In his riveting new documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, director Alex Gibney (the prolific Oscar winner behind Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer) tells two stories: the thriller-like ascendency of the organization and the troubling questions it asks about government transparency, and the crumbling of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, which plays like something out of Greek tragedy — the transformation of an admirable idealist to a paranoid propagandist, injecting his own legal woes into the lofty aims of his organization, and conflating them. Gibney was unable to procure an interview with Assange; “Julian wanted money,” Gibney explains in the film, though Assange was willing to exchange his interview for information on the other people Gibney was talking to. (UPDATE: The organization has disputed this claim. Mr. Gibney notes that they’re working from an “incomplete and inaccurate transcript based on non-final version.”) The filmmaker refused, and We Steal Secrets has been under fire from Wikileaks supporters since it was unveiled at Sundance last January. I asked Gibney about that backlash, the importance of the story, and related troubling matters of transparency in the Obama administration.
Flavorwire: When and how did you first become aware of Assange and Wikileaks, and when did you decide you wanted to make this film?
Gibney: I first became aware of him through the collateral murder thing when it was posted on the website before the Afghan and Iraq war logs, and I took note of it as a kind of cool new publishing mechanism for this kind of material. I thought, “Wow, that’s interesting.” I read the piece by Raffi Khatchadourian in The New Yorker and then it really exploded, obviously, when the Afghan and Iraq war logs broke, and then the state department cables. It was after that that [producer] Marc Shmuger called me and said, “Would you be interested?” Frankly, I was busy doing some other things. I was just following it as a civilian because I was interested in it and I couldn’t resist. I said, “Yeah, sure. If you can raise the money, I will do it.” Then he went to Universal and we got the money, and off we went.
I really admire the fairness of the film — it champions what Wikileaks is about, while being deservedly critical of Assange himself, or at least the recent iteration of him. How closely does the evolution of the narrative within the film mirror how your own feelings evolved about the story?
I think it did evolve and it did change, and frankly, while we were following the story, the story changed. When we came onto it, Assange was still living in the Norfolk mansion, not yet in self-imposed exile in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, so a lot of things were yet to happen. Based on Raffi’s piece in The New Yorker and my first meeting with Assange, I liked him a lot, and I thought it was a pretty simple David and Goliath story. At the same time, it was kind of peculiar because when I came into the story, in media terms, he was becoming a kind of Goliath, he meaning Assange. He was surrounded with a number of lawyers and agents and press people that I had to wade through. It was like trying to talk to a movie star, and so that I think also was tough. I wish I’d met him when he was in Iceland.
Walk me through your communications with Assange during the production — and if you’ve had any since.
One of my executive producers, Jemima Khan, put up some of the bail money for Assange, and so that helped to plug me into his group. And so from the very start, I approached him and told him I wanted to talk to him. I think I may have put him off in the sense that most people [who] were coming to him wanted to make some kind of a deal, like, “Give me access and I’ll go raise the money to make a film about you,” and then Julian would put conditions on the access. I came to him and told him that I was making the film whether he participated or not. I didn’t put it in a crude way — I just said, “I’m doing the film now, I hope you’ll participate.”
I don’t think he liked that very much. He likes to have control. He likes to feel like he’s the puppet master, so nevertheless, I hung on and kept trying over the course of time. You know, he did agree — I have a number of emails saying, “Yeah, sure, we agree to the interview, let’s do it,” and then later on, he decided not to agree. I kept going, so I kept making the film even as I kept trying to get him to talk and [it] was very late in the game when we were close to finishing that I tried one last time and he said, “Well, let’s talk about it.” So I flew over from New York to England and went and visited him at this Norfolk estate that is owned by Vaughan Smith and we had this six-hour conversation where we explored whether or not he would do the interview.
I walked through it, but he wanted certain guarantees, like he wanted to know if he could see cuts. I said, “Look, I don’t do that. That’s not how it works. I don’t work for you.” And then he responded huffily, “Well, I don’t work for you either.” I said, “Yeah, I know, I get it!” I think he wanted a spin doctor. He wanted to be able to say or believe that he could control the message and the messenger. And while I told him that I really wanted his unvarnished views about these issues and really wanted him to dig into detail into the story… ultimately, editorial control rested with me. End of story.
Have you heard anything from him or anyone that’s still in the organization since?
Only indirectly. I mean, when Oliver Stone went to visit Julian Assange, [Stone] tweeted some negative things about the film —
Which he hadn’t seen, right? Correct. [Here’s a fun quote from Oliver Stone on a critic of his film JFK: “He hasn’t even seen the movie, but he says my theories are half-baked?”]
Did you at all anticipate the kind of push-back you’re going to get from Wikileaks supporters and people like Stone?
Yeah, I did. I think a lot of people want to believe that Julian is a perfect hero. Well, none of us are perfect, and he’s not a perfect hero either. He did some great things, and I do understand that people seem to want that kind of perfect hero. But I didn’t understand why I should be put in a position of… if I’m an admirer of what Wikileaks had done in many ways, why I should then be an admirer of, say, what Julian Assange did in Sweden or how he conflated that with his transparency agenda? Why should I be put in that position?
Where do you think that comes from? Is any criticism inherently “wrong”?
Yes. It’s not a self-critical organization and any criticism is treated as traitorous, and in that way, I found that oddly like a politician or frankly, in many ways, the US government.
How did you land the interview with Anna [one of the two women accusing Assange of sexual assault]?
