With Julian Assange consigned to ambling between his lounge chair and his speaking balcony at the Ecuadorian embassy, the fight for free information had gone a little quiet until Edward Snowden appeared and shook it all up again. Now, Assange is back in the news and transparency has been reestablished as one of the key issues of our age. In his excellent new film, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, the Oscar-winning documentary maker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) charts the organization's journey, creating a clear distinction between its noble founding principles and the delusional narcissism of Assange, the human being.
To find out more about it, I went down to the Soho Hotel to talk with Alex.
The trailer for
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.
VICE: Hey, Alex. How easy was it to separate Assange from WikiLeaks?
Alex Gibney: I agree that you can’t really separate Assange from WikiLeaks—and he’s made sure of that—but you can see what WikiLeaks started out to do and the mechanisms it established. Those things you can believe in without having to believe in Julian Assange. I think Julian would like us to think that he and the principles of transparency are one and the same thing—I don’t think they are. So that’s why you can make a distinction. Julian has always controlled the organization, but the ideals of the organization and its founding mechanisms live beyond Julian.
He’s obviously a big George Orwell fan and quotes him liberally, but it seems to me like there’s an Animal Farm situation going on with him—he seems to think he's somehow "more equal" than others.
Oh, definitely, and I think, over time, some of the language he's started to use is Orwellian. He said a “harm minimization program.” I find that language interesting for a number of reasons. One is [that] “harm minimization program” is not the kind of phrase that you would come up with for a small organization that’s just a few people trying to redact some names. It sounds like Microsoft or the Pentagon. It sounds ominous. It’s also utterly false. He didn’t have a harm minimization program. He had a title, which was totally empty, and no practice to back it up.
Do you think that what has happened to him as a person—the case in Sweden, his behavior—has harmed the initial aims of WikiLeaks?
Well, I think it’s harmed it to some extent. We all make a mistake if we let Julian force us into a box in which we have to conflate his actions with the organization's principles. That, to me, was the crime of the Swedish episode. Right out of the box, in the publishing of the Afghan war logs, he fucked it up by not taking this issue of redactions more seriously. That’s not because anyone was hurt, as far as we know nobody was hurt, so in that sense, all the people who say he has blood on his hands are full of shit. But it did allow him to be marginalized and separated out from the New York Times and the Guardian. Imagine if that hadn’t happened. Julian will say, “They were always going to do it,” but that’s Julian the martyr talking, that’s the person who says his mistakes don’t matter. But they do matter, particularly if you don’t own them…
It’s not so much what happens to WikiLeaks—that’s not the important thing—it’s how we get this whole idea right in the future. So now we’re seeing Snowden, we’re seeing the electronic dropbox at the New Yorker, we’re seeing all sorts of things taking off from WikiLeaks. We don’t need WikiLeaks to get transparency right.
**In the film, you show that Assange always thought he was being watched. Do you think his use of the two Swedish women to play up his role as the martyr—two women whose lives your film shows he’s ruined—indicates that he wanted the Americans to extradite him? ** Yes. As Robert Manne says in the film, he lives intensely in his imagination. There’s a wonderful moment, too, where Mark Davis says that Julian was right to be concerned about being watched but that there were a whole bunch of years before that where he was swapping SIM cards when he didn’t need to because no one gave a shit about who he was. There was an element of him that wanted to play the spy game. And with the WANK worm, or the Swedish case, he never takes responsibility and he never denies anything. It’s a way of keeping you guessing. Weirdly, what that’s doing is embracing mystery. Here’s the transparency avatar embracing mystery and ambiguity. That was there from the start, and then when fame hits he becomes destabilized and the paranoia that he had in balance now becomes unbalanced and he starts to believe his own fictions.
Daniel Domscheit-Berg talks about how Julian seeing spies everywhere became tiring. WIRED has just revealed that the FBI did have a paid informant inside WikiLeaks, but that wasn't until 2011, after everything had happened. Like Hunter Thompson said, “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean I don’t have enemies.”
You used the expression “blood on their hands." It's a phrase that's been used frequently by Assange and WikiLeaks' detractors. Do you think there's a perception that their imagined spilling of blood is somehow worse than the actual blood spilled by the American military-industrial complex? And is this what's happening now, with Snowden?
Of course… it’s the same thing. They always do this, and Bush and Cheney did this with waterboarding. The idea being that waterboarding saved lives, so exposing waterboarding is going to cost lives. It’s always done that way. “Now the terrorists will know how we do our interrogations. Now the terrorists will know the NSA is spying on them.” If you’re a self-respecting terrorist with an IQ above ten, you’ve got to assume the United States is trying to spy on you all the time. Why wouldn’t you assume that? After all, bin Laden had a courier come to him. He wasn’t even using electronic communications.
