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.
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.”