Alex Gibney’s new film, “We Steal Secrets,” is about WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. It dutifully peddles the state’s contention that WikiLeaks is not a legitimate publisher and that Bradley Manning, who allegedly passed half a million classified Pentagon and State Department documents to WikiLeaks, is not a legitimate whistle-blower. It interprets acts of conscience and heroism by Assange and Manning as misguided or criminal. It holds up the powerful—who are responsible for the plethora of war crimes Manning and Assange exposed—as, by comparison, trustworthy and reasonable. Manning is portrayed as a pitiful, naive and sexually confused young man. Assange, who created the WikiLeaks site so whistle-blowers could post information without fear of being traced, is presented as a paranoid, vindictive megalomaniac and a sexual deviant. “We Steal Secrets” is agitprop for the security and surveillance state.
Rebels are typically a bundle of contradictions and incongruities. They are often difficult people whom the dominant systems of power abused at a young age. They have the intelligence needed to dissect the workings of power, and to devise mechanisms to fight back. German Jewish intellectuals in the Nazi era such as Hannah Arendt, writers such as James Baldwin, who was gay as well as black, and the revolutionary Frantz Fanon, a black writer and psychiatrist raised in the French colony of Martinique, all were outsiders, even outcasts. Like these three, Manning and Assange rose out of personal troubles to ask the questions traditional rebels ask, and they responded as traditional rebels respond.
“The initial presentation of the story was that Bradley Manning was a pure political figure, like a Daniel Ellsberg,” Gibney told The Daily Beast in an interview in January. “I don’t think that’s a sufficient explanation of why he did what he did. I think he was alienated; he was in agony personally over a number of issues. 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.”
Gibney is unable to see that humans are a mixture of hubris and altruism, cowardice and courage, anger and love. There are no “pure” political figures—including Daniel Ellsberg. But there are people who, for reasons of conscience, discover the inner fortitude to defy tyranny at tremendous personal risk. Manning did this. Assange did this. They are not perfect human beings, but to dwell at length, as Gibney does, on their supposed psychological deficiencies and personal failings, while glossing over the vast evil they set themselves against, is an insidious form of character assassination. It serves the interests of the oppressors. Even if all the character flaws ascribed by Gibney to Manning and Assange are true—and I do not believe they are true—it does not diminish what they did.
The film at many points is a trashy exercise in tabloid journalism. Gibney panders to popular culture’s taste for cheap pop psychology and obsession with sex, salacious gossip and trivia. He shows clips of Assange dancing in a disco. He goes through an elaborate ritual of putting a wig and makeup on one of Assange’s estranged paramours, Anna Ardin, to disguise her although she is a public figure in Sweden.
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“When the women went to the police to try to force Assange to take an HIV test, their testimony raised questions about possible criminal charges,” Gibney says in speaking about a Swedish case in which allegations of sexual misbehavior have been made against the WikiLeaks publisher. “The police, on their own, decided to investigate further. The refusal to use a condom took center stage: If Assange had HIV and knew it, it could be a case for assault. The testimony of the women raised another issue: Did he refuse to use a condom because he wanted to make the women pregnant? Some pointed to the fact he had already fathered four children with different women around the world.”
The personal sin is excoriated. The vast structural sin Assange and Manning fought is ignored. The primacy of personal piety over justice is the inversion of morality. It is the sickness of our age. David Petraeus is hounded out of the CIA not because he oversaw death squads that killed thousands of innocents in Iraq or because the CIA tortures detainees, but because he had an extramarital affair. The power elite can draw up kill lists, torture people, wage endless war and carry out massive fiscal fraud on Wall Street as long as they don’t get caught sleeping with their administrative assistants. Assange can lay bare the crimes they commit, but his act of truth-telling is canceled out by alleged sexual misconduct.
Is the most important thing about Martin Luther King Jr. the fact that he was a serial adulterer? Did King’s infidelities invalidate his life and struggle? Do the supposed defects of Assange and Manning negate what they did? Gibney would have us believe they do. Manning, in a just world, would be a witness for the prosecution of those who committed war crimes. Assange would be traveling around the United States collecting First Amendment awards.