Thursday, June 27, 2013

Everybody's Talkin': We Steal Secrets

The prolific documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has done his best work when—as with Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room—he’s had a morally uncomplicated story that moves in a straight line, and the sources, in the form of interview subjects, to supply fresh details about it. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, a torn-from-yesterday’s-headlines movie made newly relevant thanks to the adventures of Edward Snowden, is about how a few courageous truth-tellers and whistleblowers risked their own freedom, and maybe even their lives, to strike a much-needed blow against the security state. Or maybe it’s about how a vain, showboating egomaniac, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and a miserably alienated Army private with gender-confusion issues, Bradley Manning, upended the workings of government and possibly endangered lives, just to make themselves feel important and take a measure of revenge against a world that had never made them feel welcome.

It could also be a story about people who were talented and well-meaning but also naïve, confused, and emotionally unstable, who managed to do some genuinely heroic things, only to undercut themselves so badly that they lost the moral high ground and made it easy for their enemies to paint them as opportunists, nuts, and worse. It’s actually all these things, and sometimes it feels as if it’s all these things at the same time. Watching the movie, you can almost taste Gibney’s frustration with his own story for not behaving; you can definitely sense that the director, who has said that he began the project with more admiration for Assange than he had when he was finished, changing his mind as he goes. But while in a different kind of movie that could be exciting, here it just adds to the confusion.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
Gibney tried to get an interview with Assange, but couldn’t; in his voiceover narration, he says that Assange offered to sit for his cameras only if paid—his opening proposal was a million dollars—and that when Gibney demurred, Assange suggested that he might waive his fee if Gibney would “spy” on his other interview subjects and report back. That would have struck many potential admirers as a red flag, though as Gibney shows, it was hardly the first one that Assange had ever sent up in his brief but illustrious career as a “transparency radical” and free-speech martyr. Manning, of course, was never in any danger of coming near Gibney’s cameras. The 25-year-old private, who passed along the hundreds of thousands of cables and diplomatic reports that made up the Afghan and Iran “war logs” that WikiLeaks published, in conjunction with The Guardian, Der Spiegel, and The New York Times, was arrested in May 2010 and has been in custody ever since. Gibney did talk to Manning’s supervisor, who recalls that, in addition to his other emotional problems, he was “deeply addicted to soda” and “literally did not sleep, ever.” Whatever anyone thinks of Manning’s actions, it seems hard to argue that he didn’t need a therapist much more than he needed to have any kind of security clearance. Mostly, he needed a friend, and he thought he’d found one in Adrian Lamo, the hacker who reported Manning to the authorities after, he says, he became concerned that his disclosures were endangering innocent lives. Gibney also interviewed Kevin Poulsen, the hacker turned Wired reporter who diehard WikiLeaks defender Glenn Greenwald has accused of serving as “Lamo’s personal media voice.” Poulsen could be speaking for a lot of people in this story when he says that “Adrian lives his life as if it were a novel, and every novelist wants to be read.”

Both Manning and Lamo come across here as sad, sad men, in thrall to their compulsions and trapped in situations that offer them no potentially happy choices. The sections of the film dealing with Assange, the star—one of his colleagues refers to him as “the new Mick Jagger,” a status that he reveled in—make for easier viewing, if only because any conflict the viewer feels about him is likelier to be ideological than personal: there must be a better poster boy for his cause, but at least the man himself is a consistently self-serving, hypocritical jerk. Both Nick Davies of The Guardian, who says that Assange told him that he wasn’t concerned about whether people died as a result of information he made public, and that people who had collaborated or served as informers deserved to die, and disillusioned former WikiLeaks staffers relate that Assange, as an anti-secrecy absolutist, was quite prepared to publish anything he could get his hands on, without any redactions. (Mark Davis, a filmmaker sympathetic to Assange, insists that Assange was “tortured” over the responsibilities he had taken on, but that sounds about as persuasive as the claims by Condalleezza Rice and Laura Bush that Dubya was soaking the sheets with sweat and tears every night leading up to the invasion of Iraq, praying that he wouldn’t have to pull the trigger.)

Assange’s Darth Vader moment—the point where he abandons all claim to being a possibly compromised good guy and dives head first into the dark side—arrives when two Swedish women with whom he had unprotected sex against their wishes, and whose requests that he have an HIV test he repeatedly and contemptuously blew off, go to the police for help. When the story hits the papers, Assange skillfully spins it as a conspiracy yarn about how a couple of tootsies on the CIA payroll lured him into a honey trap. For viewers of a certain political bent, there may be nothing more depressing than the clips of self-appointed liberal gasbags like Michael Moore hitting the news shows to declare that, based on their knowledge of how evil governments and corporations work, they don’t need to know anything about the facts of this case to see that it’s all “hooey.” Inevitably, this leads to the women—one of whom agreed to be interviewed by Gibney—being tarred as “whores” and “sluts” who were out to destroy a “crusader for truth.” One of the people who takes to the streets to defend Assange is a woman who has to push her angry words through a gag she’s stuffed into her mouth, to show what it’s like when governments go around “gagging the truth.”

Director Alex Gibney
Gibney himself is closer to MSNBC than C-SPAN; his previous films include a choked-up profile of Hunter S. Thompson, and a conspiracy-minded defense brief for Eliot Spitzer. So as badly as Assange comes off, he can’t claim that Gibney must have been gunning for him. But all the material about Assange’s personal travails gets in the way of any judgment about the quality of the work he was doing before the Pyrrhic victory of the war logs, and the publicity that came with it, effectively shut down the “company.” (Although Assange always tried to make WikiLeaks sound like a monster of an organization, Mark Davis sums it up as “Julian Assange, his $300 laptop, ten-cent cards, and a very cheap jacket that he’d put on when he had to do an interview.” Asked to compare WikiLeaks to, say, Apple, journalist Gavin McFayden busts out laughing: “A corner gas station with some extremely bright attendants.”) Some of the earliest collaborations between Manning and Assange, such as the release of a military video of an Apache helicopter in Iraq strafing civilians and journalists, was in the solid muckraking tradition of putting out material that had been classified “secret” only because it had the power to make the government look bad. That was the same category as the Pentagon Papers, and Daniel Ellsberg knew just what he had when he released it. But Assange could barely read all the material he had, let alone understand most of it; he regarded all information as equally momentous, and he had a lot of it. It’s possible to agree with him that governments classify far too much material, usually for the wrong reasons, and still not see much value in huge, random data dumps, amounting to vacuuming as much information as can be had and putting it out into the world without context or analysis.

Considering the way Assange worked to make WikiLeaks seem powerful by exaggerating its size, the truest sign of his naïve hypocrisy may be the satisfaction he took in unearthing diplomatic cables in which American politicians revealed that, when they weren’t being respectful to their international colleagues to their faces, behind their backs they were calling them dolts and crooks and poopy-heads. Given the level of absolute, literal honesty and transparency that Assange would demand of governments, that’s a big deal. (One of the film’s more amusing ironies is that its title comes not from Assange, but from former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden.) But, as he had made clear by the time the sex scandal broke, Assange also demands that, as a professional crusader for truth, he be allowed to decide for himself how he’s doing in the morality department. This is not a standard that Daniel Ellsberg was comfortable with; once he leaked the Pentagon Papers, he was prepared to stand and fight, to see if the Nixon administration could have him put in jail. We Steal Secrets has a vast minefield for a subject, but the only thing that’s really clear at the end is that they don’t make whistleblowers the way they used to.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club

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