Front Row had an interesting interview last night with Alex Gibney who has directed the film We Steal Secrets: the Story of Wikileaks which will be released in the UK soon.
The link is here 1:36 on. Transcription of most of it below.
Interviewer: The computer analyst Edward Snowden turned whistleblower is believed to be holed up in the transit holding area in Moscow airport evading espionage charges in the USA The unfolding story coincides with the release of the film We Steal Secrets, the new documentary from Oscar winning director Alex Gibney. His previous films include The Smartest Guys in the Room, which told the story of the collapse of the Enron corporation, Taxi to the Dark Side, which exposed torture by the US military and Silence in the House of God which about abuse within the Catholic Church. For his latest project Gibney set out to make a film which focussed not on the villains but someone he initially regarded as a hero, Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, the organisation which is currently aiding Edward Snowden. With Assange himself currently hiding out in the Ecuadorian embassy, the film includes interviews with hackers, activists and even the former director of the CIA and National Security Agency, Michael Hayden. . . When I met director Alex Gibney I suggested that having made films about the abuses of power, he regarded Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as a kindred spirit when he set out to make the film.
Gibney: Yes, that’s very much the case. I think I was very impressed by the role that Julian’s organisation Wikileaks.- and it’s really Julian and a few other people. As somebody said in the film, I asked, is this Apple or IBM? They said no, it’s a tiny gas station with a few very bright attendants. That probably sums it up pretty well. But yeah, I was very sympathetic because what Julian was all about was exposing corruption, exposing official lies,.
Interviewer: Stamping on the bastards, he says, doesn’t he?
Gibney: Crushing bastards. . . and Julian makes a joke about it. Somebody says, “Is that all it is about for you, crushing bastards?” And he says, “”Well it depends on the bastards.” That’s funny, but if you think about it really, the verb “Crushing”, if you take it seriously, is not such a pretty verb. And that sounds more like a powerful nation state than an idealistic person trying to make a difference by speaking truth to power.
Interviewer: Because it feels like he’s an heroic figure for the first half hour or so. And then we hear this phrase, he wants to crush the bastards. he wants to crush the bastards, and it sends a warning signal out there. After that the narrative changes totally. What changed your perception of Julian Assange? Because in the end he is not a sympathetic character at all.
Gibney: I think in the end the mission of Wikileaks remains deeply sympathetic to me but he is a character I think who leaves his own mission behind, and that becomes deeply unsympathetic.. The aspect of the story that I didn’t really understand going in, in fact I assumed it was something different was the Swedish episode, the sex scandal that somehow between the Iraq war logs and the Afgham war logs suddenly Julian Assange is accused of rape in Sweden. and I thought from afar that this must be – the timing was too suspicious, it must be some kind of conspiracy. Well I dug deep into this and I’ve concluded that it was a personal matter. Why deal with a personal matter in this case then? The reason is that Julian Assange, very intentionally and very cleverly, tried to make a personal matter part of the transparency agenda, to sort of say “no no no this is not a personal matter,” and all the people at Wikileaks were saying “You’ve got to go and deal with this yourself. Deal with it as a personal matter and leave Wikileaks out of it.” He said, “Absolutely not. What we’re going to do, is part of Wikileaks.” That’s the moment where he lost me, and it seems to me that Julian’s great fatal flaw is his unwillingness to be held to account. I think in some fundamental way maybe none of us really like to be held to account but he has a paranoia about being held to account, and so the idea that he would even be slapped on the hand for failing to take an HIV test struck him as so abhorrent that he concocted this huge conspiracy which then embroiled all his followers in the idea that the government of Sweden had become opposed to the transparency agenda. That was a lie in my view and that turned me against what Julian Assange was doing.
There’s a great phrase in the film spoken by James Ball who worked for Wikileaks for a while and now works for the Guardian.
Interviewer: He looks about ten, actually, when he starts working for Julian Assange. He becomes the spokesman for Wikileaks.
