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Whistle-blower website Wikileaks facilitated the largest security breach in the history of the United States. Bradley Manning, the Army private charged with leaking an ocean of classified material to the site, will soon be tried in court. Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney recently set out to explore Manning’s story, as well as the story behind Wikileaks itself. He joins Kojo to explore the impact of Wikileaks on politics, national security and on the men and women involved with the leaks.
- Alex Gibney Director, "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks" (Focus World)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn just a few weeks' time, Army Private Bradley Manning is scheduled for court martial. Manning pleaded guilty recently to leaking hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic and military files to the whistleblowing site WikiLeaks, publically admitting to his role in the single biggest breach in the history of the United States. The leak material included video of airstrikes in Afghanistan and Iraq, diplomatic cables, logs of military incident reports and assessment files of high profile detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWikiLeaks published this material to the internet, putting the information Manning collected before a worldwide audience. But the story behind the site and the man most closely associated with it, Julian Assange, is both complicated and opaque, especially for an organization founded in the name of transparency and sunshine. And it's a story that Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney set out to tell in his latest film "We Steal Secrets: The WikiLeaks Story." Alex Gibney is an Academy-award winning document filmmaker.
MR. KOJO NNAMDI"We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks" begins in select theaters on May 24. It comes to Washington, D.C. on May 31 at the AFI, which is technically, of course, in Silver Spring. And on June 7 it will be available in video on demand. Alex Gibney, thank you for joining us.
MR. ALEX GIBNEYGreat to be here. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIDuring the past several years, WikiLeaks facilitated the publication and distribution of secrets that sent shockwaves across the globe, leaks that shed light on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, leaks that played some of the most secretive aspects of American diplomacy into the sunlight. But at the heart of all those leaks were human stories, moral decisions made by the people who provided the information and those who published it. And it seems these moral dilemmas were also the stories you set out to tell in this film. What motivated you to do so?
GIBNEYWell, I mean, this was one of the great stories about secrets and the public's right to know, that had ever come down the pike. And so when I got the opportunity -- and this was an opportunity that was handed to me by a guy named Mark Shmuger who's the former cochairman of Universal -- he said, would you want to do a documentary about this, I think I can raise the money, I jumped in feet first.
NNAMDIMost of the characters in this film grappling with these challenges insist that the internet is a force for good. Yet at the same time technology makes it easier to collect secrets. Your film notes that the U.S. government is capable of intersecting tens of thousands of emails and phone calls in just a moment's time. What did you set out to learn about the nature of the internet and how we communicate in the modern world through this project?
GIBNEYWell, I mean, I set out to learn how the internet was changing us and what impact it was having on us. And also what its character is because I think you rightly point out that its character is contradictory. It's at once a tool for surveillance and also a tool for freedom. It's both transparent and opaque. It's where people hiding behind anonymous names can be terribly cruel. And yet it's also where we can find unparalleled amounts of information, you know, with the click of a mouse. So it's a tremendously contradictory place. And I think we're just beginning to understand what it's doing to us.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you see whistleblower sites like WikiLeaks as a force for good or as a threat to our security? How is your opinion of WikiLeaks or of Julian Assange changed since they became part of the public consciousness, 800-433-8850? WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, you've developed a kind of niche for yourself, making films about the downfalls of people or institutions, films about hubris. And this film traces Julian Assange's arc, if you will, from hacker to celebrity to international pariah. What drew you to him as a subject?
GIBNEYI mean, initially I was drawn to him as the main character in a kind of a David and Goliath story. You know, I read an article about him in the New Yorker and I actually saw the video of the helicopter gunship in Iraq that he posted on his website, you know, long before he had become truly famous. He was interesting to me as a very idealistic figure who was trying to hold governments and corporations to account.
GIBNEYBut I think over the course of his own personal arc, as he became more famous and more pressures -- as he faced more pressures from the world around him, he changed. And I think sadly he became somewhat corrupted by the pressure.
NNAMDIWell, it is my understanding that he demanded money from you for an interview. You said, you don't pay for interviews. How did you go about your research without his cooperation?
GIBNEYWell, there's a lot of ways to go about researching a film without the cooperation. I did a film about the Vatican and the pope didn't agree to speak to me either. So there's lots of ways. You can talk to lots of people and there's lots of documents surprisingly enough. Some of them leaked, which you can study. So talking to the main character is not the only way. The fact is, I did speak to him a number of times. He just never agreed to speak on camera. So every story has a way in and there's always ways to find out things about stories or people if you just dig hard enough.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Alex Gibney. He's an award-winning documentary filmmaker and producer. His latest work is called "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. What did you learn about what motivates Assange? This is someone who said things in the past like, reform can only come when injustice is exposed. And then there is this also from the film "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks."
