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Review: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

A revealing and balanced documentary tells the tale of Wikileaks' rise from obscurity and fall into folly with great emotion and intelligence.

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Julian Assange and the Guardian's Nick Davies in a still from We Steal Secrets

Director and Writer: Alex Gibney
Released: 12th July, 2013
Lenth: 130 minutes

Alex Gibney, the documentarian behind Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Freakonomics, has made an intriguing documentary that shocks and informs in equal measure. From the opening section, the story of Julian Assange's hack into US launch control using the 'WANK worm', presented with a hint of a Bond opener, the audience feels as though it's placed at the centre of the modern day spy thriller.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks covers a great number of the issues surrounding Wikileaks and its activity. As the best documentaries do, We Steal Secrets tackles a subject matter that many find impossibly complex and renders it as simple to grasp as the latest Jason Statham actioner. Importantly though, Gibney deftly organizes a vast array of information without putting forward a reductive thesis. We Steal Secrets is ostensibly a spy thriller, but one devoid of obvious good guys and bad guys: the central subject in the story of WikiLeaks, the enigmatic Julian Assange, is a deeply flawed, morally indeterminate individual.

Gibney clearly, to some degree, admires Assange (this isn't the biased character assassination some pro-WikiLeaks lobbyists would have you believe), but he is also keen to show that the presence of an erstwhile teen hacker whose stated motivation is "I like crushing bastards" was always going to be somewhat problematic. Indeed, We Steal Secrets is at its best when teasing out the numerous contradictions that underlie WikiLeaks and its founder.

We Steal Secrets has no problems with commending Assange's passion for freedom of information and idealistic aims to facilitate transparency, whilst, at the same time, chastising him for his dogmatism that blinds him to the potentially detrimental consequences of his actions.

The documentary points out that WikiLeaks' disclosure of the Afghanistan and Iraq War logs did go some way to justifying the entire project. It was revealed that President Obama had sanctioned the mass handover of Iraqi prisoners of war to torturous Iraqi authorities, as well as the reality of civilian casualties. The Obama administration had defied the Geneva Convention and committed war crimes. The reality of state secrets is brought to the fore. Who knows what we'd think of the 'War on Terror' without Wikileaks.

Although taking a firmly pro-transparency line, We Steal Secrets contends that it would be wrong to celebrate WikiLeaks without qualification. Perhaps the ends justify their means, but Assange never appeared to consider whether they actually would. More troubling is the Orwellian, quasi-corporate language that Assange began to use to describe the practices of his tiny organisation. Ironically, his talk of "harm minimization" made WikiLeaks' operations appear to be just as opaque as those of the organisations he was attempting to expose.

Even more troubling was the fact that these claims were completely false: 75,000 documents were published that contained approximately one hundred unredacted names (including Iraqi and Afghan informants who may then have been targeted). Former WikiLeaks employees Daniel Domscheit-Berg and James Ball provide fascinating insight into Assange's hubristic downfall, citing his willingness to conflate his alleged sexual offences with WikiLeaks transparency agenda as a crucial turning point; if you donate to Wikileaks today you could in fact be funding his court defence...

Assange remains in a prison of his own making (the Ecuadorian Embassy), whereas troubled whistleblower Bradley Manning, who provides the documentary its emotional core, was arrested for 'aiding the enemy' and imprisoned, under appalling conditions, in a maximum security prison in Virginia. He is portrayed as both the true hero and greatest victim of the piece. Though some might argue that We Steal Secrets poses more questions than it answers, Gibney's film is a thorough, dramatically engaging, evenhanded study of a hugely complex subject that, analogous with WikiLeaks initial aims, gives the audience all the information and invites them to come to their own informed conclusion.

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2 Comment

Si Posted on Thursday 4 Jun 2020

The most shocking footage in the film is the gun ship taking out Reuters journalists because their long lenses looked like guns... Wikileaks is definitely a good thing - imagine not knowing the information that they've released - However, do agree that there may be an argument for more responsible releasing of information. But then who's to decide what's safe to release? Where is the line between censorship and responsibility?

Good review though!


Arbed121 Posted on Thursday 4 Jun 2020

Bradley Manning's defense lawyers have just described how Alex Gibney refused to help them by supplying outtakes of his interview with Bradley's supervisor (a prosecution witness in his case). In the end Gibney NEGOTIATED to give only one tiny clip, but it was like trying to pull teeth for Bradley's lawyers. It goes to show that Alex Gibney is lying when he says his film is sympathetic towards Bradley Manning.

The testimony of James Ball and Daniel Domscheit-Berg are similarly suspect with regard to Wikileaks/Assange - both are trying to cover up their own crimes - yes, actual crimes - that they committed. The annotated transcript Wikileaks released sets these out (just Google "Gibney transcript") and also PROVES that it is not true that Assange used donations to Wikileaks for his own legal fund.


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