Just as the Assange saga consumes too much of Alex Gibney’s film, so today’s Snowden obsession deflects attention away from our sprawling surveillance state.
June 18, 2013
Here’s a recipe for diluting the debate about our surveillance state: start talking about the foibles of the leakers and whistleblowers.
Consider the case of Edward Snowden, who worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency and leaked secret documents revealing that the NSA has a vast surveillance operation that collects phone and e-mail data on Americans as well as foreigners. The NSA dragnet is far more extensive than has been proven before. The documents raise a major question: Is the NSA undermining our democracy and violating our right to privacy? The character question—who is Edward Snowden, hero or traitor?—serves as a distraction from this urgent discussion. The legislators and journalists who focus on Snowden’s background (high school dropout? narcissistic millennial? pole-dancing girlfriend?) are either missing the point or trying to make us miss it.
Enter Alex Gibney’s new documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, which could not have come at a better moment—it opened in America just as the NSA scandal opened worldwide. The film focuses on two men: Julian Assange, who founded WikiLeaks, and Pfc. Bradley Manning, who leaked hundreds of thousands of government documents to it. Amid a torrent of stories, tweets and video clips about Snowden’s revelations, we need an intellectual frame to understand the morality and legality of our sprawling surveillance state and the secrecy on which it depends. Gibney would seem to be the man for the job. He is the Academy Award–winning director of two of the best political documentaries of recent time: Taxi to the Dark Side, about the torture and murder of Afghans and Iraqis in US custody, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, about the scandalous collapse of a house-of-cards energy company.
Unfortunately, just as today’s debate is already being diluted by focusing on Snowden’s psychology and motives, We Steal Secrets gets sidetracked by character issues. Although We Steal Secrets criticizes the Obama administration for excessive secrecy and its crackdown on leakers, a fair amount of the film’s fury is directed at Assange, who currently resides in a small room in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he is trying to avoid extradition to Sweden to answer sexual assault allegations. The debate that the film has stirred up consists mainly of an exchange of invective between Gibney and Assange, in which Gibney and his allies compare the WikiLeaks creator to a cult leader, while Assange and his allies accuse the director of mounting a smear campaign that benefits the US government. The upshot is that we have gotten neither the film nor the debate we need.
We Steal Secrets includes extensive footage of Assange shot by other filmmakers; Gibney met him for six hours to negotiate an interview, but they could not agree on the terms. What happened in that session is a bombshell. “Julian wanted money,” Gibney says in the film. “He said the market rate for an interview with him was $1 million. When I declined, he offered an alternative: perhaps I would spy in my other interviews and report back to him, but I couldn’t do that either.” WikiLeaks, which of course leaked an extensively annotated transcript of the film, replied that “Julian Assange did not say the market rate for an interview with him was $1 million”; as for the spying charge, the organization claims Assange suggested only that he would be interested in hearing whatever Gibney learned about government investigations against WikiLeaks.
Cue the character debate. Jesselyn Radack, a lawyer at the Government Accountability Project and a prominent supporter of WikiLeaks, has written that Gibney “perpetuates the usual smears that the government levels against whistleblowers and their allies: that they are vengeful, unstable, or out for fame and profit.” On Twitter, Radack attacked Gibney and former NSA director Michael Hayden, one of the film’s talking heads: “Hayden, you little fucker, you’re fooling no one by being Gibney’s transparency bitch….” WikiLeaks—which the film contends has been reduced to just Assange and a handful of followers—has pointedly criticized the film’s exploration of the gender identity crisis of Manning, now on trial in a military court. WikiLeaks stated in its annotated transcript, “This crude gay caricature is a version of a classic attack on whistleblowers, once used on Daniel Ellsberg: to distract from acts of conscience by focusing on sexuality, character, psychology and alleged ‘issues,’ rather than conscience, motive and morality.”
Gibney subsequently went defcon against Assange. In an interview with a journalist who had defended the film and received angry tweets and messages from Assange’s supporters, Gibney remarked: “I guess that is their way of trying to stamp out criticism…. It’s the tactics of Scientology.” The Scientology comparison—which might be a new iteration of Godwin’s Law, in which the first person in a debate who makes a comparison to the Nazis or Hitler is deemed the loser and the debate over—has also been made by one of the film’s executive producers, Jemima Khan, the glamorous British writer and campaigner. Khan was originally a supporter of Assange—to the point of helping to post a £200,000 bail for him in the United Kingdom after Swedish authorities tried to extradite him—but they have since fallen out. In a 2,500-word story published by the New Statesman earlier this year, Khan lamented that the supporters of WikiLeaks exude a “blinkered, cultish devotion” and that Assange might be turning into “an Australian L. Ron Hubbard.”
The Khan piece set off its own morality play within a morality play. It drew attention to the fact that Gibney’s documentary was backed by someone who suffered a financial loss when Assange jumped bail by fleeing to the Ecuadorean embassy, and who now accuses Assange of being the Colonel Kurtz of whistleblowing. Khan’s story prompted a 1,000-word response in the same publication from the writer John Pilger, who had also contributed to Assange’s bail but continues to support him. Pilger’s article sparked a 1,600-word retort from Gibney. And Pilger issued a reply to that. After more than 5,000 words of furious polemics, the fire finally burned out.
