"We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks" director Alex Gibney grilled on the politics of radical transparency
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange seemed like an intriguing topic for prolific documentarian Alex Gibney, but little did he know the rabbit hole of secrets, lies and hypocrisy he would find as he dug into his subject.
Gibney’s latest work, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” about Assange and his “radical transparency,” is a fascinating look at one of our era’s most fascinating information rebels.
WaxWord caught up with Gibney (pictured below) ahead of the movie’s May 24 release.
You’ve just produced an Eagles documentary, and last year you made “Mea Maxima Culpa” about the church and sexual abuse — and now this. You seem to be cranking out movies at incredible rate.
I have a disease. (Laughs.) I’m getting a chance to make movies that are so great, it’s hard to turn them down. It feels like they are popping out so fast, but I worked on "WikiLeaks" for over two years, I’ve been working on more than one at a time.
This is a meaty topic. Assange starts off as a hero but ends up seeming like a fraud in some ways. He’s a revolutionary for transparency who ends up becoming the opposite — that’s a fantastic story. Is that what drew you?
I was drawn to story of a transparency radical. I thought it was a whole David and Goliath story. But in the face of so much hostility and danger and in the midst of accruing so much fame, something happened.
He became so convinced of his own goodness, his own nobility, that he began to believe the ends justified the means. That he could lie in service of the truth. That became very interesting to me. In that way, he became all too similar to the government, his very enemies.
How did you decide to do this?
It was an assignment. Universal came to me and said, "Would you do this?"
I thought it was about a leaking machine. The idea that there was an anonymous electronic dropbox, beyond national borders, eluding political traps. The balls of this guy — I thought, "Wow."
Assange is one-man wrecking crew in terms of fighting corruption and venality and abuses of power. For all those reasons, he seemed a hero for our age.
That’s what attracted me initially. A classic internet hero: a man alone with a laptop, roaming the world, like the Scarlet Pimpernel. Who wouldn’t want to do that story?
Are you a transparency radical?
No, I wouldn’t call myself a transparency radical. I don’t believe in releasing all information. But far too much is kept secret. We wouldn’t know about WikiLeaks if it weren’t for Bradley Manning and the Afghan, Iraqi war logs. But Julian wasn’t the leaker; he was the publisher. But this leak — Bradley Manning — was a rough justice for the amount of material that is unnecessarily being kept secret.
Isn’t that the impulse of most governments?
After 9/11 you saw a sea change. Obama has increased surveillance in many ways. But you’re right — the executive branch can’t help it.
So then where do you draw the line? Where is it too much transparency?
If you come across the recipe for some nerve gas, would you publish that? Knowing people could die as a result? Absolutely not.
Would Assange publish that?
He said that in the movie — an NPR reporter asks him. And sometimes sources need to be protected. You can’t leak secrets that lead to people being physically hurt.
What about the State Department cables that were leaked?
This particular leak acted as an important corrective. There was too much being kept secret. It was useful to pull back the curtain and see what was happening.
Assange feels the only way to hold people to account is to leak everything. That’s his rough justice. And I don’t necessarily believe that. With the State Department cables, in the beginning it felt like the sky was going to fall, but that’s not the case at all. People were embarrassed. And sometimes rightfully so. But American national security was not damaged.
Now we have an absurd situation where Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, all because he won’t go back to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault. You spoke to the victim. Is he making himself a Joan of Arc figure?
It’s about somebody who needed everybody to believe in a lie.
Yes. All of Julian’s defenders will say the U.S. was coming back to get him and would have shipped him off to Guantanamo (if he went to Sweden). I don’t find any proof of that whatsoever. Julian convinced himself he’s the victim of a fiction that he invented.
You talk to one of the women who say that Assange failed to use a condom during consensual sex. How is this rape?
We don’t know what the charge would be. If the allegations were true — they had sex and he purposely tore the condom — if he had HIV…
I don’t see how that rises to the level of rape or even sexual assault. What do you call it?
I consider it wrong. Do I consider it a crime? That depends on the law of that country. It would be a crime in Sweden and United Kingdom if it’s proven. The purpose of my including this information was not to say he’s guilty, it was simply to say that it’s too easy. Julian was mocking the women.
The women didn’t press charges. They went to the police to get him to take an AIDS test. The prosecutors decided these were potential crimes that should be investigated. It has to do with whether there was intent to deceive and convey disesase or genetic material.
What will be the end of Julian Assange? Or is this already the end?
This will not be the end of Julian Assange. He’s still doing work. But it’s the end of Julian Assange’s role as a truth teller. We can no longer believe in him as a truth teller. But he did something terribly important. The legacy of WikiLeaks is still very important.