'We Steal Secrets' Misses the Leak for the Leakers
Let’s think about our era. President Obama, a constitutional law professor who vowed to preside over the most transparent government ever, has overseen an unprecedented crackdown on leakers, whistleblowers, hackers and journalists. Manning is at Fort Meade on trial for his life—the rest of which could be spent in prison if he is found guilty. John Kiriakou, a former CIA agent who criticized the agency’s torture program, is serving a jail sentence. Aaron Swartz, a hacker who downloaded a trove of academic papers that were behind a private sector paywall, committed suicide after prosecutors filed charges that could have put him in prison for thirty-five years. Journalists for the Associated Press, The New York Times and Fox News have been subjected to startling levels of government surveillance, including the seizure of their phone records. And we have just learned that government surveillance of our phone and Internet activities is far broader than most of us suspected or had been led to believe. President Obama offers no apologies or regrets; it is all legal, he says.
The strength of We Steal Secrets—its focus on Assange and Manning—is also its weakness. Gibney tells us more about these men than many of us knew, particularly regarding Manning and his gender-conformity issues. But does this illuminate the bigger story of the surveillance state or muddy it? A soldier says Manning, small and effeminate, was bullied by drill sergeants. Once in Iraq, the film explains, Manning felt isolated and called a friend back home and cried like a child, saying, “I won’t make it, I can’t make it, I can’t do this.” He was talking to his army buddies about undergoing hormone replacement therapy. He even e-mailed a picture of himself dressed as a woman to his master sergeant. In a fit of frustration, he also punched another soldier in the face—a big mistake, because she was bigger than he was and put him in a headlock.
This is colorful in a BuzzFeed way, and it seems to support a theory that Manning leaked the documents in part because he needed to vent his sexual torment. Gibney said as much in an interview with the Daily Beast: “He was lonely and very needy. And I think he had an identity crisis. He had this idea that he was in the wrong body and wanted to become a woman, and these issues are not just prurient. I think it raises big issues about who whistleblowers are, because they are alienated people who don’t get along with people around them, which motivates them to do what they do.”
Really? I spent a lot of time in war zones and had a hard time finding a soldier who did not have an identity or alienation problem of some sort—a marriage breaking down, the agony of separation from children, the guilt of seeing a fellow soldier killed, a home being foreclosed on back in the States. Being gay in the military is extremely hard. Not being sure of your gender—that’s even harder, I suppose. Seeing your best friend killed in front of you during combat and blaming yourself for not preventing it, or killing an Afghan child by mistake and washing the blood from your hands afterward—that’s not easy to deal with, either. Crying and punching another soldier in anger—these things happen all the time on military bases, and far worse. It’s possible that Manning’s identity crisis was no more destabilizing or significant than the existential crises many soldiers go through at some point, especially if they undergo multiple deployments in active combat. I think it’s also possible that Manning’s personal struggle may have given him a clearer understanding of the plight of vulnerable people who are crushed or ignored by powerful institutions. But while the film does an artful job of using transcripts of Manning’s chats with the hacker Adrian Lamo to show how he was motivated by his outrage at the conduct of US forces, Gibney leads us to wonder whether less noble motivations were involved, too.
In the film, Assange is also put under a behavioral microscope, and what emerges is even less pretty. Assange, we learn, is arrogant, narcissistic, intolerant, secretive, hypocritical and perhaps a rapist. He created a pathbreaking portal for publishing government and corporate secrets but ruined it by, among other things, using it as a political shield to avoid answering investigators’ questions about sexual assault allegations from two women in Sweden. Much of this, and perhaps all of it, could be true. Yet it has been amply aired in other venues. Since the first major WikiLeaks scoop in 2010—its publication of a video, leaked by Manning, that showed a US helicopter gunship killing civilians—Assange has been on the front pages and gossip pages of news outlets across the globe. It makes for a colorful story, but Gibney hasn’t broken ground on the “who is Assange?” question as much as he has tended it in a way that, by the film’s end, makes us quite angry with the WikiLeaks founder.
There is nothing wrong with doing a deep dive on Assange or Manning; they have become public figures. And Gibney’s film tells us a lot about a surveillance state out of control. Yet it’s unfortunate that one of the most famous documentarians of our times has created a film that explores the alleged pathologies of these leakers and whistleblowers in a way that diverts our attention from the oppressive policies that turned them into outlaws. Though the film mentions on five occasions the condoms that Assange did or did not use while having intercourse with the Swedish women, Attorney General Eric Holder is referred to just once, with a banal video clip of him at a press briefing. The audience winds up knowing far more about Assange’s sexual practices than about the attorney general who oversees a vast apparatus of surveillance and prosecution. Which of these men should we know more about?
One of the greatest problems in our political discourse today is the dominant focus on personalities rather than systems. While Assange and Manning have colorful backstories, who they are and what they have done (or not done) in their private lives is not the most important thing. The system of secrecy that necessitates and criminalizes their actions should be the star and the villain of a film about these issues. Gibney has not made that film, but the good news is that we might not have to wait long to see it: documentarian Laura Poitras, one of the journalists Snowden confided in, is working on a film about the American surveillance state.
Jaron Lanier asks, “What Is the NSA Doing With Your Metadata?”