Key players in this drama have become Ahabs obsessed with their Moby-Dicks, losing sight of the government secrecy and surveillance that are the central issues to which attention must be paid. WikiLeaks and its embassy-confined leader are no longer the forces they used to be; they are diminished and tarnished, spending their time annotating a film they don’t like. The biggest leaks of the moment, courtesy of Edward Snowden—exposing a secret court order that compelled Verizon to give the phone records of millions of Americans to the NSA, as well as a highly classified program, PRISM, under which the NSA pulls data from major Internet companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft—were slipped to journalists writing for The Guardian and The Washington Post. These days, the question of whether Julian Assange is the new L. Ron Hubbard is a minor and distracting one.
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Let’s think about our era. President Obama, a constitutional law professor who vowed to preside over the most transparent government ever, has overseen an unprecedented crackdown on leakers, whistleblowers, hackers and journalists. Manning is at Fort Meade on trial for his life—the rest of which could be spent in prison if he is found guilty. John Kiriakou, a former CIA agent who criticized the agency’s torture program, is serving a jail sentence. Aaron Swartz, a hacker who downloaded a trove of academic papers that were behind a private sector paywall, committed suicide after prosecutors filed charges that could have put him in prison for thirty-five years. Journalists for the Associated Press, The New York Times and Fox News have been subjected to startling levels of government surveillance, including the seizure of their phone records. And we have just learned that government surveillance of our phone and Internet activities is far broader than most of us suspected or had been led to believe. President Obama offers no apologies or regrets; it is all legal, he says.
The strength of We Steal Secrets—its focus on Assange and Manning—is also its weakness. Gibney tells us more about these men than many of us knew, particularly regarding Manning and his gender-conformity issues. But does this illuminate the bigger story of the surveillance state or muddy it? A soldier says Manning, small and effeminate, was bullied by drill sergeants. Once in Iraq, the film explains, Manning felt isolated and called a friend back home and cried like a child, saying, “I won’t make it, I can’t make it, I can’t do this.” He was talking to his army buddies about undergoing hormone replacement therapy. He even e-mailed a picture of himself dressed as a woman to his master sergeant. In a fit of frustration, he also punched another soldier in the face—a big mistake, because she was bigger than he was and put him in a headlock.
This is colorful in a BuzzFeed way, and it seems to support a theory that Manning leaked the documents in part because he needed to vent his sexual torment. Gibney said as much in an interview with the Daily Beast: “He was lonely and very needy. And I think he had an identity crisis. He had this idea that he was in the wrong body and wanted to become a woman, and these issues are not just prurient. I think it raises big issues about who whistleblowers are, because they are alienated people who don’t get along with people around them, which motivates them to do what they do.”
Really? I spent a lot of time in war zones and had a hard time finding a soldier who did not have an identity or alienation problem of some sort—a marriage breaking down, the agony of separation from children, the guilt of seeing a fellow soldier killed, a home being foreclosed on back in the States. Being gay in the military is extremely hard. Not being sure of your gender—that’s even harder, I suppose. Seeing your best friend killed in front of you during combat and blaming yourself for not preventing it, or killing an Afghan child by mistake and washing the blood from your hands afterward—that’s not easy to deal with, either. Crying and punching another soldier in anger—these things happen all the time on military bases, and far worse. It’s possible that Manning’s identity crisis was no more destabilizing or significant than the existential crises many soldiers go through at some point, especially if they undergo multiple deployments in active combat. I think it’s also possible that Manning’s personal struggle may have given him a clearer understanding of the plight of vulnerable people who are crushed or ignored by powerful institutions. But while the film does an artful job of using transcripts of Manning’s chats with the hacker Adrian Lamo to show how he was motivated by his outrage at the conduct of US forces, Gibney leads us to wonder whether less noble motivations were involved, too.
In the film, Assange is also put under a behavioral microscope, and what emerges is even less pretty. Assange, we learn, is arrogant, narcissistic, intolerant, secretive, hypocritical and perhaps a rapist. He created a pathbreaking portal for publishing government and corporate secrets but ruined it by, among other things, using it as a political shield to avoid answering investigators’ questions about sexual assault allegations from two women in Sweden. Much of this, and perhaps all of it, could be true. Yet it has been amply aired in other venues. Since the first major WikiLeaks scoop in 2010—its publication of a video, leaked by Manning, that showed a US helicopter gunship killing civilians—Assange has been on the front pages and gossip pages of news outlets across the globe. It makes for a colorful story, but Gibney hasn’t broken ground on the “who is Assange?” question as much as he has tended it in a way that, by the film’s end, makes us quite angry with the WikiLeaks founder.
There is nothing wrong with doing a deep dive on Assange or Manning; they have become public figures. And Gibney’s film tells us a lot about a surveillance state out of control. Yet it’s unfortunate that one of the most famous documentarians of our times has created a film that explores the alleged pathologies of these leakers and whistleblowers in a way that diverts our attention from the oppressive policies that turned them into outlaws. Though the film mentions on five occasions the condoms that Assange did or did not use while having intercourse with the Swedish women, Attorney General Eric Holder is referred to just once, with a banal video clip of him at a press briefing. The audience winds up knowing far more about Assange’s sexual practices than about the attorney general who oversees a vast apparatus of surveillance and prosecution. Which of these men should we know more about?
One of the greatest problems in our political discourse today is the dominant focus on personalities rather than systems. While Assange and Manning have colorful backstories, who they are and what they have done (or not done) in their private lives is not the most important thing. The system of secrecy that necessitates and criminalizes their actions should be the star and the villain of a film about these issues. Gibney has not made that film, but the good news is that we might not have to wait long to see it: documentarian Laura Poitras, one of the journalists Snowden confided in, is working on a film about the American surveillance state.