ACTORI'm a combative person, so I like crushing bastards. So it is deeply personally -- personally deeply satisfying to me.
NNAMDIWhat did you learn about him?
GIBNEYCrushing bastards is an interesting phrase and he goes on to say -- somebody asked him, is that really your motivation? He says, well it depends on the bastards. I mean, I think the idea of crushing bastards is not exactly what you think when you think of somebody who's altruistic or seeking to create a better world.
GIBNEYSo I think in Julian Assange there are these contradictions. I think he is fiercely idealistic, but I think he also believes to some extent that he should not be held to account, that he's working for good. And therefore it's okay for him to cut corners because he's in a pitch battle with the forces of darkness. And that led to a kind of corruption, what the police call noble cause corruption, which ended up undermining the very principles that he espoused.
GIBNEYAnd, you know, for example, inside his own organization he forced people to sign nondisclosure agreements with a penalty of over $12 million, which is an odd thing to do for a transparency organization. Particularly one in which, you know, that mechanism is what corporations do to hold whistleblowers in check. So it was distressing and...
NNAMDIThis documentary showed us the very young guy who was linked to the so-called WANK hack attack against NASA in 1989 that was an antinuclear statement. And yet, is this the same guy who's now living in the Ecuadorian Embassy, in a country whose record on human rights he wants railed against?
GIBNEYCorrect. I mean, these are the contradictions that I think Julian wants us to ignore. But these are the contradictions that I think he's a prisoner of. It's a funny thing. The WANK work hack that you talk about was actually a computer worm that infected a NASA launch for the Galileo space probe. It's never been determined exactly who was responsible. Well, we know it was some hackers in Melbourne, Australia which is where Assange comes from.
GIBNEYAssange has never accepted responsibility, nor has he ever denied responsibility. It's that peculiar tantalizing sort of secret agent type thing that Assange is so fond of doing. And I think he's an interesting character for the Internet because he's somebody who likes to hold others to account, but doesn't like to be held to account himself.
NNAMDIJulian Assange has been the subject of what's fair to call a bizarre legal case, sexual assault allegations were brought against him in Sweden, allegations that you say you felt at first were part of a honey trap, a ploy by American authorities out for payback. What do you think now?
GIBNEYI think was actually a personal matter pure and simple, in other words misbehavior. Exactly what happened, we don't know. Only three people know what happened, Julian Assange and the two women involved. But I'm convinced that it had nothing to do with any kind of CIA honey trap, and indeed, the attempts to get them to go back to Sweden to face the music in legal terms is also not a ploy in any way, shape, or form that I've been able to ascertain to get him to be extradited to the United States. It has to do purely and simply with a matter between one man and two women.
GIBNEYThe fact is that it all revolves around whether or not Julian Assange wanted to use a condom, and the women were telling him he must and he was not very fond of using a condom, and so they were concerned. They both -- they started talking to each other, and they said, look, we want to you take an HIV test, because we're concerned that you might be carrying a virus. He refused. In order to persuade him to take the HIV test, the women went to the police and history as we know it unfolded.
NNAMDIYou managed to actually get one women involved in Assange's case in Sweden to grant you an interview. How did you go about orchestrating that?
GIBNEYWell, over time, you know, it's one of those things, you keep knocking on the door until somebody finally let's you in. And I think frankly she became frustrated. When Julian Assange, after three legal proceedings in the United Kingdom, all of which he lost, when he finally realized that he was going to be extradited to Sweden, he sought asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. As you point out, Ecuador is not a country that's been terribly favorable toward, you know, reporters.
GIBNEYWhen that happened, she sensed -- this woman Anna in Sweden, that she might never have her day in court, and she wanted to have her voice heard. Not about the case itself, which she refused to talk about, but about how mistreated she had been and how badly abused she had been publicly by Wikileaks and its supporters.
NNAMDIHow important do you think it is for Assange's self-identity for him feel like he's a martyr, like he's made a sacrifice for this cause?
GIBNEYI think it is terribly important. We know from many people who know Assange that he lives intensely in his imagination. When he was a young man and convicted of hacking offenses, he imagined himself as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was handed to the gulag, when in fact he was a kid who got a suspended sentence. You know, it was hardly the gulag, but that's how he imagined himself. And I think, you know, the idea that this great transparency radical would suddenly have to face sex charges in Sweden for not wearing a condom didn't seem so glamorous to him.
GIBNEYHe needed to feel that was part of some larger transparency agenda, and indeed her purposefully connected the two, even though in my view there was no connection. So Julian Assange created a grand fiction out of this Swedish episode which was that it had something to do with Wikileaks which it didn't.
