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We Steal Secrets

We Steal Secrets

By Arpad Lukacs • September 2nd, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Focus World

Original release: July 11th, 2013
Running time: 103 minutes

Writer and director: Alex Gibney

We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks

While I couldn’t help but be curious about the leaked data that began to see public light through Wikileaks, the question of who should be in charge of what is and isn’t classified was imminent. Some of us are more interested in this than others, but Wikileaks is one of the things already beginning to shape what this century is going to look like so a well-researched and objective documentary on the story so far would be useful. Filmmaker Alex Gibney took to the task with We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks.

What I wanted to see most of all was a comprehensive film since this is a hugely complex story even if we only look at the leaked data, but the data is far from everything. There are the personalities who shaped events, the conflicts within Wikileaks, their sources, the US government and the mainstream press and media intertwine in ways that demand a filmmaker who could make sense of the chaos.

The complexity of the story and the fact that it’s far from over with Julian Assange still spending his days stuck in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy make me somewhat timid when judging the film, but Gibney’s matter-of-fact and even distant approach seemed most appropriate for a subject that’s still so hot. It’s more like a history lesson without a conventional structure, and yet, if this was a book it would be a page-turner. This is something that’s still happening all around us – Wikileaks source Bradley Manning is taken to court for the first time as I’m writing this article – so an overt creative input or judgement of any kind would only ruin We Steal Secrets.

Speaking of Manning, we must’ve wondered how a low-level intelligence analyst like him had access to so much classified information in the first place. This is where the film begins, explaining how different government branches began to share information with each other to make a post-9/11 War on Terror more effective. Instead of these agencies being isolated as before, information started to flow more freely, which inevitably meant that the number of people who had access to classified data increased dramatically. All of this is put in the frame of our present digital world where the internet has never-before-seen potential and we meet Assange.

We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks

The film’s aforementioned somewhat distant approach is precisely why it’s observation of these personalities seems so revealing. Manning’s communication with the stranger (Adrian Lamo), who later turned him over to the authorities, shows a desperate person who would probably never have done what he did if someone noticed he needed help. Looking at the transcript, all of the idealistic talk about how “the public needs to know” seems mere cover for an elaborate suicide attempt. I know that many would like to believe that Manning is a heroic whistle-blower, but, to me, he simply isn’t.

A whistle-blower makes a moral choice upon discovering information relating to actions they deem to be in violation of the law or abuse of authority. Just the Afghan War Logs release alone was so massive that Wikileaks partnered with three mainstream papers (The Guardian, The New York Times and the German magazine Der Spiegel) to sort through the information. Manning had no idea what exactly he was releasing; therefore a moral choice was not possible. Even Edward Snowden who recently leaked top secret NSA mass surveillance programs to the public wanted to distinguish himself from Manning in that respect.

When the film shifts its focus to Assange, it becomes less easy to sympathise with his motives. To be honest, his motives are never perfectly clear, but a massive ego is visible and so is hypocrisy at times. A glaring example of the latter is former Wikileaks employee James Ball’s We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaksaccount of Assange trying to get him sign a backdated non-disclosure agreement. Ball refused on the basis that Wikileaks is all about freedom of information, and not the opposite. Assange was effectively launched into the limelight when footage of the infamous 2007 Baghdad airstrike was released. His handling of this matter was already problematic and dishonest and there’s an interview that was sadly omitted from the film – perhaps due to Viacom’s strict copyright policies. The interview itself is not really a surprise to me as I’ve long been fascinated by how US comedy overlaps with and has an impact on US policy. It was political satirist Stephen Colbert who gave Assange a substantive grilling on the Baghdad footage:

“The army described this as a group that gave resistance at the time, that doesn’t seem to be happening. But there are armed men in the group, they did find a rocket propelled grenade among the group, the Reuters photographers who were regrettably killed, were not identified…You have edited this tape, and you have given it a title called ‘collateral murder.’ That’s not leaking, that’s a pure editorial.”

Assange goes on to say that the title collateral murder was given to “get maximum political impact” and that only 10% of viewers chose to watch the entire footage with 90% opting for his edited version. I learned the full context of the Baghdad footage from a comedy show and in this case the full context made quite a difference.

We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks also addresses the sexual assault allegations against Assange and again, Gibney’s cold and matter-of-fact approach strikes the perfect balance with an issue where so many questions are still unanswered. Two women reporting sexual assault being so easily dismissed by non-other than Michael Moore really shows that political agendas have become more important for him than actually finding out the truth. The facts are We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaksthat both women reported very similar types of assault and both around the time when Assange was becoming a global superstar, getting his first taste of fame. One of the women gave Gibney an interview without her face being shown, she talks about some of the circumstances but of course we can’t know what really happened. The great irony though is that right-wing conservatives have a reputation for being dismissive of women’s rights issues including sexual assault and all of a sudden we see their opponents doing just that here. The accusers have gone through quite a bit of shaming since they made the allegations, which is not cool since they could be telling the truth. Fortunately for Assange, Lady Gaga is on his side.

After sharing leaked information with several mainstream publications in order to manage and make sense of it, the film eventually reveals Wikileaks going one step further and asking the U.S. Department of State to help redact the leaked United States diplomatic cables. I assume that Assange realised by this time that leaks can be harmful and didn’t want the public to turn against him if something went wrong. His ideals couldn’t be translated into practice and I probably don’t have to emphasise the irony of Wikileaks asking the US government for permission to publish data they stole in the first place.

Another bit of irony is that the film’s title, We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks is not a reference to Wikileaks; it’s a quote from Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA who described the US government with the phrase. Nobody looks particularly great in this film, Obama’s shown dodging questions about Manning’s treatment, several Republicans are shown calling for the arrest and even the assassination of Assange as an enemy combatant and I already mentioned Moore’s obnoxious attitude towards the sexual assault allegations. I wanted a comprehensive and informative film about Wikileaks and Alex Gibney delivered.

We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.

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