Early in Alex Gibney’s gripping new documentary “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” Julian Assange declares that he “likes crushing bastards.”
By the end of the 130-minute film, Assange is one of the bastards. Seized by paranoia and the fame monster, he made WikiLeaks volunteers sign non-disclosure agreements, and charges $1 million per interview.
Along the way, Gibney’s careful journalism exposes the moral fault lines of the U.S. government’s obsession with secrecy, especially after 9/11. It is required viewing, and will be grist for op/eds when it is released next month, after it appears in the Seattle International Film Fest.
The scope of U.S. intelligence-gathering is itself a secret, except that it costs at least $75 billion a year, and continues to creep into the lives of unwitting citizens, as The Wall Street Journal reported in December. The film notes that 60,000 phone calls and emails are intercepted by intelligence agencies every second. Every second. Satellite photos of the physical expansion of National Security Agency sites are chilling. It is former CIA director Michael Hayden – not Assange – who delivers the quote for the title: “We steal secrets.”
Into this stew marched WikiLeaks and Assange in 2010. Despite antipathy for Assange himself, I admire his vision and skill at piercing the shadow world of government secrecy. As the film notes, WikiLeak’s first big expose – a military video showing a military helicopter mistaking a Reuters’ photographer’s lens for an RPG, then opening up it’s cannon, video-game-style, on a group of Iraqi men – was deemed a breach of secrecy, despite the fact a transcript of the incident had already been released.
But Assange is a reckless, creepy ideologue. Although he publicly pledges to protect the identifies of Iraqi citizens who talked to the military, he released some 75,000 records without blacking out names, jeopardizing 100-some lives. To escape prosecution for sexual assault in Sweden, he hides in Ecuador’s London embassy, hypocritically ignoring a WikiLeaks cable describing alleged corruption among Ecuador’s elite. He conflates his personal criminal problems with an attack on WikiLeaks, and his supporters are seen in “We Steal Secrets” denouncing the women who accused to sexual misconduct as “sluts.”
The most devastating critiques come from one-time WikiLeaks loyalists. “WikiLeaks has become what it detested and tried to rid the world of,” Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a one-time spokesman for WikiLeaks, says in the film.
The most empathetic character in the WikiLeaks saga is Pfc. Bradley Manning, the geeky intelligence specialist accused of downloading hundreds of thousands diplomatic cables while listening to Lada Gaga’s “Telephone.” Gibney, who won an Oscar for the 2007 “Taxi to the Dark Side,” portrays Manning as a small-town kid with a sexual identity crisis.
Manning has pleaded guilty, and should spend years in prison. But to conflate him with a terrorist – a pending aiding-the-enemy charge is a death penalty offense – is an abuse of power. Just as bad, he spent some of his three-plus years awaiting trial in such severe isolation that his conditions recall the “enhanced interrogation” techniques that drove him to become the world’s biggest leaker. It is a shameful record for the Obama Administration. Here’s his supporters’ website.
“We Steal Secrets” will be released May 31. Don’t wait: catch it at SIFF. Showings are May 17, 6 p.m., and May 18, 11 a.m., both at SIFF Uptown.
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