NNAMDIThere are those who argue that it would be easier for him to be extradited from England than it would be for him to be extradited from Sweden.
GIBNEYHis own -- one of his own lawyers argues that in my film. The fact is from Sweden you'd not only have to get permission of the Swedish government, but you'd also have to get a sign off from the British government. So if the United States wanted to get him, they would be much -- they would have been much better off to grab him while he was in the United Kingdom.
NNAMDIHere is Tom. Put on your headphones please. Tom is in Middleburg, Va. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMHi. I'm sorry, I'm on a cell phone and it might be a bit broken up. I think if the United States was after you and the United States' treatment of Bradley Manning, would scare someone like Assange being infiltrated, I think his nondisclosure statement is justified, because after all the United States will do anything, I think, to squash him and Bradley Manning and any other whistleblower. So although it seems contradictory, I don't find that unusual for him to be that paranoid.
GIBNEYWell, I just think at some point Wikileaks owes it to itself and to the rest of us to not only talk the talk but the walk the walk. You know, the way you defeat the powers that be is not by adopting their tactics. It's by doing what Martin Luther King or Gandhi did to use effectively passive resistance. You know, you do a better job by being more transparent and more open rather than being more closed.
NNAMDITom thank you very much for your call. And you mentioned Bradley Manning. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll talk more about Bradley Manning. We're talking with Alex Gibney. He is an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker. His latest work is called "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks." You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you see the technological advances of the Internet era more for their potential to share information, or more for their potential to gather secrets and steal information? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Alex Gibney about his latest work. It's called "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks." It begins playing in select theaters on May 24. On May 31 it's here in the Washington area at the AFI Silver Theater, and on June 7 it's on video on demand. And Alex Gibney is an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, and you can reach -- you can join this conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850. You contrast Julian Assange's arc with that of Bradley Manning's, the man who provided the material that made Wikileaks a truly worldwide force.
NNAMDIYou didn't have access to Manning either, obviously, because since he's been in custody all this time. How did you go about piecing together his story. How much of your understanding of Manning came purely from chat logs between him and the hacker who ultimately turned him into authorities, Adrian Lamo?
GIBNEYIt's those chat logs, these conversations between Bradley Manning and somebody he didn't even know, Adrian Lamo, to whom he reached out while he was in Iraq, that we know so much about Bradley Manning. And these chat logs were leaked by Wired magazine in two batches. When we got both batches, and there may -- some people say there may yet be other batches that are out there. We don't know. We think we have the full complement.
GIBNEYBut when we got both batches, we understand something about this man that was very potent and powerful because they were effectively his own confessions about what he was feeling, what he wanted to do, his motivations, where he had come from, how he had grown up, the pressures he was under as a gay man in the military during Don't Ask Don't Tell. So we know a lot about Bradley Manning through these chats, and in the film I made the decision not to do anything other but then to present excerpts of those chats.
GIBNEYSo you actually see a lot of the film is communications, printed communications, between Bradley Manning and Adrian Lamo, and it's interesting how emotionally intimate and compelling it is.
NNAMDIWhat did you learn about his motivation to start leaking secrets to begin with, whether it was to newspapers he tried to reach out to, or eventually to Wikileaks itself?
GIBNEYI think that Bradley Manning was becoming increasingly politicized. First of all, you know, he was a tormented soul, we should say that. And he was becoming increasingly, I think, alienated to the culture around him. It was a very macho culture. He was small, he was not physically aggressive, he was somewhat effeminate. But I think also he was beginning to see things that were very disturbing to him. He was an intelligence analyst in Iraq, and he would find out -- he would gather evidence about corruption in Iraq.
GIBNEYHe's bring it to his superior officers, and his officers showed no interest in pursuing this in any way, shape, or form. So suddenly he began to be concerned about a degree of immorality and criminality that it was seen in Iraq, and then also because he had access to an extraordinary number of materials throughout the world, including from Afghanistan and also State Department cables, which was something that happened as a result of the increased communication after 9/11, all over the world.
GIBNEYSo suddenly Manning is seeing this stuff, and his political consciousness is rising, and he's deciding that perhaps this is material that everybody in the world needs to know. If -- and so he goes about figuring out how he can leak this material, and he first goes to the Washington Post, and then the New York Times. Sort of perfunctory attempts, I think, to reach them, but finally I think much more comfortable with leaking this material to an electronic drop box run by the Wikileaks website.
NNAMDIWhat would Wikileaks, and what would Julian Assange be without Bradley Manning?
