The cautious among them waited and watched, reserving judgement until able to experience for themselves the film they had been instructed to hate: Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. But sycophantic supporters of Julian Assange’s secret sharing organisation – for whom their celebrity-hacker hero can do no harm – fell into line the moment WikiLeaks’ top brass flicked on the “smite” switch.
In the lead-up to the release of We Steal Secrets, which opens in Australia July 4 following screenings at the Sydney Film Festival, WikiLeaks have undertaken a concerted campaign to discredit Gibney and his now controversial documentary. Like a lot of people, I got caught in the maelstrom.
Anyone familiar with the 59-year-old filmmaker’s work will understand he is not a director prone to hyperbole or hatchet jobs. In fact, Gibney’s CV contains hot-button films that seem a good fit for the average WikiLeaks supporter. This is the guy who stuck it to the Catholic Church for covering up child sex scandals in Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. This is the guy who received an Academy Award for exposing the CIA’s use of torture and research into sensory deprivation in 2007’s Taxi to the Other Side.
Regardless, Assange’s followers launched war on Gibney and his film — irrespective of the small, inconvenient fact that they hadn’t actually seen it.
A few days after attending a press screening of We Steal Secrets, a WikiLeaks supporter asked me on Twitter to circulate an annotated transcript of the film published by the organisation on May 23. When I responded that the transcript did not, in my opinion, reflect the balanced nature of Gibney’s documentary, a downpour of angry tweets (dozens of them) from random people came my way, including five direct @ messages from the organisation itself.
If WikiLeaks plans to respond to every film critic who gives We Steal Secrets a good review, I thought, they are going to be busy.
“They are busy,” Gibney tells me. “Every time somebody tweets a positive note about WikiLeaks they rain hell on them. I guess that is there way of trying to stamp out criticism, but it’s not what you would expect of a transparency organisation. It’s the tactics of Scientology.
“This is not the first time somebody called me a dick, but it’s abusive and pathetic in a way because it’s thuggish. It’s not exactly what I could call high-minded rhetoric.”
WikiLeaks supporters were summoned to cyber battle stations after the organisation published the aforementioned annotated transcript, written by an anonymous writer (or writers). It accuses the film of misrepresenting Assange and Bradley Manning and of containing factual errors and distortions of the truth, including numerous claims Gibney omitted important bits of information.
The transcript itself, however, misses large slabs of what transpires in Gibney’s film.
“The annotated transcript is kind of a sad joke because it omits about a quarter of the film, and the quarter being omitted are all of Bradley Manning’s words,” says Gibney. He suspects audio from the film was secretly recorded during a festival screening and sent to WikiLeaks.
“The reason I suspect it’s an audio recording is because all of Brading Manning’s words (in the film) are not spoken, they’re printed on screen. They’re missing from the annotated transcript. In that there is a kind of cruel poetry, in that WikiLeaks writes Bradley Manning out of the story.
“In addition, if you look at the so-called annotated transcript, it’s full of errors. There’s all sorts of paraphrases. There’s lines that are no longer in the film that are represented as being in the film. It’s kind of a joke. Julian Assange calls this scientific journalism. I don’t know what kind of science it is. It’s more like either Weird Science or Frankenweenie.”
One of Gibney’s factual errors, according to WikiLeaks, concerns his claim that German IT technician Daniel Domscheit-Berg became the second full-time member of the organisation (the annotated transcription says he wasn’t, but doesn’t state who was). I put it to him.
“I believe we’re correct,” he says. “I don’t think we’re wrong but if we are I am happy to acknowledge that as a mistake. It’s not material.”
WikiLeaks’ strategy is a familiar one: refuse a filmmaker/researcher access to your organisation (no current WikiLeaks staff appear in the documentary) then pick apart their findings, choose areas of contention and mark them as mistakes, with the intention of picking up one or two “wins” and discrediting, or attempting to discredit, the entire production in the process.
Those who take WikiLeaks’ word for it (“it is build ‘em up to knock ‘em down. Very old rhetorical approach,” WikiLeaks said to me via Twitter) may be surprised to discover, when the house lights go down (or the torrent finishes downloading) that We Steal Secrets paints Assange in a largely positive light.
He is presented as a human rather than a martyr, but there’s no doubting Gibney’s respect (probably heightened by his own history in investigating cover-ups and exposing secrets) for what Assange achieved. For a long time I thought the film was in danger of veering too close to idolatry, though the final product is satisfyingly rounded.
“I think in many ways it shows WikiLeaks in its best light, particularly early on, and I think it shows many great things about Julian Assange,” Gibney says. “It’s sad that the organisation and its followers are just so blind to anything but a kind of beatification of their messiah.”
“It’s far more compelling to be the victim of a CIA conspiracy than to have two women angry at you for not using a condom.”
There is, however, a moment We Steal Secrets begins to turn on its protagonist: the chapter that deals with Assange’s infamous rape case. It contains an on-camera interview with one of the Swedish women involved, who appears on screen heavily disguised. The film makes a compelling argument that the case did not have to be linked to the wider organisation — that WikiLeaks didin’t need to shoulder the baggage of its famous founder’s private life. It also suggests Assange had a chance to clear the charges against him by taking a HIV test.
Gibney describes that moment as WikiLeaks’ “original sin” and the point where “it all turns.”
“Assange does something that’s personal misbehaviour and instead of treating it as a personal matter he turns it into something that is inextricably linked with the transparency agenda,” he says.
“I was convinced going in that there was some kind of conspiracy. That there had to be some kind of CIA plot. But it turns out I can’t find any evidence of that, and I looked hard. It looks like what Julian did was manufacture a great lie in order to make himself look better. It’s far more compelling to be the victim of a CIA conspiracy than to have two women angry at you for not using a condom.”
I ask Gibney if maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance he’s wrong, and reality is closer to Assange’s version of a cloak-and-dagger conspiracy.
“It’s possible,” he says. “But like I said I found no evidence to suggest there is. Either that these women were agents of the CIA or that there is some secret agreement between the United States and Sweden to get him back to Sweden so he could be sent to Guantanamo, as his lawyer once suggested.”
The release of We Steal Secrets may prove to be a circuit breaker in ways Alex Gibney never intended. WikiLeaks’ sight-unseen response to a documentary that presents the organisation in a less than idealised light is at best hysterical, at worst, a manifestation of the smite-and-smear political tactics they have so passionately rallied against. If this marks the symbolic end of WikiLeaks as we know it, or once thought of it — as the beacon of optimism that pointed to a new era of openness and accountability — it is a sad and chilling swansong.
Gibney’s documentary will remind viewers of several key issues: particularly the braveness and humanity, rather than the perceived martyrdom of Julian Assange; the disquieting behind-closed-doors treatment of Bradley Manning; and the humanity of it all: ultimately this is a story about people who got in way over their heads and weren’t equipped to deal with the repercussions.
“We can all learn about the mistakes WikiLeaks made,” says Gibney. “Julian Assange wants to pretend that transparency and Wikileaks are inseparable. They’re not inseparable.
“You can learn from these issues. The frustrating thing about Julian and about Wikileaks is they don’t seem to want to learn.”
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks’ Australian theatrical release date: July 4, 2013