We Steal Secrets: A response from Alex Gibney
Here are my reactions to your review. They appear as comments in your text.
While I disagree with most of your views, I thank you for expressing them in a dispassionate way.
We Steal Secrets: Alex Gibney, Wikileaks and Julian Assange
(An Annotated Review)
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.
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the US intelligence environment after September 11, the “need-to-know” rule about access to classified information has been replaced by “need-to-share”.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.
Alex Gibney: This announcement is shown in the film.
Robert Manne: I am aware of that. At this point of the review I am simply presenting the principal evidence for the view that Julian Assange’s fears are far from fanciful.
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”.
AG: I don't dispute this. Neither does the film. However, I have done two other films about people who were the subjects of Grand Jury investigations. Neither sought asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy. In both cases, the government decided not to pursue a case. The existence of a Grand Jury investigation is not evidence of an indictment. It may, in fact, be a political way of protecting Obama's "right flank." I have been told (and Smari McCarthy and others have confirmed) that the GJ investigation was losing steam. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that the DOJ cannot figure out how to distinguish WikiLeaks from the NY Times. Recent actions by WikiLeaks in regard to Snowden (taken after the film was complete) may have given the DOJ ammunition to try new legal theories. I hope not. I believe that if Assange acts as a publisher, he must be treated as one under US law.
RM: Although you say that the film does not dispute that there has been an ongoing grand jury investigation of Julian Assange for the past two-and-a-half years, by not referring to it the film certainly does not make the nature and seriousness of the grand jury investigation clear. At one point you say: “Over two years after the first leak, no charges had been filed by the US. Assange claimed that the US was biding its time, waiting for him to go to Sweden, but there was no proof.” At another point you say: “Despite the lack of evidence of any secret plot, Ecuador granted him asylum.” And without explanation, you dismiss the leaked Stratfor email concerning the existence of a sealed indictment as a “rumour”. (I agree that the Stratfor email does not provide proof that a sealed indictment exists but I believe that it constitutes something much more solid and worrisome than mere rumour.) In my opinion these statements, in combination, must leave the viewers of your film with the thought that Assange has at best greatly exaggerated the fears of extradition to the US and indictment on a serious criminal charge and at worst is altogether fanciful, even paranoid, in what he most fears. Neither Assange nor you nor I nor anyone else knows whether the US administration intends to try to extradite Assange. This does not seem to me the point. The question is whether Assange has solid grounds for fearing that it is a possibility. If I had been under investigation for two-and-a-half years by a grand jury, as part of a criminal investigation serious enough to have engaged the attention of the US Attorney-General, I would not find solace in the kinds of speculative possibilities you raise in your comment that Obama might be protecting himself from the right by continuing the investigation despite no intention to prosecute or in Smari McCarthy’s impression that the investigation is losing steam. The issue is not, in my view, whether Assange has proof of US intentions. The issue, or so it seems to me, is whether he has legitimate grounds for his fear. As you will be aware, a recent New York Times investigation published after the completion of your film has given even greater credence to Assange’s fears about the continuing criminal investigation. “Interviews with government agents, prosecutors and others familiar with the WikiLeaks investigation, as well as an investigation of court documents, suggest that Mr Assange and WikiLeaks are being investigated by several government agencies, along with a grand jury that has subpoenaed witnesses. Tens of thousands of pages of evidence have been gathered. And at least four other former members of WikiLeaks have had contact with the United States authorities seeking information on Mr. Assange, the former members said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a matter they were informed was confidential.” David Carr and Ravi Somaiya, “Assange, Back in News, Never Left US Radar”, The New York Times, June 24 2013.
AG: You and I will have to agree to disagree about some of this. I agree that the investigation is very serious. It has deployed many resources, as Grand Jury investigations often do. The film makes it clear that there are those in the US who have it out for Assange.
I’m concerned about one thing. You refer to my script as saying “despite the lack of evidence of any secret plot.” But that’s not the final narration. The final narration (I am in transit so I can’t give you the verbatim text) makes it clear that I am talking about the lack of evidence of any secret US-Sweden plot. As stated before, Assange’s transcript is not accurate. That’s why I hope that people who want to participate in this debate see the film, as you have done.
I do believe that Julian has come to believe that the US is seeking to extradite him no matter what. But you seem to be suggesting that seeking asylum would be rational, sensible or even inevitable in the face of a Grand Jury investigation. That just isn’t so. Otherwise, embassies all over the world would be full. Furthermore, Assange is not without resources. Unlike people far less famous than he, he has access to the world’s best human rights lawyers.
Assange also seems to be concerned about US efforts to link him to Manning. I don’t see why. According to first amendment lawyers I have spoken to at the ACLU and elsewhere, Assange – as a publisher – had every right to talk to Manning (if he did). Bob Woodward encourages federal employees to leak classified material all the time. He does so within the law. As a publisher, WikiLeaks can do so also.
I agree that Assange should take these investigations seriously. That’s why I mentioned them. And I also agree that he has a right to seek asylum. But to assume that he will be extradited is a bridge too far. Assange doesn’t even know the charges – if any - that might be brought. If the charges are political (such as the Espionage Act) many countries – including Sweden – would refuse to extradite him.
This brings us to the point at hand. Was part of Assange’s motivation to avoid being brought to account for sexual allegations in Sweden? If Assange was so convinced that he would be extradited by the United States, why didn’t he seek asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy prior to the final decision of the British court? The Grand Jury investigation was ongoing for a long time. What changed after the decision? Clearly Assange decided that the attempt to extradite him to Sweden was a back-door attempt to extradite him to the United States. But we know from many experts – including members of his own legal team – that it would be more difficult for the US to extradite Assange from Sweden than from the United Kingdom. There is also no good evidence that demonstrates that the Swedish government is conspiring with the United States to extradite Assange to America.
I disagree with you about Stratfor emails. They do not represent anything more than rumor. The folks at Stratfor boast about knowing stuff that they don’t really know all the time.
RM: As in all answers in this final round I will be as brief as possible.
Your film does not suggest the size or seriousness of the grand jury investigation.
I have never claimed that Assange will be extradited. In my reply I argue that no one knows what are the US administration’s intentions.
The probable reason that the FBI have sought assiduously to find details about Assange’s contact with Manning is that they are considering a conspiracy charge. And if Assange’s concerns regarding the question of his contact with Manning are groundless, how do you explain the fact that the FBI sent a dozen people to Iceland on a WikiLeaks fishing expedition or required Google to hand over the entire records of four WikiLeaks volunteers?
