We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks is a nice title, but it gives a false impression. The title sequence ends with WE STEAL SECRETS written over a face made up of the left side of Julian Assange’s face and the right side of Bradley Manning’s. (I almost wrote Bradley Wiggins there, but that would be a whole different film. How one man enraged the US government by winning the Tour de France). The implication is clearly that We Steal Secrets refers to Manning and Assange. Yet although ‘We steal secrets’ is said in the film, it is by General Michael Hayden, ex-CIA director. And he is referring to his own line of work, not Wikileaks.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks aims to look at the Wikileaks phenomenon and discover what is fact and what is wild-eyed fiction. Julian Assange attracts myths and there is so much speculation that it is hard for an outsider to discern the truth. Neither of the two stars are interviewed for this film. As Manning is being held by the US military the director Alex Gibney was unable to interview him. He was also unable to interview Assange – he says he tried and was told it would cost $1m. So the story is pieced together with archive footage from Manning and Assange together with talking heads who either knew or purport to have known Assange and Manning before they both became more difficult to contact.
Oscar-winning director Gibney starts with Assange’s teenage hacking, when he may or may not have been involved in the WANK worm which hit a US space shuttle launch in 1989. The evidence is circumstantial – the worm includes the phrase ‘You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war’ which is a lyric from Midnight Oil, which was a band Assange liked. Not conclusive. Assange was however found guilty of another hack in Australia, of which there is footage of him attending court.
After introducing Assange the film moves onto Bradley Manning, using the transcript of his online chats with hacker Adrian Lamo. Manning’s words are illustrated with stills from his past and Hollywood style animations. Letters and numbers move from here to there quickly, in the way that data always does in films and never does in real life. Manning provides details about his own gender confusion, Lamo breaks down as he tells of his decision to turn Manning in. Why Manning decided to talk to Lamo is never discovered, and without speaking to Manning this will never be more than conjecture.
The film then shows the development of Wikileaks, which one of the participants jokes was just an old laptop, a few Sim cards and a smart jacket that Assange put on when he needed to do an interview. The early work in Iceland is aired, as is the Collateral Murder video which first provoked the USA’s ire. Various talking heads who used to know Assange, or used to work for the US government give their opinions and reflections. Then Gibney moves on to the Swedish sex case in which Assange has become embroiled. Newspaper headlines are blown up on screen. These headlines are often in foreign papers. The producers get round this problem by showing the page in the original language, then fading the headline and replacing it with the same in English. At least I assume it is the same – they’re often in Swedish and my Swedish is a little rusty.
Overall we learn little new. We see the extreme views that Assange inspires. Either he is a freedom fighter who should win the Nobel Peace Prize, or he is a cyber terrorist who should be executed for crimes against the United States. Both of these extreme positions are caricatures of reality. Assange is a freedom of information activist who suddenly got the world’s biggest scoop.
The film tells how Assange cooperated with The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel in order to get the leaks to the biggest audience. It was a clear decision of the US government to sidestep the actual allegations, ignore the part played by the powerful mainstream media and focus their attack on Assange. He may or may not have been the victim of a honey-trap in Sweden, but an individual versus the US government is a clear mismatch. Senior US politicians are heard in the film calling for his execution or attack by drone. One comments that if the law doesn’t allow it, they should change the law. They are saying these things about a man has not been tried and who appears to have done nothing more than several newspapers around the world. The film makes it clear that if the US government is going to act against Assange then it should act against the Guardian and The New York Times.
Wikileaks claims that the film has multiple errors. Their annotations of the transcript can be seen here. One of the executive producers listed in the credits is Jemima Khan, one of the people who lost money when Assange didn’t turn up at court. She says that Assange dismissed the film before he had seen it.
This is a first draft of very recent, very controversial history. Indeed the events it describes are still ongoing, with Manning under arrest and Assange claiming asylum. The subject is an important one and though no one except Manning and Assange know its accuracy this film gives a sense of the risks taken and the consequences that these two men are now facing. There are more films about this topic coming and it will be interesting to see in what respects they differ.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks