front page of the website. This is WikiLeaks, we help to get the truth out. We want to enable information to go out to the public that has the greatest chance of achieving positive political reform in the world. To get things to the public you need to protect sources who want to disclose and you also need to protect your ability to publish in the face of attack.”

The film provides an interesting insight into how the technological side of their work developed which is extremely important. There are also great dramatic, graphic representations of the internet.

Robert Manne notes: “His thinking is: how can we destroy corruption? It’s the whistleblower. Julian Assange is neither a right-wing libertarian nor a standard leftist. I think he is a humanitarian anarchist. A kind of John Lennon-like revolutionary, dreaming of a better world.”

Having given a picture of WikiLeaks’ aims and approach, Gibney glosses over its achievements, with only a couple of examples. The result is a gross understatement of its history, its successes and battles dating back to 2007.

The film notes, but does not make a big deal out of the fact that the media outlets that played a critical role in releasing information from the diplomatic cables – the British Guardian Weekly, The New York Times, Der Spiegel and the Fairfax media in Australia – are not being accused of any crimes or their editors threatened with life imprisonment. Only Assange and the whistleblowers are.

Distortions

Much of the film focuses on Assange and the US army private first class Bradley Manning who is accused of leaking the cables. Throughout the film, Gibney propagates the idea Assange had been “fishing” for the leaks or that Manning had been “persuaded” to leak by Assange. But there is no evidence of that.

In effect, the film reinforces the attempts by the US military to try to point to Assange as doing more than just receiving information – that his complicity makes him a spy. Again there is not a shred of evidence. WikiLeaks works on the basis of anonymity and Assange confirms that they do not know the source of leaks.

Alexa O’Brien, who has produced the only available transcripts of Manning’s secret prosecution and has carried out extensive research into Manning’s case, was highly critical of Gibney:

“His tabloid motion graphic is a regurgitation of stock footage, unsubstantiated innuendo, and unexamined allegation. The ominous and unprecedented prosecution of Manning unfolding in a soundproofed room in the confined wasteland of Fort Meade is a trite remark in the dark space surrounding Gibney’s frame.” (www.alexaobrien.com)

Manning’s trial is being conducted in secrecy by the Military District of Washington in the US Army’s First Judicial Circuit.

“If We Steal Secrets or the subsequent Q & A with director, Alex Gibney, revealed anything, it’s that the filmmaker is quite uninformed about the trial of Bradley Manning. He can barely speak on the topic or on that of the largest criminal probe of a publisher [WikiLeaks] and its source in history,” O’brien added.

“What is unsaid in Gibney’s film is how democratic governance ceases to function when bureaucrats arbitrarily over-classify terabytes of information hiding government waste, fraud, abuse, and crimes.”

There has been no evidence that the material selected for release by WikiLeaks has posed a security threat to the US. Many of the revelations, however, have proved extremely embarrassing with their exposure of the lies and conduct of US authorities with their criminal cover-ups and use of diplomats to spy on foreign governments and commercial entities. But We Steal Secrets does not look into what it exposed, let alone who really should be on trial for serious war and other crimes.

Manning’s political motives

Much of the film focuses on Manning and supposedly why he revealed the secrets including the now infamous “Collateral Murder” video. The video showed the cold blooded murder of civilians including two Reuters journalists in Baghdad by the crew of an Apache helicopter (including their comments) and their lust for blood and scant regard for human life.

“If you had free reign over classified networks ... and you saw incredible things, awful things ... things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC ... what would you do?” He goes on to write, quote, “I want people to see the truth ... regardless of who they are ... because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public,” Manning explained.

But Manning’s political motives are quickly glossed over with the main focus on the personal, comments by others that he is gay and so could not fit in as a regular solider. He had a high level of computer skills so the army used him as an intelligence analyst.

Treachery

There is also an interview with computer hacker Adrian Lamo, who turns informant on Manning who had confided his concerns to him. The film omits what followed, that Lamo not only was an informer, but immediately pushed the story out through WIRED magazine, issued nine press releases, gave dozens of interviews, and campaigned for Assange’s extradition.

Still playing down the political side of Manning’s actions, the film continues to pursue the whistleblower’s alleged psychological shortcoming and other possible motives. This serves as a diversion from the important content of the leaks and the criminal persecution of Manning. Manning showed incredible courage. His actions were courageous and in the service of humanity. Gibney rewards him with nothing short of character assassination.

O’Brien is correct in referring to his film as tabloid regurgitation of unsubstantiated innuendo, and unexamined allegation.

In his plea statement to the court, Manning said that he experienced conscientious alarm after he viewed the Apache helicopter gunship video (“Collateral Murder”).

