Australian politics, society & culture

We Steal Secrets: Alex Gibney, WikiLeaks & Julian Assange

Robert Manne

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Alex Gibney is one of America’s most celebrated and respected documentary film-makers. His major work about Julian Assange, We Steal Secrets: The story of WikiLeaks, has just been released, presumably to coincide with Bradley Manning’s trial for treason before an American military court. 

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Nothing concerning Assange is straightforward. Even before the film’s release a wild war of words broke out between WikiLeaks and Gibney. WikiLeaks accused Gibney of bias, ignorance and character assassination. To prove its point it published a detailed, annotated version of the film script, based on an audio recording. In response, Gibney has accused Assange of paranoia, a self-destructive desire for control and an inability to accept even legitimate criticism. Gibney’s powerful, accomplished and vivid film will for some time help shape opinion, especially among those members of the liberal Left on whom Assange now most relies. So in the conflict between them, it matters who is right.

Stripped of detail, most films tell a simple moral tale. Gibney’s goes like this. As a teenager, Assange is an audacious, underground computer hacker. Eventually, he is convicted and punished lightly. At this time, Assange is a humanitarian, anarchist revolutionary. He is interested in “crushing bastards”, a David determined to smite Goliath. In his 30s, he creates a whistleblower organisation, WikiLeaks, to do so. Its first really important success is the exposure of a banking scandal in Iceland.

In Iraq, a junior intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, becomes aware of WikiLeaks. Manning is struggling with a personal crisis of gender identity. In the US intelligence environment after September 11, the “need-to-know” rule about access to classified information has been replaced by “need-to-share”. As a result, Manning is in possession of massive amounts of raw intelligence data. Some of the things he sees shock him. In his unstable state, he secretly passes hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks, perhaps because of Assange’s persuasive powers. Abandoned by Assange, Manning unburdens his tormented soul and speaks of his crime in online chats with a supposed pro-WikiLeaks hacker, Adrian Lamo. Painfully torn between loyalty to the US and loyalty to Manning, Lamo chooses the US – and fame. Manning is arrested and then treated shamefully. The film’s sympathies are with him. He is somewhat ambiguously a hero and altogether unambiguously a victim.

The film’s sympathies, we discover halfway through, are not with Assange. In publishing Manning’s material about American war crimes he is no doubt brave, perhaps crazy-brave, but he is also many other things. One accusation follows another. Assange, we are told, lives in a digital world where real human beings do not matter. In favouring the release of the unredacted Afghan war logs he is indifferent to whether the Afghan sources mentioned in them live or die. They are, after all, collaborators. The Manning leaks turn Assange into a global star. He enjoys this newfound celebrity rather too much. We see him being made up for a television appearance and admiring photographs of himself in the press. In Sweden he has sex with two women. When they go to the police with complaints about coercion or a deliberately torn condom, he claims he is the victim of a “smear campaign” or, possibly, a CIA “honey trap” operation. Assange fantasises tiresomely about secret surveillance of himself. He exaggerates or even imagines a “secret plot” to extradite him to the US on charges of espionage. This provides his excuse for fighting extradition to Sweden to face the music and then for seeking political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

In Gibney’s moral tale, Assange may deserve praise for publishing Manning’s revelations. His enemies in the US administration and on the ideological Right may have used inflammatory rhetoric about cyber-terrorism or even assassination against him. But it is his character flaws that have tarnished his achievements and destroyed his organisation. Assange believes the purity of his motives justifies his many ruthless and dishonest actions. Even worse, under his leadership WikiLeaks as an organisation has become a mirror image of those it once opposed – secretive, authoritarian, intolerant, unjust.

