By Joan Ellis
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks explores the wound that keeps on bleeding. Alex Gibney has written and directed a documentary that lands like a hand grenade in the public forum. His timing is spectacular. We have just learned that the National Security Agency can monitor everything the world does in email, in research, and on the telephone. If that isn’t enough, Bradley Manning’s trial is about to take center stage. The overarching question: can we maintain a democratic system while protecting our country from terrorist attacks? The answer may well be that we can’t.
Coinciding uncannily with the events it covers, Gibney’s film is an invitation, if not a demand, that we consider and weigh in on the problems of government secrecy. But if the questions are clear, the characters are not.
Julian Assange set up his WikiLeaks website in 2006 and invited whistleblowers to send evidence of wrongdoing wherever they saw it. He was able in the beginning to sell himself as an idealist determined to reveal the existence of corruption. Since then he has been called – among other things – “a fabulist who lives in his imagination.” He is a complex man, and we know him little better at the end of the film than we did at the beginning.
Bradley Manning is an intelligence analyst tortured by acts he saw on the Afghan logs that crossed his desk. His release of nearly 800,000 documents to WikiLeaks was triggered finally by the video of a father driving his sons to school in a van. An American helicopter sprays bullets at them until the street is littered with civilian casualties (including two Reuters reporters). High above, the Americans in the helicopter exchange the casual banter of video games: “Got ‘em!”
Both Assange and Manning are fragile heroes. Each has a raft of personal baggage that tends to undermine the purity of their purpose. But ordinary men tend to follow orders and would probably not have had the moral courage or drive to initiate the largest release of classified information in American history. These are not ordinary men. Rather than being distracted by accusations about them from left or right, we must ask instead whether their determination to destroy secrecy in a democracy is a positive contribution.
Assange accepted asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in England. WikiLeaks is down. Manning, after his arrest, was kept in an 8’ x 8’ cage, naked, tortured, and shackled without being charged. His ongoing trial will force us to explore questions of transparency, accountability, and surveillance as we inch, in a characteristic mix of innocence and ignorance, toward becoming a police state. Presidents Bush and Obama, instigator and expander in turn of the Patriot Act, take note.
Alex Gibney has been careful to interview a wide variety of supporters, detractors, and neutrals in the dilemma thrown up by new technology. Whatever happens, it is clear that Julian Assange did indeed kick the hornet’s nest.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.