Assange only went to the Ecuador Embassy after all his appeals against extradition to Sweden had failed. For much of the time before that he was in prison or under house arrest. He believed that the US was not going to embarrass the UK government by jumping the extradition queue, and has recently said that he will remain in the Ecuador Embassy even if Sweden drops the sexual charges.
As you admit that Assange’s fears are genuine, it is clear that he is not confident that Sweden will refuse to extradite him to the US. Although I am not a lawyer, I don’t believe your simple statement –about the groundlessness of Assange’s fears because Sweden is not willing to extradite anyone on political grounds—is well-based. I’m certain that if the US tried to extradite Assange it would deny that the cause—let’s say conspiracy to commit espionage—was political. You might think you know how Sweden would act in that case. I do not.
I had to rely on the WikiLeaks transcript as Universal Pictures in Australia were unwilling to send anyone an advance DVD.
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.
AG: As noted above, the existence of a Grand Jury investigation should not, in any way, lead one to conclude that Assange "will be in danger of spending the rest of his life in prison."
RM: I have argued my chief point already. All I need add here is something almost self-evident: That if Assange is indeed eventually extradited to the US he will most likely face charges that carry the possibility of a very severe prison sentence.
AG: Please look at this string of “ifs” and “most likely”s. Should everyone who might face serious charges seek [to avoid?] extradition?
RM: As a matter of fact, almost everyone does. I believe that Assange is justified in trying to avoid extradition to the US because (like you) I do not believe that what he has tried to achieve at WikiLeaks is criminal or wrong and also because he has no reason to be confident that he will be treated impartially by the US justice system.
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.
AG: This is your conclusion, not mine. What I stated was accurate.
RM: It is true that I think the film leaves the clear impression on the viewer that Assange in large part refused to participate in the film because you would not pay a sum close to the figure he mentioned he had been offered by the BBC. It was one of the two reasons you suggest in the narration for Assange’s unwillingness to participate.
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.
AG: The narration of the film was carefully crafted. It says that Assange asked for money. He did. This was not the only time he asked for money. He asked for money the first time we met, one year earlier. The narration also states that JA said that $1 million was the going rate for an interview. (This was conservative since 800,000 pounds in more than US$1 million.) I have been in many negotiations. Usually when someone asks for money and then quotes a "rate," it is part of a negotiation. But I purposefully kept the sentences separate. You are right: my inference was that Assange was asking for a lot of money. I believe he was.
RM: You claim you “believe” he asked directly for money on at least two occasions. Assange admits that he mentioned a previous offer of 800,000 pounds from the BBC to you but claims that despite the financial plight of WikiLeaks following the blockade of Visa, Mastercard, PayPal etc money would not have swayed him. It is at least possible you misunderstood his intentions. In his annotation, which he claims is based on notes taken after meetings, he claims that he told you that he feared for the security of his organisation and people and had been furious with a previous documentary he had participated in. I am sure the second reason here is true as I have read his detailed and enraged commentary on that previous documentary. The issue here is not whether he was right or wrong to refuse to participate but rather whether the impression the film conveyed about his motives for non-participation is adequate. As you know, Assange has agreed to participate in other documentaries, I assume without payment. Given the politics of these film-makers, he almost certainly anticipates from them more uncritical treatment than he would have known that you, as an independent film-maker working for a major commercial company, could have offered. I can understand both points of view. You could not possibly give him the kind of implicit assurances that I imagine he felt he needed. He however is rightly sensitive about the damage a major film can do to him in the court of liberal public opinion on which he now relies not merely for the political wellbeing of his organisation but also his personal freedom.
AG: I don’t say that “I believe” that Assange asked for money; I know he did. He asked me for money a number of times, including the first time we met. I said that I made an “inference” that he was asking for a lot of money. If that were all that Assange did, I might not have mentioned it. It was his follow-up – his request that I spy on others – that I found far more troubling.
One of the issues here, of course, is the difference of views between me and Assange on access. He believes that a documentary about him and WikiLeaks cannot be truthful if he does not participate. At first blush, that might make sense to some. But upon closer examination, it looks more like someone who wants to control public debate about himself and confuses his self-regard with an objective truth. As he told Jemima Khan, “If it’s a fair film, it will be pro-Julian Assange.”
I have made many documentaries in which principals did not participate. For example, in my film about clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church – “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” – the Pope and various members of the curia declined to participate. Despite that, I believe that my portrait of that institution was truthful and accurate.
RM: My reading of his reason for not participating is the opposite to yours. You say he refused in order to render the film untruthful. But in his annotation he says that one of the reasons he did not wish to participate is that he did not believe a film made for a commercial mainstream company would be truthful. I don’t disagree that his unwillingness to participate is because he wants to maintain control. Although I think he would have been wise to participate, to provide a balance to the views of his enemies, I can understand his reasons for fearing the harm that might be done to him in the court of liberal public opinion by an unfriendly film, in which he has participated.
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.
AG: Assange's representations are inaccurate. JA asked for "intel" on all my other interview subjects - not just Hayden but also people such as Domscheit-Berg and Birgitta Jonsdottir - so that he could know what they were saying about him. He not only asked me but he asked one of my producers on a separate occasion. Why do you assume his account is accurate?
RM: I have no knowledge of this. If so, Assange’s annotation was not complete.
AG: Forgive me, but your review did not even suggest the possibility that Assange’s annotation might not be “complete.”
AG: Furthermore, how can you give such credence to a "transcript" that omits fully 1/4 of the film: all of Bradley Manning's words. What cruel poetry that Assange wrote Manning out of his "transcript." The transcript was made from an audio recording of the version of the film screened at the Sundance Film Festival. As you know, Manning's words were shown, not spoken, so they weren't included in the "transcript."
RM: I’m not sure why you believe the absence of the Manning logs—a consequence of making a secret audio recording so as to have a response ready at the time of the first screenings of the film—undermines the credibility of the annotated version. The annotation is merely and, given the circumstances, necessarily incomplete. I don’t accept that Assange deliberately wrote Manning out of the transcript or, as you imply in the phrase about poetic justice, that there is any evidence that Assange has been indifferent either to Manning personally or to his legal defence. (See below) In my view, and I have followed things reasonably closely, at every critical moment, Assange has done all within his power to assist Manning.
AG: “Cruel poetry” is not meant to suggest that Assange intentionally wrote Manning out of the story. What he did was amateurish and sloppy. But for all those who read it – and don’t bother to see the film – it appears that Manning is not a main character. In fact, he is at the center of the film. Further, based on this “transcript” and the tweets I get from Assange supporters, it is clear that the goal is not to promote dialogue but to prevent people from seeing the film. That’s suppressing speech, not encouraging it. I wrote a long influential piece criticizing “Zero Dark Thirty.” I saw the film 4 times. I encouraged others to do so in order to be part of the debate. Reading an “annotated transcript” of my film is NOT at all the same as seeing the film. If I had wanted to write an article, I would have done so. Therefore, I encourage everyone to see “We Steal Secrets” to make up their own minds.
