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Rage Against the Machine: The Rise and Fall of WikiLeaks

By Daniel James Scott

2010 was a sobering year in the so-called "War on Terror." Nearly a decade after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, an unprecedented amount of classified documents were leaked to the public. Appearing in massive troves throughout the year, they contained harrowing revelations. On-the-ground reports portrayed a failing war effort that exacted an incredible toll on civilians, with estimates higher than the Pentagon had previously claimed. The findings showed that the "gloves off" mentality the US embraced after 9/11 betrayed its foundations, and whatever standing it still had in the international community.

The publisher of the leaks, WikiLeaks, quickly became a household name. Images of its founder, Julian Assange, were burned into television screens everywhere. The soft-spoken Australian emphasized the importance of holding abusive powers to account.

"Reform can only come about when injustice is exposed," Assange said in an early interview with Der Spiegel, a German newspaper that, along with The New York Times and The Guardian, published WikiLeaks' first trove of leaks about the Afghan War. "The most dangerous men are those who are in charge of war. And they need to be stopped. If that makes me dangerous in their eyes, so be it."

How dangerous Assange would become to the US would be revealed in its ensuing efforts to prosecute him, and whistleblowers in general.

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney takes on WikiLeaks as the subject of his latest film, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, opening in theaters May 24 through Focus World. The prolific director, whose films include Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Mea Maxima Culpa, has often stated that he approached the project as a "classic David-and-Goliath story."

"One man, armed only with a computer, against the world," Gibney wrote in his director's statement. "By creating a transparency machine, Julian Assange was going to hold governments and corporations to account."

"That is at least part of the story," Gibney adds.


From Alex Gibney's We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. Photo: Jo Straube. Courtesy of Focus World


Exhaustively researched and sprawling in its ambitions, We Steal Secrets is about the meaning of transparency in a digital age, the evolution of the national security state, the often troubled lives of whistleblowers, personal corruption, and the freedom of the press. In dealing with these themes, Gibney delves into the lives of those affected by them most: Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks' most significant source. To both the film's advantage and disadvantage, neither subject participated in its making. 

In the case of 25 year-old Bradley Manning, his absence was unsurprising. Years after he leaked a 2007 video to WikiLeaks dubbed "Collateral Murder" (depicting a botched airstrike that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters journalists), he was arrested and charged with 22 offenses, including the Espionage Act and the capital offense of aiding the enemy. His hearings have been conducted in almost total secrecy.

For his part, Assange wavered in his willingness to participate in the film. Lengthy negotiations eventually broke down, after his cooperation became dependent on Gibney paying him the "market value of $1 million," as well as offering "inside intel" on the film's other subjects. This set the tone for a film that became something different from what Gibney initially expected. We Steal Secrets is as much about WikiLeaks' corruption as it is about its exposures of corruption.

Access problems didn't stop Gibney from pursuing alternative ways of portraying the enigmatic Assange. The director makes artful use of Assange's early writings and interviews, gathers testimony from other WikiLeaks members, and incorporates the intimate footage of journalist/filmmaker Mark Davis, who followed Assange throughout the release of his most controversial leaks. For a film built upon such constraints, the absence of its main subjects isn't really felt.

"There's a great phrase by André Gide," says Gibney. "'Art is born of constraint and dies of freedom.' I still regret not getting an interview with Julian Assange, though I joked—with him, in fact—that 'I may be the only person in the world who doesn't have an interview with you!' But then, I was never granted an interview with the Pope or anyone in the Vatican for my film about clerical sex abuse [Mea Maxima Culpa]. Does that now mean it's illegitimate because the Catholic Church didn't anoint it with their approval? No."

We Steal Secrets forges ahead with its exploration of the anti-secrecy organization, starting with its founding in 2006. Archival footage from news outlets, and from WikiLeaks itself, takes us through the organization's first leaks—documentation of extrajudicial killings in Kenya, Gitmo detention materials, toxic waste dumping in Cote d'Ivoire, and Church of Scientology manuals. The idealism and radicalism of the young organization can be best expressed by a comment made by Assange: "We're going to fuck them all....We're going to crack the world open and let it flower into something new."

