transcript of my review of "We Steal Secrets"
Last night I saw a sneak preview of the Universal Pictures movie "We Steal Secrets - the story of WikiLeaks". The film focuses on the personality and character of Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, painting them as bad and mad, respectively. Two-thirds of the way through the film, the former head spy of the NSA says "We steal secrets from other countries". The government spies steal secrets, whereas WikiLeaks accepts documents about crimes, from people of conscience, through an electronic mailbox that is encrypted so that WikiLeaks can't reveal who leaked the evidence, because they genuinely don't know. It is central to how WikiLeaks works that they never directly speak with their sources. Yet the director Alex Gibney as narrator calls Assange a liar for saying this. A whole 2 and a half hours about Wikileaks and Gibney doesn't understand or willfully calls into doubt the first basic fact of Wikileaks is its anonymous dead drop system.
To someone who has followed the story from the start, and read deeply about all the events and the players, the film shows some seriously misleading half-truths and untruths that suit an agenda.
One of the most important points about this film is that nobody from within WikiLeaks co-operated with it, so the interviews that aren't anti-Wikileaks, are all from other films or TV shows -its second hand footage. Instead WikiLeaks chose an exclusive deal with another film-maker, Oscar-nominated Laura Poitras. Her film will be out later this year, and is less likely to have misinformation, because she spoke with people who work in Wikileaks.
The film opens with footage and photos from the 1980's of the WANK worm attack on NASA computers that was documented in Suelette Dreyfus's book Underground. WANK stood for Worms against Nuclear Killers The film shows video of the computer screens showing "file deleted 1, 2, 3", and so on, and the worried NASA engineers, but doesn't deliver the punchline that no files at all were actually deleted, that the whole thing was an elaborate practical joke. They show that the WANK hackers used a Midnight Oil song lyric, and then show Julian Assange quoting the line from the song, out of the context of a documentary about the book Underground. It felt like watching a creationist film where they edit the film to make it look like Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov supported religious creation stories over science. They used this quote to suggest strongly that Assange was the WANK hacker, despite the fact that the police were never able to trace the WANK worm to any individual or group - anyone in the world who had heard Peter Garret sing, could be guilty. I suppose it works better in America where they are often given the view that Australia has only 20 people rather than over 20 million. Bizarrely they also showed footage of video from Australian TV in the 1980's that over-hyped the scariness of 1980's hacking, and how it was worse than axe murdering. What only the book Underground reports is that the NASA computers were broken into because they had the passwords set to the user-names. They may as well have had no security at all.
The film reveals that Assange's teenage on-line pseudonym was "Supreme Mandax", and totally misses the fact that its a typical hacker's self-referential joke. In Latin it means "nobly untrue", which any computer handle that protects your anonymity by not using your real name must be. The noble untruth is in the name itself as a pseudonym, not as a self-description of Assange. For goodness sake, GNU Linux is called that because GNU stands for GNU's not Unix, and the software that lets you run windows programs in Linux is called WINE which stands for wine is not an emulator. In the film, Gibney focuses on the "untrue" Mendax part to make out that Assange was a self-confessed liar, rather than a programmer with a classics education and a sense of humour. This is laboured over during the whole two and a half hours of the film, right up to the end, in a way that, like the creationist films, gives the feeling it was made by someone who knew they were twisting the truth.
Gibney states that the Judge at teenage Assange's trial 20 years ago recommended leniency because of a troubled childhood, but the actual court records showed that the leniency was because Assange deliberately didn't do any damage in the hacking exploits he was charged with.
The film features interviews with Adrian Lamo, whose testimony was the only evidence against Bradley Manning until he pleaded guilty recently to some of the charges against him. Lamo was blatantly drugged to the eyeballs in every scene he appeared in, even in the photos he doesn't look straight. Director and narrator Alex Gibney tells us that Lamo had been in hospital for Asperger's Syndrome, but thats not the whole truth. Lamo has a history of crime, drug addiction, mental illness and working as a government informant. He overdosed on prescription amphetamines and an ex-girlfriend reported that he used a stun gun on her that he carries at all times. He broke into several large companies computers including the New York Times, and then his associate who is an editor at Wired magazine would contact the companies to tell them and offer Lamo's cooperation, and then go and get paid to write about it for a security magazine. What a scam! At the time the chat logs were supposedly recorded, Lamo had just been discharged from 9 days of involuntary psychiatric confinement after his anti-depressant drugs were stolen and he'd behaved strangely in front of a police-man. It was originally 3 days as per the law for people who are believed to be a danger to themselves or society, but after 3 days the hospital decided to extend his stay for another 6 days. He claims he was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, only. Even in America, people are generally not put in involuntary psychiatric confinement for having Asperger's Syndrome. Any policeman who saw Lamo speak the way he does in this film and didn't suspect he was on drugs or suffering an episode, would not be doing his duty.
