Ostensibly, We Steal Secrets — the fascinating, well-paced, and artfully crafted new documentary on Wikileaks — is a story about how the socio-technological frontier of the internet is reshaping global society and institutions. But what’s striking about director Alex Gibney’s story is that it isn’t driven by the technology or the seats of power. It’s driven by the broken and poignant human characters at its core.
At least the broad strokes of the story should be familiar to readers. The website Wikileaks was founded in 2006, with the mission of providing a safe haven for whistleblowers. If you had documents chronicling unethical dealings by some government or business, you could upload them to the Wikileaks site, and in return, they promised anonymity for you and maximum exposure for the documents. And for a time, Wikileaks and its founder — the eccentric Australian hacker Julian Assange — remained under the radar; a thorn in the side of various governments and corporations, but largely unremarked upon, at least by American media.
Then a U.S. soldier named Bradley Manning — stationed outside of Baghdad, and with enormous access to the military’s computer systems — uploaded to Wikileaks the biggest dump of classified information in history. A series of bombshells resulted. There was the “Collateral Murder” video of a U.S. helicopter gunship shooting up a group of Iraqi civilians and U.S. journalists. Then there was a trove of documents from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, revealing malfeasance by American diplomats, a death squad in Iraq, and U.S. complicity in torture among other things.
Assange was catapulted to a household name overnight, and people began dividing into camps of ardent supporters and the most vicious of critics. From there, Assange himself began to come apart, as allegations of sexual assault surfaced and his increasingly erratic and self-serving behavior dragged Wikileaks through the mud.
Gibney makes the smart decision to structure the documentary as a series of unfolding discoveries and reversals. The sexual assault charges are actually introduced on a note of skepticism, implying the film agrees with the “honeytrap” hypothesis that the women were government plants to ensnare Assange. When it later returns to that subplot, and interviews one of the women in question, as well as Assange’s host at the time, the “honeytrap” theory unravels.
Assange himself starts out as a creative and charismatic figure, and only gradually does the full extent of his moral obtuseness become clear. There’s the ad hoc approach Wikileaks took to redacting the names of people who could be put in genuine danger by the document dump, Assange’s bald-faced lie to the press about established procedures to avoid such harms, and his insistence that Wikileaks’ name and reputation be dragged in as social capital to be spent defending him in his personal legal matters. The soldiers in the “Collateral Murder” video may have spoken of the killing as if it was a video game, but it becomes ironically clear that Assange is trapped in a video game of his own. It may be a fantasy role player rather than a shoot ’em up, but the moral obtuseness is the same: the domination of abstract narrative over concrete human realities, and his blithe willingness to write off someone working for “the wrong side” as a moral nonentity.
That leads to the other big arc of We Steal Secrets, which is that if there’s a hero to this story, it’s not Assange but the poignantly troubled Manning. We tend to think of whistleblowing as a matter of abstract ethics, a platonic calculation between competing ideals or precepts. But really it’s a social act. It breaks ties and opens wounds and remakes identities, and those who undertake it do so often at great cost to themselves as human beings. In many ways, Bradley Manning’s alienation and his struggles with his sexual and gender identity probably helped give him the distance from the military’s institutional culture — and thus the courage — necessary to do what no one else would. He saw acts and practices he recognized as unethical, and moved to expose them. And his reward was a year of solitary confinement, grandly over-the-top charges, and regular abuse at the hands of the American government.
That human element also highlights the value of established norms and institutions over the ad hoc social constructs the web tends to encourage. Both the film and Gibney, in a Q&A afterward, made the point that had Wikileaks itself been less of an ad hoc affair, more reliant on professional journalists with experience in dealing with secrets and whistleblowers, it might have had the institutional knowledge necessary to properly protect Manning. Instead, he was left at the mercy of Adrian Lamo, another hacker who eventually ratted Manning out to the FBI, apparently in service to his own personal psychodrama.
You’ll notice I’m talking more about the issues We Steal Secrets raises than the documentary itself. That’s a testament to the movie’s quality. Gibney expertly balances story construction with substantive information, and from where I was sitting I detected little manipulation or underhandedness. (Some of the psychoanalysis of Assange is a bit much.) Overall, Gibney succeeds in making a very humane film, which looks upon its subjects with a certain humility and compassion even as it exposes many of their worst flaws. The interviews, which range from former Wikileaks workers to investigative journalists to a surprisingly candid discussion with former CIA director Michael Hayden, are all interesting and presented with integrity.
There’s a real sense of tragedy underlying the proceedings. The interview with Hayden suggests — probably unintentionally on Hayden’s part — that the U.S. government is just one more screwed-up personality in this mix; in over its head, flailing at perceived threats with little coherence or sense of moral boundaries. Gibney concludes that Wikileaks and its progeny serve a vital roll in the new 21st Century geopolitical cyberscape, but the way Wikileaks was embroiled in Assange’s personal dysfunction set the transparency project back years. Equivalent document dumping sites are only just beginning to spring up in conjunction with establish journalism outfits, and Wikileaks itself is largely defunct. And not because of any grand power plays, but because of almost-endearingly human personal failings.
For all the wonders of the 21st Century — the superpowers, the stateless actors, the computing power, and the digital frontiers — all you really need to know about how the world works you can still learn from reading a little Shakespeare.