WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is always making headlines, whether publishing classified information or having his own laundry aired. Now he’s the subject of a documentary by Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning director who told the story of Enron in The Smartest Guys in the Room and more recently tackled the Catholic Church in Mea Maxima Culpa.
But for the former journalist, We Steal Secrets (in cinemas 12 July) was a slightly different prospect, because when he began work on it in 2010, he had Assange on a pedestal. WikiLeaks had just gone public with the Afghan papers, around 250,000 documents that sparked fiery debate about the conduct of the US military in Afghanistan. Assange was perceived as a villain by some (for possibly endangering lives on the frontline) and a hero by others.
“I read Raffi Khatchadourian’s piece in The New Yorker, which was really good, because it gave a portrait of Assange that really conveyed this idea of a dashingly romantic figure, roaming the world with a laptop in his backpack, trying to right wrongs. Wow. That’s pretty powerful. Then in the age of the internet, suddenly you have a symmetric quality to this collision of secret leakers and secret keepers where people with laptops can get a fantastic number of secrets and challenge superpower nation states with just their ability to navigate the internet.”
Gibney had to meet this dashing crusader, but it was at their first meeting at the aptly named Frontline Club in London, that alarm bells rang. “Frankly, I saw two characters. He could be very funny and caustic and I figured, ‘Wow, he must be a fun guy to hang around with.’ I liked him. But then, it was as if he snapped into politician mode. There is nothing worse than seeing people snap into politician mode because then they start droning on and they’re not talking to you anymore – they’re talking to history. They’re talking to hear their voice echo off the wall behind them and you might as well not be there.”
Increasingly, in the course of making the film, what Assange had to say became less interesting to Gibney than what he wouldn’t say. They met numerous times with Jemima Khan (the campaigner and editor of The New Statesman, and, at that time, a supporter of Assange) acting as go-between. She helped Assange with the cost of bail after Swedish authorities brought charges of rape against him and, presumably, she hoped that Gibney would give Assange a platform to counter those allegations. However, while Assange does appear in the film (in footage recorded by Mark Davis), he shied away from Gibney’s camera.
“I was honest with him, which I think a lot of people weren’t. I told him I was going to make the film whether he participated or not. I don’t think he liked that idea at all, even though I said ‘I very much want you to participate in the film, but I’m controlling the film.’
“So, that made it difficult and over time, he kept stringing me along. I was on this, trying to persuade him for over a year. Looking back on it, I’m not sure he ever intended to agree to be interviewed. I think, over time, what he wanted to do was collect, what he calls, ‘intel’. That, he hoped that I would – in some way, shape or form – in my desire to get the ‘all-important’ interview with him, convey information to him that he could somehow use. This, though, was part of Julian’s journey. He went from being a part spy, part transparency radical, into being a complete spy. He embraced the spy world maybe more than he should have. What kind of transparency radical collects ‘intel’? I mean, ‘intel’ is a spy word.”
Indeed, the footage shot by Davis, tracking Assange in his ascent to fame (or notoriety), shows a man playing up to his reputation as an international man of mystery. “He is enjoying it. The footage Mark Davis got is so powerful because you can see the character evolve. You can see him grow into his own fame; that moment when he’s sitting in the chair getting made up, you know? He says, ‘WikiLeaks had to have a face. I wish it didn’t have to.’ I don’t think so, sorry. Not! He is clearly enjoying the moment and becoming that face.”
Even now, Assange is putting himself forward and speaking on behalf of Edward Snowden who is currently seeking asylum after leaking information on the US government’s far-reaching surveillance programme.
Did Assange facilitate the leaking of information by Edward Snowden?
“Do you know that? I don’t know that. I’ve never heard that. We only know what we know from Snowden and, from Snowden, we understand that he reached out to [documentary filmmaker] Laura Poitras. Now, Laura Poitras has been filming Julian Assange, but we don’t know that he was a marriage broker. We only know that Snowden reached out to Laura Poitras and also, [journalist] Glen Greenwald. Yes, these people know and are associated with Julian, but I’m not sure… I have not seen or heard anything that suggests that the initial leak was something that Julian was a part of.”
