Friday, July 5, 2013

Alex Gibney's We Steal Secrets: anti-Assange propaganda (again)

In May I was invited to a preview showing of Alex Gibney's We Steal Secrets by Universal Pictures. In the interests of full disclosure, I was also invited to speak at a Q and A session hosted by ABC Radio Adelaide following a screening of the film in late June (so I have seen the film twice). Naively I believed that as a documentary, the film would depict not only the fascinating story of WikiLeaks, but also the astonishing bravery of those involved in the key leaks, especially Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. As it turned out, the film was a testament to the suffering of Bradley Manning, although it seems to reduce his motivations for leaking material to the consequences of sending a gender-confused loner to FOB Hammer in Iraq, rather than the motivations of a human being faced with exposure to horrific evidence of the actions of his own country in a time of war. For a more detailed analysis of and background to Manning's motivations, see Chase Madar's The Passion of Bradley Manning, and Manning's own opening statement from his trial. As for Julian Assange, the film goes to some effort to build up the viewer's admiration for Assange as a highly intelligent and strongly motivated digital activist at the beginning of the film, only to dramatically tear this down (as if it was an illusion or sham) half way through the film. Through selective use of interview subjects, editing and footage Assange is portrayed as strangely (and unnecessarily) paranoid, vain and power obsessed. I can only hope that people seeing this film without a strong background in what actually happened will be able to see through these storytelling devices.

On all of these points I would suggest you read Robert Manne's excellent review of the film in The Monthly, together with the later version with annotated comments, where Manne exchanges views with the film's director, Alex Gibney. I agree with Manne's comments and responses, and share his concerns with the limitations of the film. I would also add a few of my own (some of these are expressed elsewhere and I would also refer you to WikiLeaks annotated transcript of the film, also referred to by Manne and Gibney).

First, the title of the movie: We Steal Secrets, is a quote from former CIA/NSA director Michael Hayden, not from WikiLeaks. Why no-one seems to be at all concerned with the fact that the US Government admits to stealing secrets is beyond me. The revelations of Edward Snowden seem to have attracted a similarly distorted publicity: Snowden "stole" secrets from the NSA: if his claims are true (and I have no reason to doubt they are given that every Hollywood movie I have ever seen takes it as a given that the CIA, NSA and other three letter organisations are monitoring citizens all of the time) then whose secrets was Snowden stealing? By my calculations, he was just claiming them back again. So the title raises an important issue, but its implications are misleading. WikiLeaks was not claiming to steal secrets: it provides an anonymous publications outlet for whistleblowers: there is a difference.

Gibney seems very preoccupied with proving that Assange is paranoid, power hungry and deluded regarding his need for privacy. His exchange with Manne suggests that Assange is overly concerned about the Grand Jury indictment (which Gibney is not convinced even exists). At no time does Gibney present the alternative explanation which could also be drawn from the very footage he shows: Assange was thrust unaided and unsupported into the limelight with the media publication of the leaks. The movie does not show a person who wanted and demanded that limelight, but rather a person transitioning from a very private life to a very public one. Was Assange ready for it? No, but who would be? Rather than admiring himself, I felt Assange appeared very uncomfortable with all of the attention, but was willing to be there to present the message (but again, as a society we fixate on the messenger). And Assange was justified in his reticence, the mainstream media essentially then hung him out to dry (along with WikiLeaks): thanks for the copy now you are on your own!! There is no empathy at all for the personal difficulty that this must have caused Assange and no consideration of the long term impact it has had on Assange to accept the burden of publishing the leaks. If Assange is so hungry to be the public face of WikiLeaks then it must be accepted he has also paid an enormous price.

The listening device found this week at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London may also raise some questions about whether Assange's privacy fears are paranoid?

I also very much doubt Gibney's arguments that Assange is under no real threat regarding the possible extradition to the US from Sweden. I disagree absolutely with his interpretation of what Sweden has said ("if the charges are political (such as the Espionage Act) many countries-including Sweden - would refuse to extradite him." I AM a lawyer and that is NOT how I would interpret what Sweden or Judge Lindskog have said: "What is classified under US law is probably not classified under Swedish law, and enemies to the US may not be enemies to Sweden,'' he said. That is a rather big PROBABLY. Would you take the risk?

Another takeaway from the movie seemed to be that WikiLeaks (read Assange) failed Manning, leaving him to fall prey to the 'confessor and journalist' Adrian Lamo. Little is made about Lamo's entrapment of Manning (and his outright dishonesty) rather we are gently led through a series of implications that WikiLeaks enticed, entrapped and then used Manning. Certainly the complexities of anonymity create some unanticipated problems. We see these in the film in Manning's need to reach out, unfortunately to Lamo, who betrays him. However, WikiLeaks and Assange did not have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and an in-house psychologist when opening up the anonymous drop box. Much is made of the 2009 Most Wanted Leaks and the encouragement of leakers to respond to that call. Thanks Gibney, you can do all of the work for the US prosecutors.

 I was also annoyed by some of the gratuitous comments made about Assange and his "cheap suits" and "$300 laptops": why is this relevant? Here is a person who has dedicated themselves to a public cause, and we have to worry about what they are wearing: oh please! A further gratuitous scene shows Assange dancing at a nightclub (the sub text being that Assange dances while Manning is detained in horrendous conditions), really this grates as an irrelevance at best. The film also repeats those claims about Assange being scruffy and unwashed during the days when the Afghan War Logs were being produced for publication, these comments coming from the journos who were happy to take the major leaks to sell their newspapers and then stabbed WikiLeaks in the back. For Gibney it seems that Assange must be saint or sinner, and never a human being, in order to be defensible.

 My most serious concern regarding the film is not actually the film itself. It is, as a piece of cinema, a compelling and engaging work. The scenes depicting the Manning chat logs are well presented and chilling. It contains some wonderful footage of Assange that I had not seen before. It presents the background of the WikiLeaks story clearly for those who don't know much about the context and nature of the links. For that reason I was happy to be involved in the Q & A. However, it is also for that reason that I am most concerned. If this is the main source for many people to learn about Assange, Manning and WikiLeaks, it is at best a half truth. And that is the risk, many will prefer to use this movie as a source of truth rather than merely a source. There are lots of better, more accurate sources of information. On this point also Gibney makes much of Assange's refusal to be interviewed for the project (despite this the film includes a lot of interviews and footage of Assange from other sources). This refusal is made out to have been made on the basis that Gibney refused to pay him a large sum of money and on the grounds that Assange has something to hide. There are multiple instances of Assange speaking freely available from a range of other sources. Assange is not living under a self-imposed veil of silence, he is active and communicating on a daily basis.

As Manne observes: "Gibney's powerful, accomplished and vivid film will for some time help shape opinion, especially among those members of the liberal Left on whom Assange now most relies. So in the conflict between them, it matters who is right." And this is the real danger. It presents itself as an impartial analysis of events, when it clearly is not so.

There is no balance when it comes to correcting attacks on Assange from a number of people who are well known to be hostile to him (and not above the cheap shots). Again, Manne notes that the film really ends with Domscheit-Berg's reflections on Assange, reflections which are distorted and biased by his own falling out with Assange.

 So I would urge you to not accept We Steal Secrets as a documentary which explains the story of WikiLeaks and Assange, but rather read beyond the film to real sources which explain Assange's motivations and the operations of WikiLeaks, such as Cypherpunks ( a book which has been curiously overlooked given that it clearly articulates Assange's views).

View the film for the interesting vision and range of opinions, but read more widely and be open to the truth from other sources.