It’s a classic David and Goliath story: one man with a computer against the world’s most powerful nation. Bradley Manning’s trial starts June 4; he’s charged with espionage and aiding the enemy. His crime: releasing to Wikileaks, and to The New York Times and The Guardian (and The Nation), hundreds of thousands of classified files documenting widespread civilian casualties, torture and corruption in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Now award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney has a new documentary about it: We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. His other films include Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room, and Taxi to the Dark Side, which won the Oscar for best feature documentary. We Steal Secrets opens in Los Angeles and New York City on Friday, May 24.
Jon Wiener: Any film about Wikileaks has to make interviewing Julian Assange task number one. You worked hard on that, and finally you met with him to discuss an interview. How did that go?
Alex Gibney: Not so well. I tried over the course of a year and a half to get the interview. He’d already been interviewed by practically everyone on the planet. Finally we had a six hour meeting. He told me that the market rate for an interview was a million dollars. I told him I don’t pay for interviews. He said “That’s too bad, in that case you might do something else for me.” He wanted me to spy on our other interview subjects—which I found a rather odd request from someone concerned about source protection. So I never did get the interview with Julian Assange.
Your meeting with Assange came during the period when he was in Britain fighting extradition to Sweden but before he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. This came well after the historic Wikileaks release in 2010 of the Baghdad helicopter gunship video, which showed US pilots gunning down innocent Iraqi civilians, including two children, and two Reuters journalists, and sounding pretty happy about it. It came after The New York Times and The Guardian, along with Der Spiegel, published big, page-one stories on Wikileaks’ Afghan and Iraq war logs; they had cooperated with Julian Assange in researching and then reporting on the documents. What was the major news there?
The key things the Afghan war logs revealed were civilian casualties much higher than anyone had thought, and that the Pakistani secret service, the ISI, was playing a kind of double game, working with the Taliban to destabilize Afghanistan. The Iraq war logs revealed more extensive civilian casualties and also something extremely disturbing: the Bush and then the Obama administrations were handing prisoners over to the Iraqi authorities, who they knew to be torturing these individuals. That is, in fact, a war crime.
The response of the US government was fiendishly brilliant, I thought. They never attacked The New York Times for publishing the documents; instead they focused everything on Julian Assange. They said he had “blood on his hands,” that he was endangering Americans and individuals who had helped America. Several important people said Julian Assange should be killed by the US government—including Bill O’Reilly.