This conclusion, as reached in We Steal Secrets, rests on a false foundation: that Assange’s present fears about extradition to the US are groundless or grossly exaggerated. We are told in a single sentence that Assange was once investigated by the US Department of Justice on possible espionage charges, and are later reminded that after two years no charges had been filed. This misunderstanding distorts almost everything we learn from the moment Julian Assange’s troubles commence, following WikiLeaks’ publication of the Bradley Manning material. In November 2010 the US Attorney-General, Eric Holder, announced a major criminal investigation into WikiLeaks. In Virginia a grand jury was empanelled. According to a leaked secret email from a former deputy chief of counterterrorism inside the State Department’s security service, in February 2011 a sealed indictment against Assange was issued. Two years later, on 26 March 2013, the US Attorney’s office for the eastern district of Virginia confirmed that the grand jury investigation “remains ongoing”.

No one could tell from watching We Steal Secrets that, ever since the empanelling of the grand jury, Assange has had excellent reason to believe that if extradited to the United States he will be in danger of spending the remainder of his life in one of its prisons. Assange’s fears are not fanciful, as Gibney suggests, but genuine and well founded.

Diminishing Assange’s fears is problematic for another reason. Assange challenged the world’s most powerful state by publishing the material Manning sent to WikiLeaks. Since then, he has relied upon a team of legal advisers, the unconditional loyalty of his tight circle of insiders, and his own high-level political skills to avoid extradition and its consequences. Not recognising the peril that Assange faces, and the steps he has taken to resist it, systematically distorts Gibney’s analysis of his main subject – the history of WikiLeaks over the last two and a half years.

Gibney might have understood this better if Assange had been willing to be interviewed. He was not. Two stories exist about the failure of their protracted negotiation. In We Steal Secrets Gibney tells us that Assange informed him that $1 million was the going rate for an interview, leading his audience to believe that money was a principal reason for Assange’s non-participation. Gibney also tells us that Assange suggested he might co-operate if Gibney acted as a spy reporting on his interview subjects. WikiLeaks’ annotations to the script provide an alternative version of the negotiation. Assange acknowledges that in their talks he told Gibney about the £800,000 he had once been offered by the BBC. In the circumstance, this was a careless boast but not a demand for payment. In the course of their conversations, Gibney told Assange about his interviews with high-ranking US officials, like Michael Hayden, the former CIA director. Assange admits that he told Gibney of his interest in learning about their plans for his extradition and trial. This was an understandable if foolish suggestion. Yet Gibney fails to tell his audience about the main reason for Assange’s unwillingness to be interviewed. Assange was appalled at the misrepresentations of previous documentaries about him and WikiLeaks. They were not just galling but also dangerous. He and his supporters faced serious legal and political risk.

To tell the inside story of WikiLeaks without interviewing Assange or any of his loyal supporters, Gibney was forced to rely on some of the insiders who have either been dismissed from WikiLeaks, like the German Daniel Domscheit-Berg, or who have defected, like James Ball, the young Englishman. Assange is a charismatic leader of a besieged organisation. It cannot have been easy for Domscheit-Berg or Ball to part company with Assange gracefully or without guilt. For this reason, the danger of relying uncritically on such witnesses ought to have been obvious. The evidence of We Steal Secrets suggests that for Gibney it was not.

Take the evidence of James Ball, who describes to Gibney his reaction to being asked by Assange to sign a non-disclosure agreement. “I found this a little awkward – being asked by a transparency organisation to sign exactly the kind of document used to silence whistleblowers around the world. It seemed pretty troubling and so I refused.” It is an apparently telling judgement. There are, however, problems with it. It is an oversimplification to call WikiLeaks a transparency organisation. WikiLeaks is based on the idea of seeking to expose corruption by guaranteeing its sources not transparency but absolute anonymity. This is one reason non-disclosure agreements might be needed. Nor is it reasonable to expect transparency from a tiny organisation under threat from an almighty state. Even more obviously, as Assange has proven, Ball did in fact sign a first non-disclosure agreement, on 23 November 2010. Ball also claims, damagingly, that Assange did not distinguish between donations to WikiLeaks and to his Swedish legal defence. “No one knows now whether money going to WikiLeaks is going to Julian or elsewhere.” As WikiLeaks shows in its annotations, donors were offered a clear choice. “You can help support Julian’s defence fund and/or contribute to WikiLeaks.” Donations were audited by a firm of accountants.