AG: Again, I think that you are being far too easy on Assange. The “annotated transcript” was presented by WikiLeaks as a masterful “hack” into my operation. WL also boasted that it was a classic example of “scientific journalism.” It was neither.
There is nowhere in the document – or any of the WL presentations of the document - that admits that it is a flawed and inaccurate transcript of a film based on an audiotape recording from two different screenings and does not represent the film’s final shape. I would hope that you would see the problem here. If one can’t even trust the transcript, why should one trust the annotations?
RM: To repeat, I don’t think this is a significant issue. It’s clear that Assange wanted to be able to respond as soon as the film was released. And of course I agree that it’s wrong for anyone who is able now to see the film to comment without first viewing it.
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.
AG: The documentary includes notice that Ball and DDB fell out with Assange. So, the audience can keep that in mind. The documentary also notes that Assange declined to participate. The audience can judge that also, as you have done.
RM: Of course it’s true that we know that these people have fallen out with Assange. But how the audience is likely to judge what they say is not as simple as that. In my view, in what I call the moral economy of the film, very great weight is placed on DDB’s and Ball’s statements especially towards the end of the film—DDB’s statement about WikiLeaks turning into the kind of authoritarian organisation it once detested and opposed and in the idea of Assange excusing his bad behaviour on what Ball describes as “noble cause corruption”. In the way the film is structured the viewer is encouraged to see these as telling and objective judgments rather than interesting but also partial, bitter, even maybe guilty ones. Because Assange is such a powerful and charismatic personality, the fallings out with him are certainly likely to have been fraught. For that reason I think it unbalanced to give people in this situation what seems to me like the final word. (I was struck by the way by Jonsdittir’s moderation compared to DDB and Ball.) And if Assange had asked my advice, I would have encouraged him to participate so his views could at least provide a balance to those of his former allies and present enemies.
AG: It’s interesting to me that you find the reactions of those who fell out with Assange as “fraught,” but can’t find fault with Assange’s perceptions. To your last point, I am also disappointed that he did not participate. But that was his choice, not mine.
RM: To say that the fallings out were fraught is self-evident. One of the issues your film never discusses is the guilt some former WikiLeaks people might have felt in abandoning the cause as the legal and rhetorical threats from the US rose. Rop Gonggrijp, an ally who went to Washington with Assange in 2010, has acknowledged this factor with rare honesty: “I guess I could make up all sorts of stories about how I disagreed with people or decisions, but the truth is that during the period that I helped out, the possible ramifications of WikiLeaks scared the bejeezus out of me. ‘Courage is courageous’, my ass.” Some others involved were probably very scared. I have however never said and would never say that in these bust-ups all the fault was on one side. In such cases, outsiders cannot easily know all the relevant facts.
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.
AG: I urge you to read Ball's piece in the Daily Beast on this subject. There was an NDA re: the documents that was signed by Ball. However, JA then wanted Ball to sign a document that attempted to prevent him, for ten years, from talking about his experiences at WikiLeaks. If you want my personal view, I think that is hypocritical and all too like the corporations and governments that Assange likes to hold to account. I didn't say that in the film, however. Audiences can draw their own conclusions.
RM: From this I take it, and anyhow know it to be true, that James Ball now concedes that he did in fact sign one non-disclosure agreement. I assume you didn’t know that while making the film. I’m actually not surprised that Assange tried to get him to sign the second one. Nor do I think the demand can be described as simply “hypocritical”. WikiLeaks is firstly not straightforwardly a “transparency organisation”. It is rather a revolutionary organisation trying to create a better world by providing a means for whistleblowers to expose corruption without risking prosecution or martyrdom. It is anonymity not transparency that it offers its informants. Even more importantly, because both Assange and WikiLeaks have challenged the most powerful state on earth, they have very powerful enemies and are facing very real dangers. In such circumstances, transparency could be lethal. You will have noticed that it has just been revealed that in 2011 an Icelandic volunteer, Sigurdur Thordarson, joined WikiLeaks and then shortly after began providing the FBI with information that presumably might be useful in the prosecution of either Manning or Assange. Given this kind of situation, demanding loyalty from insiders and non-disclosure agreements from those leaving the organisation, seems to me understandable even prudent.
AG: Here, you and I have a serious disagreement, possibly a philosophical one. I did know about the earlier NDA but did not include it for reasons of economy. (Films, unlike books, have to face the issue of time.) As a personal matter, I will sign NDAs re: materials, but won’t sign those that infringe on my ability to speak about events or people I encounter. I felt free to include Ball’s remark because it concerned that latter type of NDA.
This second NDA was also pernicious in a way that Ball suggests in his on-camera interview. Had he signed it, he would have been in violation of it the moment the ink dried on his signature. Julian intended that it be used as a means of controlling and blackmailing Ball and others.
I am rather more concerned by your blithe acceptance of the need for such a document. WikiLeaks never presented itself publicly as a “revolutionary organization.” Indeed, from a legal perspective, it made the claim – which I agree with in principle – that WL was a publisher. We can agree that source protection, or anonymity, was one goal of the organization. But it’s also true that the other, more profound goal of WikiLeaks was to hold powerful governments and corporations to account by publishing leaked documents which reveal mendacity and corruption. In other words, it was a transparency organization.
RM: This last sentence is a non sequitur. Part of WikiLeaks’ modus operandi was the guarantee of anonymity to sources. Moreover once the US began to act against Assange, by a legal investigation which it told the Australian government was vast in scale, transparency would have been foolish and lethal.
AG: Particularly in that context, I think that Ball was right to resist signing a document that would have prevented him from speaking freely about what he observed at WikiLeaks.
You suggest that, when it comes to WikiLeaks, its noble end can justify ignoble means. If that is what you mean, I fundamentally disagree. This is one of the key themes of the film.
I once made a film about the way in which the American government justified torture, extraordinary rendition and detention in Guantanamo – all in the name of a noble cause.