I had been trying to persuade her to talk for a long time. I think she was finally motivated to speak when… for a long time, she didn’t want to say anything because it seemed as if Julian would return to Sweden to face the music on these allegations. But when he sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, or was granted asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, she sensed that she might never get the day in court, that these things would never be adjudicated, so I think she felt frustrated and I persuaded her to talk. And she was very careful and cautious not to talk about the elements of the case itself, but she was talking only about the things around the case, i.e., how frustrating it was to have been made a kind of scapegoat by the organization, and how frustrating it was that she herself is a supporter of Wikileaks.
There are a couple of recent news stories related to the themes you’re exploring here, which I’d like to get your thoughts on. First, this story about the Department of Justice and the Associate Press, where we’re seeing this government overreach into investigative organizations.
Well, I think it’s terrifying. I think this investigation, this secret investigation into the AP by the Obama administration is very troubling, and the more we know about it, the more troubling it gets, because it’s clear that the AP was very cautious about how it was moving, and only when it was clear that their story wouldn’t put anybody in danger did they go with it. And yet, still, the vitriol of the government at the sight of any leaks has become so extreme that they’re really trying hard to kill the First Amendment in a way that I think is terribly dangerous.
Second, the New Yorker’s new Strongbox: is this is positive step forward in the kind of anonymous information sharing that Wikileaks championed?
Yeah, I think so. I think it is a positive development. At the same time, I don’t think it’s a panacea. I think one of the things that the film says is you can’t solve somebody’s problems of sources and publishers and journalists and leaks and secrets with machines. There are technical solutions, but at the same time, it remains a web of human relationships and human decisions. At what point do you decide that pledge that you have made to somebody not to reveal secrets has to be overwhelmed by a sense of higher calling that you have to reveal something? So I think it’s an important step and, certainly in the wake of the AP thing, probably a necessary step, but at the same time, I don’t think there’s any technical fix to this problem.
To that end, to that idea of the human factor — why do you think Bradley Manning revealed himself and ultimately sealed his doom?
The simple answer is, I don’t know. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that in some fundamental way, he was lonely, he needed support, he was going through a lot of personal difficulties, and was trying to make a difference politically, but he was also trying to make a difference in a very fundamental way in his own life and he needed to reach out and touch someone, in effect. He reached out to a stranger [Adrian Lamo], somebody who he knew was publicly bisexual, would be sensitive to his concerns, and knew a lot about the Internet. And isn’t it odd that over time, he would develop this relationship of trust with this guy, somebody he didn’t even know, possibly just because he needed to talk about stuff and possibly because, I think, in some fundamental way, he may have needed to find somebody to nod and give him credit for what it was that he had done. It was hard for him to stay silent, and I think we’re beginning to understand that perhaps Wikileaks didn’t offer him the kind of ongoing care that he may have needed, which, again, gets back to this issue of whether or not the electronic dropbox is the best way to manage leaks.
You know this better than I, but very often, the relationship between a journalist and a source is certainly a professional one, but it’s also a personal one. It ends up being a matter of trust and you can’t mechanize that.
Obviously, the punishment being given to Bradley Manning doesn’t fit the crime. How do you think the government should deal with a case like this?
I mean, look — we don’t know how the government is going to punish Bradley Manning because he’s still yet to be tried. He’s pled guilty to a number of offenses, but he’s still yet to be tried on these larger offenses. And to me, the idea of prosecuting Bradley Manning for aiding the enemy is a cruel joke because does that mean that every time The New York Times embarrasses the government that we’re going to charge The New York Times with aiding the enemy? Bradley Manning pled guilty to breaking his oath and leaking materials that he promised not to leak. If you were going to ask me as a relatively uninformed civilian, I’d say the punishment he’s received so far is enough.
A lot of politically minded moviegoers first became aware of you via Taxi to the Dark Side, which is a very critical look at torture and foreign policy in the Bush administration. Now, here we are five years into the Obama administration, but it hasn’t exactly been the full-on transformation a lot of voters were hoping for. Have things have changed for the better?
Well, some things have changed for the better and some things have not. Some things have changed for the worse. I do think that when it comes to the issue of torture that things certainly have gotten better, but I was deeply disappointed that the Obama administration never sought to launch an investigation, even a nonpartisan one, into the crimes committed during the Bush administration and that issues like the way the Obama administration has treated whistleblowers and leaks and also started to way over-classify material. In some ways, it proves the point that we have to be very careful about the balance of power in this country. In the Bush/Cheney administration, they assumed a lot of power in the executive branch and Obama didn’t give that power up. In fact, he’s taking more.
One of the things that’s great about your movies is how they have both a compelling central subject and a broader thematic subject — abuses of power, political corruption, the nature of fandom. When you describe your film, it is about Julian Assange and Wikileaks, but what, to you, is it about in a broader sense?
This one may be the hardest one of all to say, what it’s about. In some kind of simple, one-subject way, it turns out to be about a lot of things: about secrets, about truth and lies. It turns out to be about personal relationships and how quirky human beings can make an enormous difference, even when faced with mammoth adversaries like the US government or corporations. So it’s about a lot of things, and it’s about how we’re all being changed by the Internet. So that’s why I say to people, when it comes to a story like this, follow the story, and I hope it rattles around in people’s heads after they watch it because the story itself is so compelling and interesting, but it doesn’t provide any simple answers.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks opens Friday in limited release.