Gibney; He becomes the spokesman. He’s on TV everywhere. It’s a great symbol for the organisation. Maybe a better symbol in a way than Assange because he looks so young and he looks so innocent. but there’s a phrase that he comes up with in the film – “Noble cause corruption”. It’s actually a phrase used by police departments who describe cops who plant joints on people , bad guys, who they can’t get any other way, the idea being that if you are a good guy, it’s okay for you to do bad things. .
Interviewer: To bend the truth.
Gibney: Well it’s a higher purpose to be served. And I think that was Julian’s view. So instead of speaking truth to power, Julian began to speak lies to power.
Interviewer: You make great play with this and the idea that as a young hacker he went under the pseudonym “Mendax”, part of a quote from Horace I think “splendide mendax” meaning “noble liar” and playing with that idea that it is okay to lie. So you’re saying that he is a liar?
Gibney: Yes. In a fundamental way I think Julian believes that it’s okay for him to lie so long as it is in the service of a higher truth and I think that’s a contradiction that is fundamentally untenable. .
Interviewer: You say you did your own investigations and you think there was absolutely no suggestion whatsoever to say that that was a set up as his supporters were suggesting that it was a honey trap.
Gibney: I can find no evidence that that episode in Sweden was any kind of honey trap.
Interviewer: So this is a film about the internet, it’s about governments, about power, corruption, lies and war but at the heart of the story are two characters, Julian Assange and the far more tragic figure of Private Bradley Manning who is still in prison after dumping the data and he is a very conflicted character and you reveal that he is deeply uncomfortable with his own sexuality, uncomfortable with his role within the army and appalled by some of the things that he has seen. Now of course you don’t get to interview him but we get a very intimate portrait of him through his email.
Gibney: On-line chats. On line chats with a man named Adrian Lamo, a Grade A hacker, who befriended Manning on line. And this is a really poignant episode because the other thing I thought this movie was about at the beginning was a leaking machine. This new device Wikileaks had, an electronic drop box that allows people to leak anonymously that neither the publisher nor the leaker know each other in any fundamental way and that they can therefore protect their anonymity. But Bradley Manning was in emotional distress. I think he leaked for political reasons akin to that of a whistle blower but he had a desperate need to tell somebody about what he had done. We never got to interview Bradley Manning but in a way I think for the film it is more interesting to see and reveal him through these chats. Why? Because increasingly that’s how we’re all communicating. Girls and boys hook up and break up y’know via chats. We communicate the most intimate information over the internet on Facebook even though we know that everyone is spying on us.
Interviewer: You set out to make a film about the system but in the end you ‘remaking a film about people who are struggling. There’s a sense of human frailty and desperation really at the heart of all of these characters, Bradley Manning, Adrian Lamo who we see crying at the end. He’s very conflicted about how having in effect turned Bradley Manning in. And there’s a sense of desperation in the Julian Assange character even though he projects himself almost as a messianic character. He refused to talk to you, Assange. He was asking for a million dollars for an interview?
Gibney: He said that the market rate for an interview with him was over a million dollars, but there’s no doubt he was asking for money. I said, “I don’t pay for interviews.” I don’t., and he said, “Well, if you don’t pay for interviews, how about this then instead,” sort of like a scene out of Ed Wood. Why don’t you spy on all the other interview subjects and report back to me.” [Laughs] I found that actually a far more staggering suggestion from someone who is supposed to be so much about source protection that he wanted me to spy on the other people and give him intel So there’s Julian now acting not as a transparency activist but a spy and I was supposed to spy on behalf of Julian.
Interviewer: And the great irony is that you have a real spy there. You have the former director of the CIA, and NSA, Michael Hayden, who gives the title of the film, We Steal Secrets. He’s proud of this. He says, “That’s what we do. There are secrets out there, this is our job, we steal secrets”. I mean the irony is, he is the spy who is apparently being more upfront and honest than the man who is supposedly revealing the corruption and the lies.
Gibney: That is correct. And I titled the film We Steal Secrets because it sets this whole story in context. If governments are freely admitting, we steal secrets, and now you see it in the Snowden case, this is not so simple as to say, “Oh My God, Bradley Manning has leaked these secrets. Isn’t it terrible. He’s a traitor.” The key is to find the moral high ground and that’s not so easy to do.