To be clear, I am NOT saying that Assange’s misbehaviour was equivalent to state-sanctioned torture. What I am saying is that, when it comes to taking on the American state, it pays to take the moral high ground. We depend on stories to create meaning. When an organization that seeks to hold others to account makes the claim that it is “above” accountability – perhaps because, as you say, it is a “revolutionary organization” - the narrative of WikiLeaks is no longer convincing. You either believe in free speech or you don’t. It doesn’t do to publicly demand protection for whistleblowers and then blackmail your own employees – under threat of a multi-million dollar judgement – into remaining silent about whatever mendacity or corruption they might uncover in the course of their work. Here is my point of view: I don’t believe that the end justifies the means – for the US government or for WikiLeaks.
Julian likes to hold others to account but has a desperate fear of being held to account himself. He can’t admit even small mistakes and that leads to bigger ones. I think this is a problem that deserves to be discussed in the film since the subject of the film is WikiLeaks. As Julian once told me, “I am WikiLeaks.”
I do suggest in the film that WikiLeaks inhabited too much of the paranoid sprit of the institutions it reviled. When you start seeking “intel” on others in order to embarrass them or protect yourself, and when you start using the language of the Espionage Act to reprimand your colleagues, you start acting like a storybook spy. (By this, I am NOT implying that WikiLeaks should be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. I do not believe that. Indeed, I would be among the first to defend WikiLeaks if that were to happen.) When you start acting like a spy, you start playing the spy “game.” There are professionals who can play that game much better than WikiLeaks. It is a game WL is bound to lose.
I was interested in WikiLeaks as a David and Goliath tale. Sadly, Julian became, over time, more interested in acting like a Goliath than a David. (Saying that WL has a “harm minimization program” sounds more like the Pentagon than a nimble publisher of leaks.)
RM: It’s seriously strange that you interpret me to be saying that in this case immoral behaviour is justified because the cause is noble or that in this case the ends justify the means. Surely you must know that I do not agree that in the case of the non-disclosure agreement or indeed in general that WikiLeaks has behaved immorally. Nor do I think it sensible to argue that WikiLeaks could afford simply to take the moral high ground no matter how much that might have appealed to mainstream liberal opinion. What you do not seem to grasp imaginatively—I do not know why—is that since April 2010 WikiLeaks has been under very great pressure from the US state which would like to destroy it. Trying to prevent former insiders who are leaving the organisation from disclosing things about its staff or its operations seems to me not immoral but prudent. To be honest, I think it ludicrous to regard this as blackmail. Assange had no power to enforce any non-disclosure agreement. Many WikiLeaks volunteers thought Assange far too concerned about security. As we now know, one of its Icelandic volunteers was an FBI informer.
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.
AG: Why do you believe that the "annotations" are correct? Backing up the claims of many interview subjects are further comments and documents. There is hard evidence to back up Ball's claim.
RM: Here I have relied on plain documentary evidence. Does Ball claim that the document Assange reproduces in his annotation from which I quote in the review is a fake? If it is not a fake, then the situation could not have been as simple or straightforward as the damaging one Ball suggests in the film.
AG: You should read Ball’s piece. As for the “annotation,” it is one piece of paper. There are many others that are far more damaging to WikiLeaks. We relied on them for our legal review.
RM: In his annotation Assange provides dates to show that Ball was not involved in WikiLeaks at the time of this fund raising effort. My case is that, given the document quoted in the review, the situation could not have been as straightforward as your film suggests.
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.
AG: They are not presented as such. The film makes no claim to being "objective." Would you conclude that the "annotations" are objective?
RM: See above for the substance re the interpretative weight given to DDB and James Ball. I’m not sure whether we mean the same thing by the use of the word objective. I mean: fair-minded, balanced, answerable to evidence, rational etc. Having seen your work, I’m pretty sure you feel answerable to this concept of objectivity.
AG: If that is what you mean by “objectivity,” then yes, we agree.
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.
AG: Yes, I do allow Davis to say this. My inclusion of the statement indicates that I felt the statement was important.
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 detestedGuardian journalist, David Leigh.
AG: What would you conclude if two journalists say the same thing on different occasions? As you point out, I am relying on Davies' account. However, somewhat later in the sequence, I include Mark Davis's comment that he believes that Julian did care deeply about this issue. The audience is left to choose between two different interpretations. To put my cards on the table, I believe that Assange was conflicted and expressed both things. But I wasn't there. So I present two versions of Assange's state of mind on this issue. In any event, Assange did not fully redact the documents.
RM: In this instance, as I say in the review, I think Assange has failed to refute Davies. Nor do I disagree with your general opinion that Assange was conflicted on the issue. I would add that he also was learning on the job, as it were, and changed his mind after becoming aware of the ethical and political seriousness surrounding the question of redactions.
AG: Yes. He changed his mind on the Iraq War logs. The process of redactions for the IWL – partially designed by James Ball - was thorough. Sadly, the political damage was done by then. I agree that there is no proof of any actual casualties in Afghanistan as a result of a failure to redact.
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.
AG: The article to which you refer only cited WikiLeaks' claims that it had a redaction policy in place. In fact, WikiLeaks did not have a plan for a "harm minimization program." Or put, another way, perhaps it did: "Harm minimization" could be an Orwellian term that indicated that WikiLeaks "minimized" the possible damage to informants by withholding 15,000 documents and by asking the NY Times to convey to the Pentagon, one day before the release, an "opportunity" to redact the documents for WikiLeaks. So there was some "effort" made, but not what I would call a "program." I agree that WikiLeaks corrected this problem in the Iraq War Logs and the film says this. However, what you neglect to mention is the political damage caused by Julian's failure to redact. It allowed the Pentagon to isolate WikiLeaks from the other journalistic organizations.
RM: My point here was narrower than you suggest. I was not trying to discuss the whole issue of redactions but only the reliability of Davies’ witness on this point. As just stated, I think Davies’ version on the first point is not successfully refuted by Assange but that on the second point it is. By the time the Afghan war logs were first published in The Guardian there clearly was, in contradiction to what Davies says, a version of a harm minimisation program in place. My view has always been that the initial absence of a clear redaction strategy was wrong and also, as you say, did play into the hands of Assange’s enemies, and that it was therefore both an ethical and political mistake.
AG: I agree with you except that Davies was referring to the Afghan War Logs release. Davies was correct that, for the AWL release, there was no “Harm Minimization Process.”
RM: The film quotes Davies about the absence of a “harm minimization process” and shows Assange at the media conference where the Afghan war logs were launched. On that very morning, according to Assange, there was an article in The Guardian, part-authored by Davies, where a harm minimization strategy was discussed. In his annotation he publishes a photo taken at that conference where he is holding up that morning’s edition of The Guardian.
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.
