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'We Steal Secrets' Misses the Leak for the Leakers | The Nation

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'We Steal Secrets' Misses the Leak for the Leakers

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Julian Assange holds a news conference at the Geneva Press Club in Geneva, November 4, 2010. (REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud)

Here’s a recipe for diluting the debate about our surveillance state: start talking about the foibles of the leakers and whistleblowers.

Consider the case of Edward Snowden, who worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency and leaked secret documents revealing that the NSA has a vast surveillance operation that collects phone and e-mail data on Americans as well as foreigners. The NSA dragnet is far more extensive than has been proven before. The documents raise a major question: Is the NSA undermining our democracy and violating our right to privacy? The character question—who is Edward Snowden, hero or traitor?—serves as a distraction from this urgent discussion. The legislators and journalists who focus on Snowden’s background (high school dropout? narcissistic millennial? pole-dancing girlfriend?) are either missing the point or trying to make us miss it.

About the Author

Peter Maass
Peter Maass, the author of Love Thy Neighbor and Crude World, is working on a new book about government and corporate...

Enter Alex Gibney’s new documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, which could not have come at a better moment—it opened in America just as the NSA scandal opened worldwide. The film focuses on two men: Julian Assange, who founded WikiLeaks, and Pfc. Bradley Manning, who leaked hundreds of thousands of government documents to it. Amid a torrent of stories, tweets and video clips about Snowden’s revelations, we need an intellectual frame to understand the morality and legality of our sprawling surveillance state and the secrecy on which it depends. Gibney would seem to be the man for the job. He is the Academy Award–winning director of two of the best political documentaries of recent time: Taxi to the Dark Side, about the torture and murder of Afghans and Iraqis in US custody, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, about the scandalous collapse of a house-of-cards energy company.

Unfortunately, just as today’s debate is already being diluted by focusing on Snowden’s psychology and motives, We Steal Secrets gets sidetracked by character issues. Although We Steal Secrets criticizes the Obama administration for excessive secrecy and its crackdown on leakers, a fair amount of the film’s fury is directed at Assange, who currently resides in a small room in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he is trying to avoid extradition to Sweden to answer sexual assault allegations. The debate that the film has stirred up consists mainly of an exchange of invective between Gibney and Assange, in which Gibney and his allies compare the WikiLeaks creator to a cult leader, while Assange and his allies accuse the director of mounting a smear campaign that benefits the US government. The upshot is that we have gotten neither the film nor the debate we need. 

We Steal Secrets includes extensive footage of Assange shot by other filmmakers; Gibney met him for six hours to negotiate an interview, but they could not agree on the terms. What happened in that session is a bombshell. “Julian wanted money,” Gibney says in the film. “He said the market rate for an interview with him was $1 million. When I declined, he offered an alternative: perhaps I would spy in my other interviews and report back to him, but I couldn’t do that either.” WikiLeaks, which of course leaked an extensively annotated transcript of the film, replied that “Julian Assange did not say the market rate for an interview with him was  $1 million”; as for the spying charge, the organization claims Assange suggested only that he would be interested in hearing whatever Gibney learned about government investigations against WikiLeaks. 

Cue the character debate. Jesselyn Radack, a lawyer at the Government Accountability Project and a prominent supporter of WikiLeaks, has written that Gibney “perpetuates the usual smears that the government levels against whistleblowers and their allies: that they are vengeful, unstable, or out for fame and profit.” On Twitter, Radack attacked Gibney and former NSA director Michael Hayden, one of the film’s talking heads: “Hayden, you little fucker, you’re fooling no one by being Gibney’s transparency bitch….” WikiLeaks—which the film contends has been reduced to just Assange and a handful of followers—has pointedly criticized the film’s exploration of the gender identity crisis of Manning, now on trial in a military court. WikiLeaks stated in its annotated transcript, “This crude gay caricature is a version of a classic attack on whistleblowers, once used on Daniel Ellsberg: to distract from acts of conscience by focusing on sexuality, character, psychology and alleged ‘issues,’ rather than conscience, motive and morality.”

Gibney subsequently went defcon against Assange. In an interview with a journalist who had defended the film and received angry tweets and messages from Assange’s supporters, Gibney remarked: “I guess that is their way of trying to stamp out criticism…. It’s the tactics of Scientology.” The Scientology comparison—which might be a new iteration of Godwin’s Law, in which the first person in a debate who makes a comparison to the Nazis or Hitler is deemed the loser and the debate over—has also been made by one of the film’s executive producers, Jemima Khan, the glamorous British writer and campaigner. Khan was originally a supporter of Assange—to the point of helping to post a £200,000 bail for him in the United Kingdom after Swedish authorities tried to extradite him—but they have since fallen out. In a 2,500-word story published by the New Statesman earlier this year, Khan lamented that the supporters of WikiLeaks exude a “blinkered, cultish devotion” and that Assange might be turning into “an Australian L. Ron Hubbard.”

The Khan piece set off its own morality play within a morality play. It drew attention to the fact that Gibney’s documentary was backed by someone who suffered a financial loss when Assange jumped bail by fleeing to the Ecuadorean embassy, and who now accuses Assange of being the Colonel Kurtz of whistleblowing. Khan’s story prompted a 1,000-word response in the same publication from the writer John Pilger, who had also contributed to Assange’s bail but continues to support him. Pilger’s article sparked a 1,600-word retort from Gibney. And Pilger issued a reply to that. After more than 5,000 words of furious polemics, the fire finally burned out. 

Key players in this drama have become Ahabs obsessed with their Moby-Dicks, losing sight of the government secrecy and surveillance that are the central issues to which attention must be paid. WikiLeaks and its embassy-confined leader are no longer the forces they used to be; they are diminished and tarnished, spending their time annotating a film they don’t like. The biggest leaks of the moment, courtesy of Edward Snowden—exposing a secret court order that compelled Verizon to give the phone records of millions of Americans to the NSA, as well as a highly classified program, PRISM, under which the NSA pulls data from major Internet companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft—were slipped to journalists writing for The Guardian and The Washington Post. These days, the question of whether Julian Assange is the new L. Ron Hubbard is a minor and distracting one.

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