Principled stand

“I hoped that the public would be as alarmed as me about the conduct of the aerial weapons team crew members. I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan are targets that needed to be neutralised, but rather people who were struggling to live in the pressure cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare,” he told the court in another courageous act.

But instead of using Manning’s own explanation, such as just quoted, Gibney poses questions: “Just what had happened with Bradley Manning? Was this just a data dump? Or was this the act of a man who had peaked behind the curtain of a superpower and decided that what it was doing was wrong?”

This is followed by more personal diversionary discussion over whether Manning had a female personality or wanted to become a woman. Details of a physical incident which occurred after the leaks are implied to have been behind the leaks.

It is a missed opportunity to reveal the lies behind the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and US operations around the globe.

Hypocrisy

After airing accusations about Assange being a terrorist, extortionist, crackpot, enemy combatant, etc, from US officials and news outlets, Gibney notes:

“There were rumours of a sealed indictment against Assange. Secret subpoenas were served targeting WikiLeaks supporters. Under political pressure, VISA and MasterCard stopped processing donations to the website.”

Amy Goodman from Democracy Now, interviewed Gibney when the film was first publicly shown at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. She asked him why he made the film.

“Well, I think, to me, when I was originally brought into this – and actually, I got a call from Universal to take it on, and I took it on because I thought it was the ultimate David and Goliath story, one man against the world – a guy, the Silver Surfer of the Internet, Julian Assange, with a computer, wandering the world and taking on the biggest superpower. So it seemed a classic David and Goliath story for me, at the beginning.” Gibney said.

“So what changed?” Goodman asked.

“I think there’s – you know, the film charts a change in Julian Assange. I think in – at the moment of his greatest fame, I think his rigorous adherence to the truth, maybe, went – changed, let me put it that way,” Gibney said.

When asked to explain: “Well, I mean that the biggest problem I had with Julian Assange came up over the Swedish episode. That is to say, an episode in which questions were raised about his behaviour with two women in Sweden. And a lot of people, including me, thought at the time that this was some sort of obvious sort of honey trap, some sort of CIA plot to prevent him from leaking any further documents. And it turns out it’s not that. It’s – in my view, it’s a story about one man and two women, but – and it’s been morphed, I think, by Julian Assange into something bigger than that. And now I think he believes something that I don’t think is true.”

Goodman asks, “Which is?”

“Which is that the United States is trying to use or manipulate the Swedish judicial process in order to get him to Sweden, in order to send him to the United States for trial.”

“And why do you not think that is true?” asks Goodman.

“Because there’s no evidence that it’s true. I mean, we know that there’s a grand jury proceeding – or, there’s a grand jury investigation of Julian Assange, but there’s absolutely no evidence that the United States is manipulating the Swedish legal process in any way, shape or form,” replies Gibney.

So, after all the preceding innuendo and rumour, Gibney throws political reality out the window and requires evidence from one of the most secret organisations in the US before he will acknowledge the dangers facing Assange if he goes to Sweden or leaves the Ecuadoran embassy in London!

This refusal to acknowledge the glaring political reality that the US has plans to extradite Assange from Sweden seems nothing more than an abject attempt to justify the character assassination of Assange that dominates the last part of the film. In particular, there is a lengthy interview with one of the women.

In an interview with Amy Goodman on May 29, 2013, Assange, speaking from the Ecuadoran Embassy said, “The claim in the title is simply false. It has spread everywhere, of course, because it’s in all the promotional literature … That’s a $2.5 million hit job on my reputation, the reputation of the organisation. What’s the equivalent title? I Make Fictitious, Fraudulent Films: The Story of Alex Gibney.

“In response,” Assange tells Goodman, “we have published the full transcript, … ahead of the film’s release, with line-by-line detail showing exactly how Alex Gibney edited statements, stitched them together, etc, and … didn’t engage, it seems, in any fact checking of the statements [of] the people he was interviewing. You know, for an example, I make some statement that begins with, ‘Well, what they say is,’ and then I quote it. Alex Gibney cuts off the ‘What they say,’ so in order to put someone else’s words into my mouth. And that’s present throughout the film.”

Edward Snowden, another courageous whistleblower, has been charged with espionage and stealing government property, following the release of details of the US’s extensive global surveillance operations, including over its own citizens. His case may arouse interest in We Steal Secrets which opens in cinemas around Australia on July 4.

It is strongly recommended that anyone seeing the film, check the websites below:

wikileaks.org
(Homepage for updates and click on “archives” and “about” for information on its activities and principles of operation)

democracynow.org
(Amy Goodman interviews)

justice4assange.com/IMG/html/gibney-transcript.html
(Film transcript and WikiLeaks comments)   

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