GIBNEYWe wouldn't really know about them. The fact is that you can think of Wikileaks as a small organization that had done some good impressive work in terms of leaking some documents in the past. But it was pretty small and pretty obscure. So it's a little bit like somebody who goes fishing at the end of a pier with a stick, a shoelace, a safety pin, and a bit of bacon, and pulls up Moby Dick. I mean, that's how big these leaks were. So we wouldn't really know about Julian Assange if it weren't for these enormous leaks, hundreds of thousands of documents, and a very important video leaked to Wikileaks by Bradley Manning.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones again. Here is Joe in Washington D.C. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOEYes. I was wondering has any medical or, you know, like hospital or whatever, found out whether or not these women, you know, acquired AIDS from Julian Assange, and if not, then I would think that that issue of using a condom would be moot.
NNAMDIWell, actually HIV doesn't show up that readily, but here is Alex Gibney.
GIBNEYYeah, that's right. HIV doesn't show up that readily, and that's why they wanted him to take the test to see whether or not one of them needed to take a cocktail to protect herself. But once they went to the police, the police looked into the matter to decide whether or not Assange had broken laws, and whether this insistence on either breaking his condom or not using a condom after the women had asked him, might be a crime because, for example, there is a man in Canada who is spending two years in prison because he methodically poked a hole in every one of the condoms he was using with his girlfriend who, you know, insisted that she did not want to become pregnant, and she did become pregnant.
GIBNEYSo Assange's behavior, and we don't know the full extent of it, because we haven't seen a legal case, is something that is a legitimate -- a source of legitimate concern as it's been determined both by the Swedish courts and the British courts who also determined if these allegations were proven, that they would be assault or a minor rape.
NNAMDIHere is Dorian in Baltimore, Md. Dorian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DORIANYes, sir. My question is, I guess more towards Bradley Manning, but I hear term, even on this show, whistleblower used in regards to him, and I don't know the details of everything that he leaked. But, I mean, did he leak anything that exposes crimes? I mean, you know, if someone at Coca-Cola, you know, leaks the secret formula to Coke, I mean, they didn't blow a whistle, they just gave away a secret.
GIBNEYI think he did. I think Bradley Manning did leak materials that would be considered either crimes or immoral. In the case, for example, of Iraq, he revealed war logs which showed that the United States military was routinely handing over prisoners to the Iraqi military who the U.S. military knew was torturing them. That's a war crime under the Geneva Convention. So there's just one example of an incident of a crime that was exposed by Manning.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Dorian. Do you find irony in that it was during the hawkish -- or so-called hawkish Bush administration after 9/11, that policies were put in place to encourage information sharing between government agencies, policies that gave greater opportunity to leakers and to Bradley Manning, and it's been under the Obama administration which campaigned under the banner of openness and transparency where we've seen some of the most aggressive actions taken in relation -- retaliation to leaks.
GIBNEYYes. I find that deeply ironic. I suppose in some way it's just an extension of executive power. In a sense, Obama promised a change, but I think we're discovering that it's very hard for presidents to give up power once the achieve it, and I don't think the Obama administration wanted to give up power that Bush and Cheney had accreted to themselves.
NNAMDIWe got this email from Constance in Silver Spring. "Wikileaks puts out lots of information, some of it is very damaging to innocent bystanders. When the action reports for the Middle East were released, the names of natives of those countries who had cooperated with U.S. personnel where revealed. As a result, they're now targets of the Taliban, and in future, people will think twice before talking to U.S. diplomats and soldiers." You might want to talk about Julian Assange's approach to redactions and the perception versus the reality of Wikileaks's personnel or human resource capacity.
GIBNEYYeah. Wikileaks, you know, likes to refer to itself as an organization. I asked one person closely associated with it whether this was like IBM or Microsoft. He said, no, it's more like a corner gas station with extremely bright attendants. But, you know, I think particularly when it came to the release of the Afghan war logs that redactions were a very big issue. We now know that nobody was hurt as a result of names not being redacted on the Wikileaks website. But there's no doubt that Julian Assange left himself open to criticism because he wasn't sufficiently prepared to properly redact those Afghan war logs. The journalists did it...
NNAMDIHe was doing a lot of it himself.
GIBNEYHe was doing a lot of it himself, and it was hasty, you know. They were racing to meet a deadline, and instead of holding back documents he knew might include names, he -- well, he withheld 15,000 documents, nevertheless, the published a great many more which did contain a number of names. And that opened him up to criticism, and frankly, it allowed the U.S. government to separate him out from the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel, the three publications that he worked with at the beginning.
NNAMDIAlex Gibney's latest work is called "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks." It begins playing in select theaters on May 24. It comes to the AFI Theater on May 31, and on June 7 is available in video on demand. Alex Gibney is an Award-winning documentary filmmaker and producer. Thank you so much for joining us.
GIBNEYThank you, Kojo. Great pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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