Assange would actualize his vision with the help of an unassuming partner. Bradley Manning was 22 years old when he was deployed to Iraq, becoming an intelligence analyst. A self-described "science fair buff," he was short, extremely adept with computers, and openly gay despite the military's contemporaneous "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Manning emerges as the film's emotional lynchpin—amazing, since the resources available to characterize him were so slim until recently. It was only after Gibney finished production that an audio recording was released of a statement Manning gave before a military court in Fort Meade, Maryland. Up until then, the only personal testimony that existed in the public domain were the online chats that Manning engaged in with fellow hacker Adrian Lamo, the man who would eventually turn him in.


Bradley Manning. Courtesy of Focus World


Manning first reached out to Lamo in 2010, after he leaked the material to WikiLeaks that would comprise the War Logs and the Embassy Cables. Under the screen name "bradass87," he wrote:


"[H]ypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time... say, 8-9 months... and you saw incredible things, awful things... things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC... what would you do?"

Gibney draws on the chats to bring Manning forth as a character. His confessions often appear as white text against a black screen, or as voiceless narration over images of his childhood or his deployment in Iraq. With a plaintive score by Will Bates and sharp editing by Andy Grieves (Standard Operating Procedure), the depiction marks an incredible feat in documentary characterization.

After Lamo turned Manning in, Assange had to decide whether to publish the leaks that Manning had given his organization, even though doing so would mean doing greater harm to Manning. We Steal Secrets plays as a kind of tragedy with this bizarre love triangle at its center. By now it's no secret that Assange alleged himself to the transparency agenda, seeking the cooperation of mainstream newspapers to release the largest trove of classified documents in history. The backlash was enormous.

Instead of stoking a new era of transparency, the leaks triggered a dystopian escalation in secret-keeping, and in efforts to stop WikiLeaks from exposing state secrets. The shocking revelations—ranging from the existence of assassination squads to evidence of potential war crimes committed by the Obama administration—were avoided entirely, subsumed by a discussion about WikiLeaks posing a national security threat. Political pressure was placed on credit card companies that handled WikiLeaks donations, effectively placing a financial blockade on the website. Though WikiLeaks continued to publish leaks that were increasingly damning in nature, efforts to shut down the organization also intensified.


Courtesy of Focus World


In the midst of all of this, allegations of sexual misconduct were leveled against Assange by two former female WikiLeaks volunteers in Sweden. Assange dismissed the accusations as a smear campaign against him, and sought political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he remains today. He saw the allegations as a plot to have him extradited to Sweden, where he could then be extradited to the US to face more serious charges. His supporters believed him, and Gibney was among them at first, until his research convinced him otherwise.

"The timing did seem so wildly suspicious," Gibney admits. "But when I couldn't find any evidence of that political complicity, I began to wonder whether I should include [the Swedish episode], and ultimately decided to do so because it seemed to be part of how the organization became corrupt."

The final 30 minutes of We Steal Secrets investigates the sex charges with a verve akin to Gibney's other film about a sex scandal, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. Its findings suggest that Assange consciously conflated his sex allegations with the WikiLeaks agenda, despite opposition within the organization. "WikiLeaks has become what it detests and what it actually tried to rid the world of," says Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the former WikiLeaks spokesperson. Nick Davies, a journalist for The Guardian that worked closely with Assange in the run-up to release of the War Logs, adds, "The same extraordinary personality which conceived of and created WikiLeaks is also the same personality that has effectively destroyed WikiLeaks." The resulting picture is far from the one Assange probably envisioned when he sought to "crack the world open and let it flower into something new." Though that expression evokes destruction as a prerequisite for something more beautiful, Gibney's film leaves one wondering what lies in store.

"There are always unintended consequences," says Gibney. "And the fact is that democracy, or a better world, is always incumbent on all of us to remain vigilant at all times. It's a never-ending process. There's no idealized state You just have to keep trying to find that proper balance between everyone's need to know and everyone's need to keep secrets."  


Filmmaker Alex Gibney. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival


Daniel James Scott is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. Based in Brooklyn, he writes for Filmmaker magazine, Cinespect and other publications.