Even more importantly, in the final minutes of the film, Gibney relies uncritically on the interpretative judgements of those insiders who have fallen out with Assange. It is Domscheit-Berg who argues that “WikiLeaks has become what it detests and what it actually tried to rid the world of.” And it is James Ball who identifies what is called “‘noble cause corruption’; essentially you do things which, if anyone else did [them], you would recognise aren’t OK … but because you know you’re a good guy, it’s different for you.” These statements, being partly defensive and self-justificatory, are hardly objective and authoritative.

Assange’s spectacular fallings-out have not only been with former WikiLeaks insiders. Almost as bruising were those with some of his mainstream media partners at the New York Times and the Guardian. Gibney does not pretend to explain why these explosions occurred. He allows the Australian journalist Mark Davis to record the hypocrisy and condescension of the New York Times, which first published WikiLeaks’ material and then ridiculed Assange before abandoning him to his fate. More questionably, it is one of Assange’s most implacable enemies, Nick Davies of the Guardian, the hero of the News of the World phone hacking scandal, who makes some of the film’s most damaging charges. On screen, Davies bristles with aggression towards Assange. He is the film’s most important witness regarding Assange’s supposed indifference to the fate of the Afghan sources named in the US war logs. In this dispute between Davies and Assange, the evidence is mixed. In We Steal Secrets Davies claims that Assange told him in a personal conversation that if Afghans were collaborators with the Americans they deserved to die. Assange has always denied using such words, though he uses as his defence the eyewitness testimony of a Der Spiegel journalist concerning a quite different occasion, a dinner conversation involving a second detested Guardian journalist, David Leigh. In another instance regarding the Afghan-indifference accusation, Assange is on firmer ground. Davies tells Gibney of his “amazement” when he heard Assange tell journalists at a press conference on 25 July 2010 about his harm minimisation strategy. “Julian had no harm minimisation in place.” The WikiLeaks annotations quote from an article published in the Guardian that very morning, in part written by Davies, which outlined clearly WikiLeaks’ strategy for harm minimisation. Almost everyone agrees that Assange’s first impulse – to publish the Afghan war logs unredacted – was wrong. But it was a lesson he learnt and never consciously repeated.

There are also legitimate questions about the film’s account of the Swedish sexual allegations. Some arise from the way Gibney has edited material from contemporary interviews with Assange. In one, Assange is shown to be saying: “I have never said this is a honey trap. I have never said it’s not a honey trap.” And shortly after: “There are powerful interests that have incentives to promote these smears.” Here is a fuller version of the interview Gibney draws upon:

Assange: I have also never criticised these women. We don’t know precisely what pressures they have been under, exactly. There are powerful interests that have incentives to promote these smears. That doesn’t mean that they got in there in the very beginning and fabricated them.

Interviewer: So you’re not suggesting this was a honey trap?

Assange: I have never said that this is a honey trap.

Interviewer: You don’t believe it?

Assange: I have never said it’s not a honey trap. I’m not accusing anyone until I have proof.

The differences between the original interview and the comments seen on screen are subtle but significant. Gibney’s misleading edit underpins the scathing assessment by Davies that follows directly and which carries the film’s final interpretative weight: “What Julian did was to start the little snowball rolling down the hill, that this was some kind of conspiracy.” Davies is hardly an objective witness on this matter. Responsible for the first analysis in the British press of the leaked Swedish police report concerning the allegations, his competence and fair-mindedness were immediately challenged by Assange and his supporters. One of his most acerbic critics was Guy Rundle, in an article in this magazine. Several months after its publication, a still-enraged Davies threw a glass of wine in Rundle’s face.