Gibney leans more towards another theory. “I can tell you my initial reaction, and I say this without any inside knowledge whatsoever – I just read the papers – but it appears to me that Julian can’t stand the idea that he’s out of the limelight. Snowden stole his limelight, so he’s insinuated himself in the Snowden story. At the end of the day, I’m not sure that’s going to be good for WikiLeaks or Snowden.”
Again, it’s what Assange doesn’t say that fascinates Gibney. Assange never speaks in unequivocal terms to either confirm or deny allegations made against him, seeming to make a stand without saying anything at all. He has even gone a step further, asking his colleagues at WikiLeaks to sign non-disclosure disagreements. Given his transparency stance, it’s laughable and his colleagues happily convey that in the film.
But there is another key figure in the story who has long been overshadowed by Assange, perhaps because he prized his anonymity. Still, in the end, Bradley Manning was exposed as the real-life intel analyst who leaked the Afghan papers and a video dubbed ‘Collateral Murderer’ showing the cheerful slaughter of civilians by US soldiers. In Gibney’s film, that horrifying video along with transcripts of Manning’s online chats with hacker and WikiLeaks supporter Adrian Lamo paint an intimate portrait of a troubled soul.
Gibney achieves this despite the fact that he could not get an interview with Manning either. That’s because since 2011, he has been incarcerated in the US under the Espionage Act.
Not only has Gibney become disillusioned with Assange, but with the Obama administration, too. “When it comes to National Security, the Obama administration has not repudiated a lot of what Bush did. He extended it and we know that now because of Snowden. And also, honestly, in some ways Obama is worse than Bush. He has prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. That is shocking.
“Obama has been terrible on these issues and I think he’s shooting himself and the American image in the foot by making these leakers – trying to turn them into spies instead of what they are, which is whistle-blowers of a certain kind. It would be more effective if Obama stood up and said, ‘It appears members of my administration have lied. Perhaps we should investigate that.’”
Even as these public figures – supposed beacons of hope and freedom – turn out to have darker sides, Gibney makes the point that throwing the baby out with the bathwater would also be dangerous. “I think people owe it to themselves to make separations. Why should I have to choose between supporting the transparency agenda and supporting everything Julian Assange has ever done? He would like us to believe that we have to make that choice, that you’re either for transparency and Julian Assange, or you’re against transparency. Bull*****. Bull*****!”
But if Assange hadn’t made himself the face of WikiLeaks, wouldn’t WikiLeaks stand a better chance of survival?
“I agree and I disagree… Julian and others denigrate this whole cult of personality, but he was responsible for that cult of personality and it served WikiLeaks well for a while, but in the end, he refused to disentangle the personal from the organisation and that’s where we come to the original sin, it seems to me, of the Swedish episode. Instead of saying, ‘Look, this is a personal matter, it doesn’t have anything to do with WikiLeaks and I’m going to go to Sweden and take care of it,’ he implied that this was part of a honey-trap. He said you can’t understand this unless you understand what WikiLeaks is going through and he put the two together.”
Gibney also voices his disbelief at Assange’s decision to jump bail and take refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, a turn of events that he calls “surprising, on many levels,” and he shakes his head at what he believes is Assange’s veiled criticism of the film. Those who have seen it (and loved it) are being spammed with texts, tweets and emails containing an annotated version of the script that denounces Gibney as a liar. Still, the director remains philosophical on the merry dance that Assange has led him on and this comes across in the final film which is complex, intriguing, sometimes frustrating but always utterly compelling.
Regarding the self-styled enigma of Assange, he says, “It creates a kind of wonderful mystery about the story that is sort of intoxicating, so there’s an element of romance to the character that I don’t think is lost. It’s still in the film. But sometimes, in a love story, things go bad. They don’t always end happily ever after and this one didn’t.”
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is in UK cinemas from 12 July