AG: The film shortened Assange's exchange but the essential meaning was retained. Indeed, the longer version - with its reference to "powerful interests that have incentives to promote these smears" - is more redolent of conspiracy. Further, we also show WL tweets which indicate that Assange promoted the idea that the allegations were part of a "smear campaign." There is no proof that the allegations were, in any way, "cooked up" as part of a conspiracy to discredit WikiLeaks. Indeed, if Assange had taken an HIV test, there would have been no "allegations."
RM: I’m a bit confused here. Later in the film you do quote Assange’s words about the “powerful interests that have incentives to promote these smears” but again without sentences that come before and after these words: “I have never criticised these women” and “that doesn’t mean they got in there at the very beginning and fabricated them.” In my view, the editing did not fairly convey the nuance and tone of Assange’s views as stated in that particular interview. I do not think he can be held responsible, at least not without evidence, for the things his supporters said. Again, according to evidence presented in the annotation, Assange stayed in Sweden for quite a number of days offering himself for a police interview without success and only then left Sweden. Do you believe this is a lie? He also produces evidence in the annotation from the police statement of one witness suggesting he was willing to take an HIV test.
AG: I believe I properly conveyed Asange’s meaning. He was always careful never to say that the Swedish Affair was a “honey trap,” but he often suggested it in ways that were meant to create that impression. This is consistent with the way Julian likes to promote intrigue. In the case of the “Wank Worm,” he has never taken responsibility and never denied his involvement. A release of a statement of “agreed-upon facts” in the extradition hearing indicates that Assange left Sweden the day before an arranged meeting with prosecutors. RE: HIV – Davies notes correctly, in the film, that he did agree to take the test…after the women had gone to the police, ie: when it was too late.
RM: Where you see a penchant for intrigue, or perhaps deliberate innuendo, in his discussion of the case brought against him by Anna and Sofia, I see great care with his words. So far as I know, he never spoke in the cavalier way Mike Moore does in your film. I do not believe the editing of the BBC interview was fair to him.
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.
AG: Please show me this "direct evidence." Arguments by his paid attorneys do not qualify.
RM: The direct evidence to which I referred is in a report in the Independent, a very reputable British newspaper, of December 8 2010: “The Swedish government seeks Mr Assange’s extradition for alleged sexual offences against two women. [US] sources stressed that no extradition request would be submitted until and unless the US government laid charges against Mr Assange, and that attempts to take him to America would only take place after legal proceedings are concluded in Sweden.”
AG: I fear that I don’t see the same things as you. There is no named source here, no charges, and no demand for extradition.
RM: What I see is this: The US in early December 2010 was considering laying charges and had determined not to take any action until the Swedish extradition attempt had been concluded one way or another. Sources in such cases are never named. But diplomatic correspondents of serious newspapers don’t customarily invent reports of this kind.
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’.
AG: You could also read a number of far more convincing arguments - in the New Statesman and the Guardian and elsewhere - that indicate that extraditing Assange would be far more difficult from Sweden than from the United Kingdom.
RM: I’m surprised you put it like this. WikiLeaks produced a 70,000 word document (to which I refer in the review) answering the position outlined in The New Statesman. It is extremely carefully argued. Perhaps the most important point is this: The US administration was highly unlikely to make an extradition request to the UK until the question of the prior Swedish request for the extradition of Assange had reached its conclusion.
AG: I disagree with your contention about the WikiLeaks document. I do not find it convincing at all. I do agree that it is long. Swedish law is clear on the matter of the fact that it does not extradite for political offenses.
RM: Your sense of the clarity of Swedish law in this case seems to me dogmatic and over-simple. What is political needs to be defined. Would Sweden for example refuse to extradite a suspected anti-American terrorist to the US because his motives were “political” ? I urge readers to look at the WikiLeaks document, “Extraditing Assange”, and judge for themselves on this and other matters whether or not it is tightly argued.
In these circumstances Assange is, to put it mildly, right to be cautious. One false move might earn him a lifetime in jail.
AG: What is your evidence for this? There is no evidence that an indictment has been made.
RM: I have already answered the substantive point about the rationality of Assange’s fears. I say he “might” be imprisoned after extradition not that he would be. You surely cannot be suggesting there was/is no possibility of extradition to the US and long-term imprisonment. Once more, I refer you to the recent New York Times analysis mentioned above.
InWe 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.
AG: I have the transcript, which was shown to attorneys. Helena Kennedy responds to a direct question on this subject.
RM: There is no doubt that Helena Kennedy said the words you show in the film. But there is also no doubt that she said many other things as well. Kennedy has argued that she “did not expect that [Gibney] would fillet my interview” and that “I regret thinking I could present a sensible perspective”.
The issue is anyhow not really, in my view, whether it would be easier for Assange to be extradited from the UK than Sweden but whether he might be extradited from Sweden if he was forced to go there to face the sexual charges. Assange has recently said that even if the Swedish charges were dropped he would not leave the Ecuadorean Embassy because of his fears about extradition from the UK.
AG: Many interview subjects would like all their words to be included. As you know, even in an article, that is not possible. Kennedy’s statement was in direct response to my question precisely on that point. As lawyers say: “asked and answered.”
The last statement by Assange is interesting. But it is outside the period of time covered by my film. In the case of Snowden, Assange has also been acting recently in ways that might suggest, in a legal context, that WikiLeaks could be seen as something other than a publisher. If I were Assange’s attorney, I might be concerned about that. But this event – and the consequences therefrom, if any - takes places beyond the timeframe of my film. I fear that WikiLeaks’ involvement in the Snowden case may not end up being good for Snowden or WikiLeaks. But I say that as a distant observer of that story, with no inside knowledge.
RM: On the substantive point I would say WikiLeaks is a revolutionary organisation whose method centres on the publication of documents provided by anonymous whistleblowers revealing the encroachment and corruption of state and corporate power.
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.
AG: This is your conclusion but it is not borne out by the film. There is nothing in the film which would lead one to the conclusion that Manning's emotional distress "caused" him to leak documents. Indeed, the film makes clear that he was motivated by a rising political consciousness. The film, after all, ends with the words "i care." If you care to inquire, you can read my open letter to Kevin Gosztola in Firedoglake or Nathan Fuller on his blog for a fuller explanation.
What you also ignore is that Manning's personal distress solves a key mystery in this story: why, if the WikiLeaks leaking machine was so perfect, did Bradley Manning have a need to reach out to Adrian Lamo and talk so openly about leaking and his own personal crises?