Far more importantly, Gibney misleads his audience about the reason Assange has fought so fiercely to avoid extradition to Sweden. The interpretation he favours is best expressed by one of Assange’s Swedish accusers, Anna Ardin: “He has locked himself up to avoid coming to Sweden to answer a few pretty simple questions.” This is utterly unconvincing. There is direct evidence that the US is delaying action until the conclusion of the Swedish cases. Indeed, Assange’s lawyers believe that US legal authorities are compelled to wait for decisions on both the request for extradition from Britain and the hearing in Sweden of possible charges before moving on Assange. Those interested can find their detailed reasoning in the tightly argued and cogent document, ‘Extraditing Assange’. In these circumstances Assange is, to put it mildly, right to be cautious. One false move might earn him a lifetime in jail. In We Steal Secrets, Gibney breezily ignores all this. He claims rather that “members of Assange’s legal team admitted that it would be easier for the United States to extradite Assange from Britain.” At best, this is a vast oversimplification. Gibney relies here on an interview fragment from Baroness Helena Kennedy, who has since told Assange that she has been misrepresented.

The wronged party in We Steal Secrets is Bradley Manning. Once more, however, there are problems about the way Gibney presents the crucial evidence. There are only two direct sources for Manning’s state of mind at the moment of his fateful decision to pass on to WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents: his confessional chat logs with Adrian Lamo, where the emphasis is on his crisis of gender identity, and his statement before the military court at Fort Meade on 28 February this year, in which he outlines lucidly the political reasons for his disillusionment with his country’s behaviour and decision. Because Gibney relies exclusively on the confessional chat logs, his audience is led to believe that it was profound psychological breakdown rather than sincerely held political principle that best explains Manning’s motives. Although Assange and many of his supporters argue that interest in Manning’s psychic state is prurient or irrelevant to Gibney’s story, and that Manning should be seen as nothing but a principled war crimes whistleblower, with Manning, at the moment of his critical decision, the personal and the political were self-evidently and inscrutably entangled. Nonetheless it seems wrong and puzzling for Gibney to omit the best evidence we have of Manning’s political motivation. Nor can Gibney argue that Manning’s testimony came too late to be included. One small detail in the film – Manning’s claim that he approached both the Washington Post and the New York Times before approaching WikiLeaks – proves that Gibney had read Manning’s statement to the court in time.

At its conclusion, We Steal Secrets tries to drive a moral wedge between Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. James Ball suggests that Manning turned to his betrayer, Lamo, only because he was abandoned by WikiLeaks. This is simply untrue. In his statement to the court, Manning spoke about the many long and enjoyable conversations he had with his contact at WikiLeaks, whom he called “Nathaniel”. In this testimony Manning does not identify “Nathaniel”. The Lamo chat logs suggest that almost certainly he was Assange. Further to Ball, Assange’s most bitter enemy, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, offers a contrast between the situations facing Assange and Manning: “We must get away from this understanding that we see Julian as the saviour, as some noble guru, as some new hero or some new pop star or whatever that’s going to change all of it … Bradley Manning is the courageous guy. He is the one that took all the risk and, in the end, now is suffering.”

In the moral economy of We Steal Secrets, Domscheit-Berg’s words come close to serving as a final judgement. They also involve several telling distortions. Assange and Manning have been loyal to each other throughout what is their mutual crisis. The risks facing Assange are very real, and if there is one quality in him that cannot possibly be doubted, it is his quite extraordinary courage.

Shortly before this film was released, the New Yorker launched a whistleblower drop-box coded by another young electronic freedom fighter, Aaron Swartz, who earlier this year took his life rather than face trial following a grand jury indictment for illegally downloading large numbers of academic articles. And, at the time of writing, the world learnt that the American government had been secretly collecting the phone, email and text records of its citizenry, a practice that Al Gore described as “obscenely outrageous”. Julian Assange is the fearless and imaginative inventor of a political means by which individuals in the electronic age can expose the encroachment and corruption of state and corporate power. For this reason, he seems to me to deserve far more sympathy and credit than is found in Alex Gibney’s superficially impressive but ultimately myopic film.

Robert Manne appears in We Steal Secrets, having written a major profile of Julian Assange for this magazine in 2011.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University and has twice been voted Australia's leading public intellectual. He is the author of Left, Right, Left: Political Essays, 1977–2005 and Making Trouble. Visit his blog.

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