When Wikileaks became the cause celebre around the world – somewhere in between the “Collateral Murder” video in 2007 and the Iraq War Logs of 2010 – the tectonic plates of geopolitics shifted. At the same time, the GFC was pulling the world apart in a similar way. Lots got exposed then. Sure, the plates shifted. But then they went back to where they were. To achieve this monumental recovery of the status quo, a campaign undertaken by vested interests was a lesson in managing perception.
The founder of modern PR, Edward Bernays, noted that “The propagandist must treat personality as he would treat any other objective fact within his province.” In the Age of Celebrity, the art of playing the man, not the ball as a means of discrediting an uncomfortable truth is even more pronounced. And easier. Thus the attack on Julian Assange as a means of attacking the Wikileaks portal to power – the focus of the story on him, not the issues he raised – is part of that shift of the tectonic plates back into position. And thus We Steal Secrets-The Story of Wikileaks.
While purporting to be about the organisation, this film is really about its founder and public face. It is also about the tortured soul, Bradley Manning. The focus on personality and character seems to sum up the current shape of Wikileaks in the broad scope of public perception, in that it appears to be more about faces that facts. It’s hard to say whether this approach in the film is meant to be ironic or is just evidence that the film-makers inability to separate Wikileaks from Assange’s crazy-brilliant personality. Either way, what is clear is that the plight of Assange and the fate of Wikileaks is part of a vast chess game in public perception the likes of which, in scale and impact, we have probably never seen.
Julian Assange is certainly a fascinating study. At times funny, calculating, naive and highly intelligent, he is presented here as a complex soul carrying the burden of a sharp mind and a troubled conscience. From his pimply, long-haired hacker persona, Mendax (and the possible involvement in one of the earliest big hacks – the NASA/WANK hack in 1989) to the impoverished global rock-star of no-fixed-abode, Assange seems to have manufactured a means of capturing the public mood for a hero, a messiah, and to have found the means of digitising his path to folk glorification and notoriety.
But, this binary path to super-stardom laid by Assange has spiralled increasingly inward, away from his apparent audience and possibly away from Wikileaks itself. We Steal Secrets argues that there is no evidence of any CIA conspiracy to frame Assange for the sexual abuse accusations that hang over him in Sweden. The film further contends that Assange could have nipped the Sweden case in the bud and worse, that by tying Wikileaks’ work to his own plight – despite advice to create a distance between the two – he has rung the death knell of a brilliant idea and of an important force for good. The CIA and its cohorts have clearly taken every opportunity to use this case to smear Assange and, given the unbreakable connection that Assange himself has seemingly guaranteed, Wikileaks itself. He is losing the The Perception Play.
Post-Sweden allegations, it’s surely Vested Interests: 1 – Assange/Wikileaks: 0
The character studies in We Steal Secrets means that a lot of the Wikileaks story is missed. The role of the newspapers, which published much Wikileaks material, is only lightly touched upon. The movie asks the question as to why these organisations have not been vilified like Assange and Wikileaks, but doesn’t offer any answers. One telling point missed, for instance, is that New York Times have sought to distance themselves from Assange himself, suggesting he is not a journalist, in a possible attempt to expose him to implication under the Espionage Act (under which journos have some protection).
There’s the fact that the Swedish prosecutors are able to come to the UK at any time to interview Assange and that there is no legal need for him to go to Sweden. Indeed, Assange has invited this arrangement. Why do they need him to go to Sweden?
Finally, there’s the fact that the US doesn’t appear to have a legal case against Assange, despite the bombast from Fox and the Tea Party loons. Does the threat of extradition really exist? Could he really be renditioned to Gitmo?
A true “story of Wikileaks” might have usefully included such material, clearing up the many confusions around them, rather than building pop psychological constructs of Assange or Manning (the latter has never had any actual connection to Wikileaks beyond allegedly dumping a record amount of secret data into their dropbox). In leaving these gaps, director Alex Gibney, leaves himself open to criticism. It’s an opening unhesitatingly rushed into by Wikileaks itself, which has launched a list of apparent errors.
But, while the focus on character appears to make the title a misnomer, and the movie misses opportunities to provide a more complete picture of the eponymous organisation and its impact, perhaps there are deeper points to be drawn.