RM: As I make clear in the review, unlike Assange and many of his supporters I believe that with Manning the personal and the political were entangled and that therefore you were right to include a lot about Manning’s crisis of gender identity and his troubled behaviour as revealed by the long interview with the female soldier in the film. I do not however agree that the film gets the balance between the political and personal threads right. I did not understand Manning’s political motives before I read the transcript of his court statement after seeing your film. Nor do I think it fair somehow to blame WikiLeaks or Assange for Manning’s decision to turn to Lamo. The chat logs with Lamo and the court statement show that Manning had substantial contact with the WikiLeaks person he called “Nathaniel”. Perhaps even more importantly, at the core of the modus operandi of WikiLeaks is the idea that the less they know about their sources the better will they be able to protect their identity. If anything, in the case of Manning, WikiLeaks and Assange probably got closer to their source than their philosophy of guaranteed anonymity suggested was prudent. If there is evidence of Assange’s callousness towards Manning, of the kind you are suggesting here, I have not yet seen it.
AG: We disagree about the balance in the film between the personal and the political in the Manning chats. The film, after all, ends with a statement of activism.
The dialogue between “Nathaniel” and Manning ended after WikiLeaks received the State Department cables. Manning reached out to Lamo once he no longer had access to “Nathaniel.” We don’t know why the communication stopped, but I can guess. In any event, in Manning’s trial his lawyer, David Coombs, made it clear that Manning reached out to Lamo because he was in emotional distress and needed someone to talk to.
RM: “I care?” seems to me sentimentality rather than clear-minded and detailed political purpose of the kind we see in the court statement. As I’ve already said, I think WikiLeaks’ communications with Manning went further than their modus operandi—to know as little as possible about their sources to better be able to protect their identity—suggested was prudent. We agree about what David Coombs said to the court.
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.
AG: You say it's the "best evidence." I disagree. It is a moving and important statement but it is also a considered statement made long after his decision to leak. As you know well, and as I know from having conducted many interviews, recollections of distant events can sometimes not be as accurate as those closer to the moment. I chose to rely exclusively on Manning's views as expressed, in the moment, from Iraq. Yet, as Glenn Greenwald has noted, the political commitment in these online "chats" are remarkably consistent with his later speech to the court. I did make an aesthetic decision to include the conversation as text rather than as dialogue which fits the other aesthetic aims of the film, which is also about how the internet is changing us as people.
RM: Although Manning’s political views are occasionally found in the quotes from chat logs you put on screen, as I have already mentioned it was only after I read the court statement that I felt I understood Manning’s political motivations. The reason Manning spoke to Lamo, I take it, was to unbare his soul. The reason he wrote his court statement was to provide the explanation of his reasons for doing what he did and in the way his lawyers advised, I imagine. In my view both sources are partial and valuable. In this kind of case (leaving aesthetics to one side) the challenge to documentary film makers and historians is similar—to take a critical attitude towards but also to consider and present all the most important available sources.
AG: This is not a reasonable criticism in my view. First of all, aesthetics are not irrelevant; they are an essential part of the meaning conveyed by the artist.
[RM: I am not suggesting they are irrelevant.]
AG: The written chats are essential to the overall meaning of the film.
Second, you do not address my contention that, in this case, Manning’s views about his actions at the time have a certain immediacy that hindsight does not provide. I found Manning’s speech to the court to be very moving (as stated, I am including it in our DVD extras) but it was outside the timeframe of the events we covered. In his chats with Lamo, Manning tried very hard to explain why he had done what he did. And Lamo tried very hard to get that out of him, as he admitted in court.
I am surprised that you did not notice Manning’s political motivations in the chats that I included. Most reviewers have remarked how clearly they showed Manning’s political commitment.
RM: It was the cogency and the detail in the court statement that opened my eyes to Manning’s political motivation. As I recognise, he and his lawyers undoubtedly crafted the statement with care, so it is only one piece of evidence, to be compared to the contemporary chat logs where he spoke from the heart.
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 Postand the New York Times before approaching WikiLeaks – proves that Gibney had read Manning’s statement to the court in time.
AG: You are correct. We were able to include some facts obtained from Manning's speech in the audio track of the film. However, the picture of the film was already locked. Furthermore, I made an editorial decision to focus on events at a certain moment in time. I have decided to include Manning's courtroom statement in the DVD of the film but as a moving speech which exists out of the temporal and aesthetic framework of the film.
RM: I think your decision to include some of Manning’s court statement in the DVD is an excellent one.
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.
AG: I would suggest that you read Manning's speech a bit more closely. He notes that he invested far more in the relationship than did "Nathaniel." That is a damning bit of understatement considering that Manning ended up seeking out someone else to talk to: Adrian Lamo.
RM: For the reasons I have already stated, I don’t think Manning’s statement is damning, either explicitly or implicitly. Without seeing the content of the exchanges between Manning and ‘Nathaniel’, and reading them while keeping WikiLeaks’ guarantee of anonymity to its sources in mind, I have no reason to believe your film’s suggestion is fair, namely that it was Assange’s indifference to Manning’s psychological needs that drove him into his fateful conversations with Lamo.
AG: We will have to agree to disagree on this point. At the very least, I would say that Manning’s need to talk to someone shows a flaw of the anonymous leaking machine, which, as noted by James Ball, can serve to protect the publisher more than the source.
RM: James Ball’s point seems to me foolish. The core of WikiLeaks is a system to provide whistleblowers with protection from prosecution by guaranteeing anonymity. As it happens, neither Manning nor Snowden availed themselves of this form of protection, for different reasons. Others have. What might be true, as the Manning case shows, is that there is a psychological flaw in WikiLeaks’ modus operandi.
AG: You are correct that the New Yorker has adopted a “drop box” designed by Aaron Swartz. At the same time, Edward Snowden – who studied the WikiLeaks case carefully – decided that he wanted to avoid that leaking method; he preferred to leak to a person he trusted.
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.
AG: I would submit that Assange has not been so loyal to Manning as Manning has been to him. Subsequent revelations will support that view.
RM: Obviously I can’t know what you mean about subsequent revelations. All I know is that Assange and WikiLeaks have been in the forefront of the movement to defend Manning ever since his arrest.
AG: We will have to agree to disagree on this point.
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.
AG: Manning is proving to be more courageous than Julian Assange because he is willing to stand up, in court, for a principle. He has pled guilty to leaking documents but is challenging the government's outrageous contention and outlandish legal theories that he is spy.
AG: Assange is seeking asylum from charges which, so far as anyone knows, have not been brought. Further, he is avoiding being held to account for allegations of sexual abuse and rape which, the British courts have ruled, would be crimes - if proven - in the UK and Sweden. Assange has certainly shown courage in his ability and willingness to hold others to account. He does not seem so brave when others seek to do the same to him.