The film shows us a dramatised animation of the chat logs appearing character by character on the screen, and never questions how accurate they are. Text files are notoriously easy to change, yet they are relied on as the only source. The first contact between Lamo and Manning historically were encrypted emails, yet not only has Lamo never released these first emails, but the film presents snippets of the logs as if Manning is contacting Lamo on the AOL instant messaging service, of his own accord, instead of being led to it by Lamo after the emails. I just don't believe these chat-logs are accurate, to me they look like the sort of thing Lamo's counter-intelligence handlers put together. Yet in the film they are the only words from Bradley Manning about himself. The pre-trial transcripts of Bradley Manning's testimony give a very different picture of the man, but weren't used.
The film does show Lamo promising Manning that he can offer him legal protection for confessions as a legally ordained priest, and as a professional journalist, at the same time he's reporting to his regular Army counter-intelligence contact. In the film, Lamo says he reluctantly betrayed Manning's confidence because of the people who would die if he didn't warn the government. However not shown in the film are Lamo's public statements that he never saw any evidence in any of the leaked material that would have caused any harm to America's national security. In the film, Lamo says he acted to stop any further leaks, but his chat logs show that Manning told him that he had already lost all access by the time they were chatting. In short, the film lets Lamo frame himself as a reluctant moral hero, when the facts show that he was following his history of informing on people followed by massive media coverage, because he's addicted to being famous.
What's missing is WHY Manning contacted Lamo in the first place. It doesn't seem to make sense, and as an audience we'd really like to know.
Gibney distracts us from Manning's account of why he leaked the documents by giving a caricature of Manning's sexuality, leading us into discounting his statements explaining his moral reasons for revealing war crimes and substituting this story of a crazy gay guy.
The film shows the back and forth about the Collateral murder video being classified and not classified at the same time. Gibney states that they were classified, but his on-screen sources say it wasn't, and it was.
When the film goes into Bradley Manning's blatant torture and illegal imprisonment by the American government without any due process, their military expert regrets the punishment because it makes Manning look more like a sympathetic character, rather than because its morally and legally wrong.
All the people actually interviewed come across as anti-Wikileaks, as if Gibney hasn't spoken to any supporters. He claims in the film that Assange demanded one *million* dollars for appearing in the commercial film, which Assange denies. Gibney doesn't show the denial, and offers no evidence of this "Dr Evil" behaviour.
At the times he deals with the actual working of Wikileaks, when they collaborate with journalists from big name newspapers, when they carefully remove the names of people who might be hurt by the leaks, Gibney shows interviews with people who don't tell the truth. He shows a clip that says that Assange reluctantly worked with the newspapers for Collateral Murder, when in reality he'd been working with them for years with other stories. The film shows Nick Davies saying Assange had to be persuaded that civilians who helped US forces didn't deserve to die, when Nick Davies wasn't at the meeting and the people who were there, have signed statements that Assange said no such thing. Gibney continued to interview people who historically couldn't have direct information on the situations they report on, because they weren't there. You also have clips from people reporting things that are immediately contradicted by the video footage that follows. Why would you show someone complaining that Assange had over-slept and then show a clip that shows that Assange had stayed up all night and gone without sleep? Why ask historian Robert Manne about Assange's character when he's never met him? Why interview Daniel Domscheit-Berg who was caught sabotaging Wikileaks mail servers, without mentioning that fact?
They go into the rape allegations by interviewing Anna, one of the two women involved. They show a torn condom, but Gibney fails to report that Assange's DNA was not found in the condom. Gibney also fails to show that both women state that they weren't raped. Its unique for a rape case in which there is no DNA and the women say they were't raped, for the person accused by police to be chased internationally, and without any charges. They wanted the police to force Assange to have an STD test, which would only have made sense before they'd had unprotected sex with him. After unprotected sex, it would only make sense for them to have themselves tested for any sexually transmitted diseases. Gibney misses the fact that Assange agreed to have the test anyway, before the women asked for advice from the police, but they went anyway. More importantly he misses the fact that Anna blogged about "7 steps to legal revenge" before going to the police, that Anna is a politician, and that Sweden has really weird sexual politics.
The film struck me as a deliberately manipulative, pro-war-crime, anti-WikiLeaks propaganda piece aimed at the American market. An appropriate title for a movie telling the story of Wikileaks should have substituted the word "crimes" for "secrets", and the word "reveal" for "steal". Thus it should have seen "We reveal crimes - the story of WikiLeaks". This film is selectively edited like a creationist film, remember that when you see it. Wikileaks have posted a transcript for We Steal Secrets annotated with comments about where they disagree with the reports presented, and links to their source materials for proof. I'll throw the link on diffusionradio.com. I give the film 2 stars for commercial slickness beyond the dreams of creationists.