There seems some conjecture, for instance, over the title We Steal Secrets. It’s a line actually uttered in the film by Michael Hayden, former director of the US National Security Agency and former head of the CIA. He says it about states in general, which do, he admits “steal secrets.” It’s hard to suggest Wikileaks stole any secrets. The organisation is, as it is quick to point out, a publisher of material passed on by whistle-blowers.
So who does “We” mean?
Perhaps the “We” is us. All of us. Secrets are a valuable commodity in human society. We all want others people’s and we all want to protect our own. Once Assange became a global figure, we all wanted his secrets. We encouraged their theft and the rape case in Sweden was perhaps the juiciest one. This documentary is part of the very chase it seems to highlight. Even in its extreme close ups of the interviewees, the film seems to suggest that secrets, any secrets, are wanted; pimples, yellow teeth, cracked lips; the use of transcripts of highly personal emails and legal records. It’s detail, detail, detail. In the Age of Celebrity – a phenomenon Assange has seemingly tapped into quite consciously – we lust for such insights, such titbits of personality. Secrets extract vulnerability and inconsistency. Secrets are the greatest levellers.
In this light, is Assange part of a much bigger, and potentially much darker scenario? Is he just a disposable conduit for our obsession to know things we are not supposed to know. Who steals secrets? We all do. If states do that’s because they purport to represent us. And, if that’s so, what does that say about us, we who let them?
A second underbelly theme is the investigation into the nature of truth. Wikileaks have become the masters of equating information with truth, pushing the line that more is better and all is best. Their persnickety rants against the film underline this approach, coming across as shrill and paranoid, seeking to quash every point that Wikileaks isn’t comfortable with. But, all the world is not hanging on every factoid. Truth, we might safely say, tends not to be some objective – conveniently digital – object floating somewhere in space, or on top of a pile of facts, to be identified by Wikileaks and its hard-working volunteers. It is something more chaotic, more complex and more malleable. Moreover, most human beings are not equipped to consume mounds of data and to extract rational and defensible conclusions from them. Truth is a reflection in a mirror. It is not, as in the Wikileaks World, the mirror, the one that it holds. Truth is the sum of perceptions in a given space, in a given time. If there are any truths at all, perhaps that is one.
Finally, we can see the omnipotence of statism and the power of the corporate-industrial myth. Its force is in its denial of all that it doesn’t favour and its construction of banal tropes called undeniable truths – the nation-state, the market and so on. How can Wikileaks ever, truly, be understood while the very nature of what it is saying is against the logic of the system it must speak to? In many ways, the organisation may as well be talking in Martian. And how can one individual like Assange – as flawed as any of us – withstand the barrage unleashed by such a force? As such, Assange’s and Wikileaks’ only real hope was to change public perception, alter the frame of truth, so radically that a new logical paradigm emerged. That doesn’t appear to have happened – the tectonic plates got shoved back into place – and it might take another documentary (at least) to explain why.
We Steal Secrets is not definitive, nor is it ephemeral. It is part of the great dialogue of perception that Wikileaks has generated and has become. It may well be that Julian Assange and/or Wikileaks (if they can ever be separated) wins the long game and changes those perceptions enough for the victory of transparency to be known and for the defeat for ignorance and greed to be manifested. In this continuum, in retrospect, We Steal Secrets may be seen as a vital point, one where the deeper meanings of the Wikileaks phenomenon were laid out. As a documentary it is intriguing and thought-provoking. But it falls short of the goal denoted in its title. As an artefact, it is a part of the debate, part of the hopefully changing landscape, part of the never-ending Game of Perception.
Title – We Steal Secrets – The Story of Wikileaks
Makers – Focus World, Global Produce and Jigsaw
How to Catch it – In cinemas from July 4
Couch Time – 130 Mins.
High Point – Raises lots of think-points
Low Point – Too character oriented
NOTE: A good discussion between host Paul Barclay and investigative journo Andrew Fowler that was held after the screening I attended in Brisbane will be broadcast on Big Ideas on ABC Radio National tonight (July 3) and on Big Ideas on ABC TV (channel and date tba).