RM: The suggestion Assange is cowardly for seeking to prevent extradition to the US is I think both unfair and oddly high-minded. Assange is a non-violent anarchist revolutionary fighting against very steep odds to bring about a better world through the struggle against corrupt state and corporate power. There is more to Assange’s fight than the desire to live a life in freedom, a desire not customarily condemned as cowardly. He is a fiercely political person. Once extradited, tried and imprisoned, his political struggle and his organisation would either be immensely weakened or entirely destroyed.
Assange would have understood the risks in publishing the Manning material. As a consequence, I do not see how his courage can be doubted.
AG: As I state below, Assange is courageous in some ways and not in others. He was extraordinarily courageous in publishing the video and the documents leaked by Manning. He was not courageous, in my view, in the way that he sought to avoid being held to account for the way he behaved toward two women and the way he failed to speak out about the terrible way they have been treated by his supporters.
No one put Assange in the Ecuadorean Embassy; he put himself there. He wants us all to believe that he has to be there. But after hearing so many noble lies, it’s hard to believe him.
RM: I am not aware of these many noble lies. I believe he genuinely fears extradition to the US, a view you seem to share (see above).
AG: There are those in the Pentagon who are delighted that Assange has sentenced himself to asylum. There are also, apparently, those in the Department of Justice who still think that there is a legal theory able to distinguish Assange and WikiLeaks – a legitimate publisher – from the New York Times and so bring an indictment. I would like to see that tested because I believe that, if it were, the US government would be embarrassed in court.
AG: Here I quote my executive producer, Jemima Khan: It may well be that the serious allegations of sexual assault and rape are not substantiated in court, but I have come to the conclusion that these are all matters for Swedish due process and that Assange is undermining both himself and his own transparency agenda – as well as doing the US department of justice a favour – by making his refusal to answer questions in Sweden into a human rights issue. There have been three rounds
in the UK courts and the UK courts have upheld the European Arrest Warrant in his name three times. The women in question have human rights, too, and need resolution. Assange’s noble cause and his wish to avoid a US court does not trump their right to be heard in a Swedish court.
RM: I agree that the rights of the women matter greatly although it also seems to me that the question of the sexual relations between them and Assange has taken on a significance no-one involved wanted or could have predicted. The most plausible account of what happened that I have read is in the initial interview Donald Bostrom gave to the Swedish police. Moreover, when asked why the Swedish prosecutor could not travel to London to question Assange, the Swedish Supreme Court judge, Stefan Lindskog, said: “I would like to comment on the possibility of the prosecutor to go to London. It is possible that the prosecutor could travel to London and interrogate him there. I have no answer to the question why that hasn’t happened.”
AG: I agree with you when you say that the question of sexual relations between Assange and the women “has taken on a significance no one involved wanted.” One of the women, Anna, says so in the film. However, I’m afraid that Julian bears a great deal of responsibility for turning a personal matter about sexual relations into a battle for free speech. Had he gone to Sweden early on, this matter would be long done by now. Indeed, there are many in Sweden who believe he would have been found innocent.
For questions about interrogating Assange on British soil, I recommend to you my online piece in the New Statesman which seeks to rebut John Pilger’s attack on Jemima Khan. I quote the Swedish prosecutor, Marianne Ny, who makes it clear that Assange is not wanted in Sweden for questioning in the sense that the prosecutor wants more forensic detail. The prosecutor has said clearly that she is prepared to charge Assange. But, according to Swedish law he must be arrested, on Swedish soil, in order to be charged. So long as Assange never goes to Sweden, he can never be charged. The only questions that Ny wants to ask Assange are those that would be part of a last-minute inquiry as to whether Assange can provide any reason as to why he should not be arrested and/or charged.
RM: The document you scorn, “Extraditing Assange” discusses this issue carefully. See section 8e
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.
AG: I think that if you will view the film one more time you may discover that it applauds Assange for his ideas and his founding principles. Indeed, I include admiring quotes from you re: Assange being a "John Lennon-like revolutionary." As a description of his intent, I would agree. The film also applauds Assange for his bravery in publishing Manning's documents and the video.
RM: All these points are covered in my account of the tale you tell in the film in the first third of the review.
AG: However, it does criticize Assange for undermining his own values and becoming all too like his enemies in his willingness to believe that ignoble means are justified by noble ends. More and more, he is undone by his own paranoia and delusions of grandeur.
In response to the spying of the US government, he takes on the coloration of a spy. That's not a good place to be. It plays into the hands of the executive branch of the US government. In the long run, it doesn't pay to speak lies to power just because you think that your cause justifies your mendacity. Acting like a publisher and speaking truth to power is the only way to win the battle for greater transparency.
A careful reading of the film will reward the viewer with this conclusion: Assange will always have a place in history for the invention of his website and its publication of the Manning materials. We should applaud him for that. But, in our enthusiasm to praise Assange, we should not avert our eyes to his failings. As we all try to understand how best to expose abuses of power, it's important not to ignore mistakes made along the way, or we will be doomed to repeat them.
RM: It is a very serious accusation to say that Assange has taken on the coloration of a spy. It is also very difficult to grasp your meaning. Spies work for and against particular states by concealing their true motives and identities. Assange works for no state. His motives are transparent. He is a very public figure. For excellent reasons, the identities of the WikiLeaks’ sources are disguised.
One of the reasons I was interested in Assange as a thinker and actor was the clarity of his ambition and the fact that unlike so many of those involved in political struggle he was genuinely impartial between different ideologies and state systems. Indeed, in my judgment, there is no current government (perhaps with the exception of Ecuador !) whose corruption he would not reveal. If in early 2010 a Chinese or Russian dissident had sent WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of secret military and diplomatic documents, I firmly believe that WikiLeaks would have published them. In that case he would most likely be a villain in either Beijing or Moscow and a hero in London or Washington.
In my view, the central weakness of your film is the failure to understand the character and the seriousness of his battle against state and corporate power. Even though his thinking begins with the cypherpunks movement and its attempts to use the resources of the internet to maintain individual liberty against the encroaching power of the corporation and state, in your film the orientation of his political thought is hardly discussed and its cypherpunks foundations never mentioned. This matters. Assange’s thoughts and actions cannot be accommodated if the frame is no wider or more specific than the one you present in We Steal Secrets—the liberal idea, or cliché, about “speaking truth to power”.
No doubt he has flaws of character. Most people who try to change the course of history do. However, like many other idealistic and talented post-Cold War internet activists—here I have both Aaron Swartz and Edward Snowden in mind—he is leading an important struggle to maintain individual liberties at a time when they are threatened in a novel manner by the electronic surveillance resources available to the state. Given this, discussions concentrating on Assange’s real or supposed personal failings seem to me far less important than the larger political questions this new group of young activists have raised about the nature of the contemporary era.
