First published on 3 Jun 2013. Updated on 27 Jun 2013.
As Private Bradley Manning goes on trial for giving WikiLeaks 250,000 secret documents, filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Silence in the House of God) talks to Time Out about Manning, Julian Assange, and the what the WikiLeaks affair means for democracy.
Alex, perhaps you can start by telling me what you learned about Julian Assange that you didn’t know before making this film?
I learned what a complicated character he is. There’s a lot of good to say about him, both in terms of his courage and his idealism and a sense of how to make a big noise; I think I can appreciate that now, in a way that I didn’t quite appreciate enough before. But I also discovered a guy who, unfortunately, seems to be prone to a kind of uncritical self-regard and prone to taking on the colouration of the enemy as he seeks to expose, and that was distressing.
You mean that he is secretive.
Correct. He’s almost like a spin doctor; I mean he’s trying to control the message in a way that you wouldn’t really expect from a so-called transparency organisation. If you look at human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, I mean they’re a lot more open than WikiLeaks.
Is it true that he wanted a large sum of money to appear in the film?
He wanted money, and he indicated that the market rate for an interview with him was a million dollars. I wasn’t willing to pay him anything, since he’s been interviewed by just about everyone on the planet! I think that exchange kind of testified to the way in which he wanted to see himself as a puppet master, controlling the message. I was supposed to be the puppet, I was supposed to be the vehicle for propaganda, and I didn’t see myself as wanting to play that role.
On the less dark side, the idealistic side, what else did you discover?
I think he had a very keen perception about how important it is to hold governments to account and he understood that governments and corporations keep secrets as a way of hiding corruption. I mean, that’s not original, but is profound and it is important, and he cared very deeply about trying to find a mechanism that might help to give us all information that we need to know to hold these institutions to account. In a way he’s like the classic inventor who can’t really run a company. Julian should have invented the mechanism, promoted it initially, and then stepped out of the way to let someone else run it.
Is WikiLeaks a spent force now?
They’ll tell you that they’re still publishing things, but I wouldn’t say that they’re the kinds of magnificent leaks that were represented by the Bradley Manning leaks. I’m not looking to WikiLeaks to be a potent force in the future. But I am looking for their influence. I think there’s a lot to learn from what WikiLeaks did.
What do you think Julian should do at this point?
If he were to ask me for advice – and I’m probably the last person he’d go to for advice! – I would recommend that he go reckon with the allegations in Sweden. I mean, there’s something unseemly about a guy who holds governments and organisations to account, who feels that he is somehow above the law.
In the film you interview Anna, one of the Swedish women who have allegations against Assange. Was it difficult getting her to talk?
It was difficult. We were at it for a long time. I think, frankly, when Julian holed up in the [Ecuadorian] embassy [in London], she was so frustrated that she was, most likely, not going to get her day in court, that she agreed to participate. She refused, by the way, to discuss the details of the case itself, merely to discuss how badly abused she felt by WikiLeaks, Julian and his supporters.
I was pretty sure that the whole thing was a set up, but I had to ask myself some tough questions after watching your film.
I thought it was a set up too! The timing was just so uncanny. But I investigated it pretty thoroughly and I could find no evidence there was a set up. But what I did find, as I put in the film, was evidence that Julian tried very hard to make it look like a set up. So he took a personal matter, and tried to turn it into something else. And that I think is sort of the unforgiveable crime at the heart of WikiLeaks. To tell such a grand lie in service of such a noble cause.
We tend to think of Assange as a lone wolf, but he obviously had many helpers and associates over time.
He did have helpers along the way, yes. And the fact is he almost always vilifies them. He referred to the people he worked with in Sweden… dismissively. And there’s a lot of collateral damage left in his wake. He’s always the good one, and everyone he works with, they’re always the bad ones.
Despite the persecution of Assange by the American government, in the film you show that the leaking of the Afghan War Logs hasn’t resulted in any proven casualities.
Correct. And even the State Department has said that there’s no lasting damage as a result of the State Department cables. Hilary Clinton, I believe, was quoted as saying, in a very positive context, that WikiLeaks contributed to the revolution in Tunisia!
Bradley Manning emerges as a tragic and heroic figure in the movie. Was it difficult to tease out his character with just emails?
Yeah, you’d think that that would have been impossible. I think one of the triumphs of the film, due to my great editor Andy Grieve, was that we were able to create a character purely out of online chats. But I think in a way that’s far more poignant and important and has a meaning in itself: he is a creature of the internet, and it tells us a lot about how we communicate, and that form of online chat is both very isolating and very intimate all at the same time.
Why did he confide in someone like Adrian Lamo, who betrayed him?
I think he turned to him because he needed to talk to somebody – he was in emotional distress. It turns out it’s not enough to simply leak anonymously to an electronic drop box: you need to talk to someone who can give you credit for it. You need to talk to someone about your own personal problems, and he was deeply alienated among his fellow soldiers in Iraq. I thought that the film originally was about machines, but it turns out it’s about people, very needy people, who are both generous to each other, and use each other, in ways that are both wonderful and tragic.
You got to talk to Lamo quite extensively, what did you make of him? He’s quite a contradictory figure.
Yes he’s quite contradictory, and it’s hard to know what to make of him. And I think that’s by intention, and I think it also has to do with the fact that he is heavily medicated.
Lamo seems to feel a lot of guilt for having blown the whistle on Manning.
It’s possible that he does, or it’s possible that he’d like to imagine that he does. Again it’s hard to know exactly how to take that moment in the film when he cries. I find it poignant but like many things in the film I also find it mysterious.
The title of the film doesn’t really mean what people think it means: can you explain that?
Sure. It’s a darkly ironic title. “We steal secrets” is a phrase that is said not by Julian Assange, but by Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA and former head of the [National Security Agency]. And he says it quite candidly – “we steal secrets” – we the United States government or we the CIA, steal other nations’ secrets. And he says that we have to be secret in order to do that, and that puts this whole story in a larger context of criminality, and if you understand it in that context, suddenly leaking secrets doesn’t seem quite so bizarre. it’s kind of a rough justice that’s going on, between governments that are trying to keep stuff secret, and indeed stealing secrets, and citizens who are trying to hold government to account, but sometimes also steal secrets. We Steal Secrets has a lot of meanings if you see the film.
The film leaves you with a real sense of sympathy and worry about what Bradley Manning has gone through, is this something you’re following up personally?
Yes, I am. I’m really concerned about how Bradley Manning is going to be treated and I hope he can get something close to a fair trial. He’s going to have to pay a price for doing what he did, but hopefully not the price that the government has in mind. So I’m really concerned. I think this trial has a lot to say about who we are as a democracy, and so far it’s not a pretty picture.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks screens from Thu Jul 4.