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.
Yes. We show video of Bill O’Reilly calling for a “drone hit” on Assange. It is true that Assange failed to redact all the names in the Afghan war logs, and that gave the US government an opening to say “you have blood on your hands”—although nobody came to harm as a result of that failure to redact.
Do you have an opinion about who does have blood on their hands?
Obviously the real blood is the blood being shed in Iraq and Afghanistan by the US military.
And if Julian Assange was endangering Americans, wasn’t The New York Times guilty of the same thing?
There’s no doubt. Wikileaks in its essence is a publisher, pure and simple. They were very much in the same position as The New York Times and The Guardian. But The New York Times, not to its credit, helped to marginalize Assange, by calling him a “source” rather than a publisher, and this ended up helping the government.
In my opinion too much of the coverage in the mainstream media has focused on the personality and conduct of Julian Assange rather than on the secrets revealed by Wikileaks. But let’s spend a brief minute on the Swedish legal proceedings. A lot of Assange’s supporters think the Swedish incident is a fabrication created perhaps by the CIA in an effort to discredit Assange and distract the public from what Wikileaks revealed.
That was my opinion initially—the sex charges were some way the US had of silencing Julian Assange. I investigated thoroughly. I went to Sweden and spoke with one of the women that he allegedly treated badly. My conclusion is that this was purely a personal matter. I found no evidence of any effort to fake phony sex allegations. Everything boils down to this fact: he was not using a condom in the way two women wanted him to use a condom. They both confronted him afterwards and wanted him to take an HIV test. He refused. Because he refused, the women went to the police to try to get the police to force him to take an HIV test. Had he taken an HIV test, none of this would have happened.
You also interviewed some of Julian Assange’s top associates and “former comrades” in an effort to understand what happened with him.
One of the key people I talked is a young man names James Ball, a super computer person. While Julian was under arrest, James briefly became the ad hoc press spokesman for Wikileaks. James was concerned about the way that Julian was succumbing to what James called “noble cause corruption”—the idea that, because he was doing something good, he was entitled to do other things that otherwise would not be looked on so well. Like taking money from the till to pay for his own sex defense fund. Like requiring all the people who work for Wikileaks to sign non-disclosure agreements.
This to me is a real betrayal of the ideals of Wikileaks: if you work for Julian Assange, you have to sign a non-disclosure agreement. That’s a standard corporate practice—
—to silence whistleblowers. The penalty for which was millions of dollars. In my opinion he’s tried to hide his own misbehavior behind the sanctity of the higher ideals of Wikileaks.
The higher ideals of Wikileaks remain, whatever Julian Assange is now doing—there is still too much secrecy in America, and we still regard whistleblowers as heroes. You describe this as a classic David and Goliath story, one man with a computer versus the most powerful nation on earth. Who exactly is the real David here? Is it Julian Assange?
No. The real David in this story is Bradley Manning. Now he’s about to go on trial June 4. He’s the whistleblower. He’s the man who leaked all these key materials—the Baghdad helicopter gunship video, the Afghan and Iraq war logs, the State Department logs. He’s pled guilty to violating an oath. But the government is charging him with “aiding the enemy.” The judge could impose the death penalty. What that says about criminalizing journalism is really terrifying. Putting Bradley Manning at the center of this story is the most important thing we can do.
This interview, originally broadcast in LA on KPFK 90.7FM, has been condensed and edited. Image credit: Flickr/David Shankbone.