How would you go about preparing for a waterboarding, anyway?
You can’t! It’s totally idiotic. The idea that Julian Assange had blood on his hands while the US is fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, come on! Where’s the blood? In moments like this—and this is where I think Snowden has to be careful—the storytelling is important because that’s what sways people. If they think you are on the wrong side of some kind of key moral divide, they won’t go with you.
And the revelations about Assange’s personal life have been cleverly used.
Of course, and that’s why Assange’s people say this film is a smear. They’ve released this annotated transcript. They say it’s anti-WikiLeaks, which they think presumably because I criticized him at all. I find that terrifying in another way: if you criticize Julian Assange, you’re anti-WikiLeaks. He tried to pretend that he’d hacked into my office and gotten an early copy of the film that he then annotated with “corrections.” This transcript is missing a full quarter of the film. Why? Because it wasn’t a hack, it was an audio recording of a screening at Sundance and all of Bradley Manning’s words are written, not spoken, so they are left out of the transcript, which is another kind of cruel poetry because Assange writes Manning out of the story, subconsciously.
And I guess the real story in all this—and the really pressing issue—is Bradley Manning and how he has been treated.
Yes, absolutely. Assange imprisoned himself; Bradley Manning was put in a cage in Kuwait. Bradley Manning is the hero of the film, not Julian Assange. Manning is the guy who’s willing, by the way, to be held to account. He’s pled guilty to breaking his military oath and leaking documents, but he’s fighting these charges that he’s a spy, and, in my view, he’s not a spy. At the end of the day he’s braver than Assange and more idealistic.
Assange says at one point that an Afghan who collaborated with the American army “deserved to die.” Do you think that there’s amorality at the heart of WikiLeaks or Assange? Is he just opening a Pandora’s box?
I don’t know. I don’t think it’s fair to characterize him as “amoral,” but I think that he’s always been very dogmatic. In the film we call him a “transparency radical.” Most people aren’t comfortable with how transparent he wants things to be. That quote about how an Afghan who collaborated with Americans deserves to die is interesting—it shows us that, over time, he believes there’s a larger good to be had by making things transparent, one that transcends the short-term pain.
It reminds me in a way of Enron, where there were a lot of free-market ideologues—people who felt very strongly that the free market would cause a lot of pain but in the long run it would be good. It’s like a thinning of the herd. They felt that they were entitled to take down the California electricity grid for fun and profit because at the end of the day they would force the market to be more rational and efficient. In the meantime a lot of people suffer and some could have died. So, that is the disquieting thing and Julian reminds me of an ideologue, in that he’s extremely rigid and doesn’t see ambiguity much. Or irony.
This idea of truth runs through your film. Assange equates transparency with the truth, but is that sensible?
Well, yes, we have to talk about transparency and truth not being the same. Just because you have a document, what does that mean? Is that a true document? Did someone who wrote it lie? And does that document represent the full truth or just a partial truth? The principles of “scientific journalism,” which is a phrase Julian likes to use a lot, are not so much science as guesswork. It’s important to have documents: a lot of what Snowden is telling us is not news. If you’ve read James Bamford’s books you know all about the NSA, but what Snowden’s documents are is proof and in that sense they’re more powerful.
And with WikiLeaks, it was also the proof that was important.
Proof is important. Showing that the American government lied about the number of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s proof. Seeing the video, these terrified people like Michael Hayden [the former CIA director] because they were OK with it being reported. But they knew that the video would allow people to have an emotional reaction to this carnage that’s far more devastating.
In this post-WikiLeaks, post-Snowden world, what do we do with this information?
That is a very powerful and important question, because of course the next step is how you force the system to change once you’ve exposed it. The exposing of it sometimes doesn’t really force it to change. Sometimes the system just looks back at you and laughs. This is where this whole issue of stories comes in, because people like stories. You need to tell people a compelling story in order to get them to change their minds. If they feel like, “Oh, the government is just taking care of me and they need to keep secrets in order to keep me safe” then that’s a compelling story. But if you learn that you’ve just been spied on and that somebody’s been chuckling over your personal taste in pornography at the FBI or the NSA, maybe you take a different view of the government. That story then becomes a bit darker. It’s how you tell that story so people say, “Fuck this.”
And the story you’re telling is quite classically structured. It’s a story of two damaged people—Manning and Assange—who, because of their ability with computers, end up possessing a lot of power before having their downfall. Did you see the film as a documentary narrative like that?
Yes. That usually happens during the course of editing. Themes and character arcs begin to emerge over time as you boil down the story. You end up doing what a screenwriter does, which is to make sure things fall in on themselves in a way that reverberates. We decided to start with the WANK worm because it reverberates later on in the Swedish episode. Enron was a heist film, Taxi to the Dark Side was a murder mystery, and this is a spy film.
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