AG: Again we must agree to disagree.
First of all, now I’m confused about something you just said. You said Assange’s “motives are transparent.” But earlier, you said he was a revolutionary who had to keep those motives secret.
RM: Why can a revolutionary not have transparent motives? All I know about Assange I read in documents from the organisation posted on the internet.
AG: My remarks about Julian taking on the manner of the spy is not meant to suggest that he is literally, or legally, a spy. I don’t believe that at all.
Rather, I think that Julian, who lives his life vicariously through his computer, has fallen in love with intrigue the way that some spies do.
RM: In my view Assange’s behaviour in the Snowden case shows how profoundly wrong you are (as also are those in your film who speak like this) in saying that Assange lives his life vicariously through a computer. The Snowden case shows him to be a purposive political actor. For his current worldview, I would strongly recommend his introduction to the recently published, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet.
AG: And, also like spies, Julian thinks he has more power than he really does. In fact, he is weakened by the paranoia of the spy game. Birgitta Jonsdottir got it right in her quote in the recent NY Times article about the Grand Jury investigation: “paranoia is going to kill us all.”
In light of the revelations of an FBI informant inside WikiLeaks, I would also quote Hunter S. Thompson: “just because I’m paranoid, it doesn’t mean I don’t have enemies.”
You suggest that I’m missing the point of a new political paradigm. But I think I have seen this story before: revolutionaries who think that they can beat the state at their own power game.
Like you, I was interested in WikiLeaks because it did offer what seemed to be a paradigm shift: a way of holding the powerful to account by being a very different kind of institution. The laptop computer is a great weapon in an asymmetrical battle for greater democracy. At its best, WikiLeaks did a great job and its founding principles remain an inspiration. But now Assange – in the face of the power and hypocrisy of the American military industrial congressional complex (as Eisenhower originally put it) – has lost sight of his global mission and become more narrowly anti-American.
RM: I don’t see the evidence for this. I have no reason to believe he would not publish material on other powers, as I know WikiLeaks originally intended. Nor do I believe his admiration for the US founding fathers is insincere.
AG: In so doing, must he and his most devoted followers now defend abuses of power in Ecuador?
RM: Given that Ecuador is his life-line I think you are once more a little high-minded here.
AG: He started out as a non-political actor and now he has become a politician: running for the Senate in Australia. That looks more like a man who has fallen in love with power than one who wants to hold it to account.
RM: I see it differently. He wants to deepen his freedom agenda—defence of whistleblowers; attacks on state surveillance etc—by conventional political means, and also perhaps, if he could win a Senate seat, to put pressure on the Australian government, which has so far let him hang out to dry, to offer diplomatic support against our great and powerful ally.
AG: You accuse me of falling prey to a cliché. But I believe you are being naïve. You see the struggle of the “internet activists” in a positive light, just as I do. But you do us all a disservice if you think that they, or more importantly, Julian Assange, should be able to use ideology to mask personal failings.
RM: I have never said anything of this kind.
AG: Over the course of my films, I believe I have learned quite a lot about noble cause corruption. My film suggests that it is not enough to have a noble cause. If you talk the talk, you should walk the walk.
There is quite a lot of “talk” now about the way that “we” – the magical “we” – must avoid personal stories in favour of political ones. Nothing matters, we are told, except exposing the corruption and criminality of institutions.
I disagree. Bob Dylan once said, “to live outside the law you must be honest.” I fault Julian because he believes it is a good thing not to be honest, to be “nobly untruthful,” in the service of a greater cause.
RM: I’m sorry, this seems to me straightforwardly untrue. As an adult activist, Assange has never, so far as I am aware, defended an ethic of noble untruthfulness. It seems to me rather unfair to regard his adolescent computer ‘handle’, ‘Mendax’, as somehow illuminating the essence of his identity. In his pre-WikiLeaks blogs, he writes eloquently and beautifully about two absolute values: truthfulness and justice.
AG: He wants to believe in leaking machines because he thinks, naively, in my view, that they are a more perfect, non-human way to hold the powerful to account. But, as we are now learning about the internet, machines are only as good as the people who use them. The internet is at once our salvation and our prison, a means for free expression and a surveillance tracker.
RM: The view you present is actually at the core of cypherpunks’ and Assange’s thinking. As a cypherpunk, his view is, I think, that the internet can be a force either for individual freedom via privacy software or for state totalitarianism. That is the essential struggle of our era, in his view.
AG: That’s why Bradley Manning is the essential hero of the film. He doesn’t try to hide or excuse his personal failings in the slogans of his political cause. Instead, he embraces his flaws. That is his great strength. He offers hope for us all because he is saying – by linking to that great essay by Carl Sagan – that we are both a small part of more powerful forces and terribly important as individuals. It turns out our personal stories do matter as much as our political ones. Manning is telling us that we can all be heroes.
By his own example (“WikiLeaks needs a face”; “I am WikiLeaks”) Julian Assange is suggesting that heroes must be great men – presumably like him – whose followers must sign NDAs so that his faults can never be disclosed. This is all supposed to be in service of the powerful idea. Frankly, I saw that kind of behaviour at Enron, where loyalty to leaders and ideology excused bad behaviour. I’ve seen it in the Catholic Church: “we do so much good, so we are entitled to overlook a ‘few bad priests.’” When I hear that train a comin’, my instinct is to look for blood on the tracks.
RM: This is interesting, taking us in my view to the reason for the false interpretation of WikiLeaks offered in your film. I think you have imposed a misleading trope—seen truly in the case of two powerful institutions, Enron and the Catholic Church—to an instance where I do not believe it applies. WikiLeaks is a tiny organisation fighting with only native wit and settled values.
AG: Political commitment is vital. But so is personal doubt, because it keeps us honest. That’s the reason I picked a key phrase from the Lamo chats as Manning’s last line: it is both a call to action and a suggestion that we are more than political animals because we have the capacity to wonder. He says it so simply, in lower case letters, with elegant punctuation: “I care…?”
RM: In the age where our political elites have brought us Iraq, Wall Street, Fox News and passivity in the face of the impending, foreseeable catastrophe of global warming, I must admit that I have come to admire highly fearless and intelligent political animals like Julian Assange.
Robert Manne appears in We Steal Secrets, having written a major profile of Julian Assange for this magazine in 2011.
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Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent book, The Mind of the Islamic State, will be published in the US this month by Prometheus Books.