Removing the fog of war, Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks exposes the truth behind whistleblowers and hackers on the digital stage.
Flags Of Our Fathers by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Could Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks be the first documentary cyberwestern? After all, the front lines have moved, and instead of pioneering into the Wild West and the cosmos’ “final frontier”, it’s cyberspace that’s being colonised. Who controls the internet, it’s one of the great questions for our times and one that haunts not only Gibney’s documentary but also the WikiLeaks ethos, with an aging hacker taking on the American establishment in the name of truth. There’s vaulting idealism behind the whistleblowing website’s inception, to defend victims and “crush bastards”, to leak the information that allows the world to make informed decisions. But there’s also an egotistic megalomania behind this desire to crack the world open and expose its unseemly essence, a rush of invincibility as the hacker roams through web portals unchecked, exploring trapdoors and finding secrets. And so our journey of leaks, from early coups exposing tax-evading Swiss bank, toxic waste dumping, and corruption in Kenya, via text messages of emergency workers during the 9/11 attacks to leaks provided by Assange’s most infamous source, US Army intelligence officer Bradley Manning, We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks is a detailed scrutiny of the ethics of secrets and lies.
In 1989, Melbourne hackers infiltrate NASA computers and plant the Worm Against Nuclear Killers, causing panic as files are deleted and passwords changed. Aerospace engineers fear a failed launch of the Atlantis shuttle Galileo might release toxic plutonium into the air. The culprits are never found, with only a warning message quoting Midnight Oil – “You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war” to implicate Oz’s most infamous hacker. Fast-forward twenty years and Julian Assange and his still largely unknown website WikiLeaks arrive in Iceland after exposing their bust bank Kaupthing for giving unfairly favourable credit facilities to shareholders. There they shelter an influx of volunteers, working on a leak from a disaffected American soldier with access to far-reaching and poorly databases. It’s the cockpit video from an Apache helicopter in Iraq, lighting up Reuters photographers they mistake for gun-toting insurgents. The news catapults WikiLeaks and Assange into the spotlight. The source is exposed by hacker-turned-confidant Lamos, but WikiLeaks, in conjunction with The Guardian and The New York Times publish more revelations, unleashing the brutality of war with covert operations, civilian casualties and Pakistan’s duplicity. WikiLeaks goes on to expose the truth about the United States foreign relations, its spying diplomats and its contravention of the Geneva Convention, handing POWs back to the known-to-torture Iraqi police. The stream is only dammed by criminal proceedings instigated by two Swedish volunteers after Assange had unprotected sex with them and refused to take an HIV test. Fearing extradition to the States, Julian Assange remains under house arrest in Ellingham Hall and then begs for asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy.
After exposing the secrets of Abu Ghraib in Taxi To The Dark Side and toasting the courage of whistle blowers speaking out in Mea Maxima Culpa Silence In The House Of God, it follows that Alex Gibney should turn his attention to his role in the story of truth. Through We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Gibney dramatises the ethics of storytelling, bringing former hacker and WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange under scrutiny as he butts up against world governments and the secrets of the establishment. Niftily separating out Assange’s Swedish rape charges and the WikiLeaks fallout after posting Bradley Manning’s war logs, Gibney gives credibility to the whistleblowing website as an idealist vision of radical transparency but also exposes the human egotism that causes the organisation’s downfall, as Assange starts to consider himself a Mick Jagger-style rockstar and beds two Swedish volunteer groupies without protection.
The rise and fall of WikiLeaks largely mirrors the fate of Julian Assange – it’s his visionary anti-establishment secret gathering that provides the truth where the traditional press fails, but it’s also his paranoid and self-serving arrogance that causes the house of cards to collapse, allowing the mistreated Swedish volunteers to be vilified, asking volunteers to sign $19 million non-disclosure agreements and siphoning off donated cash for his legal fees. Be it noble cause corruption or not, Assange’s most Machiavellian coup is to actively conflate America’s anger against the leaks and the rape charges into a smear campaign, exposed in the documentary as a fabulist and ego-driven hacker with little concern for protecting innocent lives lost or the ethics of journalism. Responsible storytelling deals only in facts, redacting and self-censoring facts that could lead to loss of life. But like the intelligence reports that intel officer Bradley Manning puts together, the truth is a product – a story sewn together out of facts.
Gibney has his own role to play in speaking out against secrets and lies, defogging Assange’s (at best) paranoia and (at worst) lies, discrediting the “noble liar” who would stand for Senate in Australia. But he also gives due credit to the courage and mistreatment of the whistleblower Bradley Manning and criticises the WikiLeaks devotees who believe too easily in an international conspiracy and vendetta and the US State Department who fail to protect themselves adequately. Gibney is largely optimistic about the role of WikiLeaks’ and its goals of truth and transparency, an All The President’s Men for the digital age – a website with an electronic dropbox. Through talking heads, unearthed video footage and reconstructed web chats We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks exposes the war for the internet’s information highways – as governments steal secrets and shut down websites, global citizens can fight back mirroring, hosting and exposing the truth. But also the human stories of two men against the world, the whistle and the blower. It’s a documentary rich in detail, entertaining and illuminating, like WikiLeaks itself and Toto, pulling aside the curtain and exposing a diminutive Wizard. According to Orwell, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” And truth the latest flag to be captured in this digital revolution.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is released on 12th July 2013 in the UK