Did Julian Assange ever watch ISHTAR? If so, he would have heard Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty lyrically forewarn: “Telling the truth can be dangerous business. Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.” Of course, whistle-blowing is no laughing matter. While the majority of those in power deem secret-spilling an act of treason, others define it a patriotic act befitting the nation’s Founding Fathers. But the song’s sentiments remain spot-on. Julian Assange lives in self-imposed exile in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London and Bradley Manning, who allegedly leaked over 700,000 pieces of variously-classified bits of information to Assange, was held in solitary confinement for a year and, currently, is being court-martialed for “aiding the enemy,” an act for which the government could seek the death penalty… yet have indicated they will not. As of now.
Oscar®-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE; ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM) has crafted WE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS, an explosive documentary that examines the fine-line-turned-chasm between dissent and sedition. As is his journalistic habit, Gibney doesn’t take sides, but rather allows the actions of Manning and Assange, respectfully and thoroughly contextualized, to either dig their graves or erect their monuments. Undoubtedly, in either scenario, the outcome is grave. Yet, as Hoffman and Beatty might console: “Because life is the way we audition for God, let us pray that we all get the job.”
I didn’t need to wear a trenchcoat or a disguise when I met with Alex Gibney at The Hi-Life, a casual, family-friendly eatery (with a bar!) in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. We’ve talked many times before and I was thrilled to sit down with the documentarian again, this time to explore the truths of WE STEAL SECRETS while raising the bar for the…
Warren: First Amendment: is it an everlasting right, or is it a quaint relic?
Alex: Well it’s neither, but the fact is you know, it can’t be taken for granted, clearly. You know this recent revelation about spying on the AP is really distressing. And the Obama administration which claimed to be on the side of the whistle blower and on the side of transparency appears not to be on either.
Warren: And that’s sort of disappointing to those who may have voted for him.
Warren: Do you think that’s a sign of politics, or just that power corrupts?
Alex: I think it’s both. You know I think it’s always incumbent seemingly on democrats to show how tough they are when it comes to national security. To outflank republicans so they can say how much more tough they are. And indeed, the Obama administration on some things like drones has been much “tougher” in quotations marks than the Bush administration was. They dialed back on torture, certainly.
Warren: That was nice of them.
Alex: It was good of them to do. But I think that it’s also the nature of the executive branch not to want to give up power that it already has. And for some reason the Obama administration became obsessive about leaks. We know that they’ve prosecuted more whistle blowers under the espionage act than all presidents combined, ok? So that’s a pretty profound comparison. And the way that the U.S. military for example, is going after Bradley Manning is really incredible. I mean it’s a capital offense is what they’re charging him on. So it’s pretty extreme really, what the Obama administration is doing.
Warren: And you know this idea of a whistle blower is an interesting term because I’ve always found whistle blowers to be somewhat heroic. But is it a tainted word now?
Alex: Well here, I think we—in the distance of the rearview mirror, we always see whistle blowers as heroic. Erin Brockovich, Daniel Ellsberg, at the time not so much. I remember when I was going around the country with my film on Enron, and there were two questions that people would always ask, inevitable at every showing. One was about this guy Lou Pai who was addicted to strippers. It was mostly men wanting to know how they could follow the Lou Pai plan. But the other thing was always a question about Sherron Watkins, the whistle blower at Enron. And the question was always, “who does she think she is? Why does she think she’s so hot?” As if to say you know…as if to be dismissive of her. As if the whistle blower was showing them up in some way, there was a resentment there. And I think there is, despite the fact that idealistically we’d like to believe that the whistle blower is something to be heralded, I think there is a kind of instinctive distrust of the whistle blower because they’re going against the grain.
Warren: But I’ve always loved the whistle blower, and in fact a few years ago I spoke with Oliver Stone, we’ll get to him in a second, and I proposed this idea that I’d had for a long time: it’d be great to have a whistle blower’s hall of fame. To actually give some credibility to these folks, and he seemed on board with that but boy, he’s not you number one fan right now.
Alex: No he’s not. No he tweeted me out after he…
Warren: Now that is manly.
Alex: Very, very manly. Very tough. After he saw you know Julian Assange running down the film, even though of course he hadn’t seen it. But then why would you need to see a film to denounce it? That’s real wussy stuff. So yeah I think a whistle blowers hall of fame is a good idea actually because it takes education to kind of—it’s hard to celebrate whistle blowers, and I think we need to or else we’re going to be in some deep territory.
Warren: Right. But now whistle blowers don’t feel safe because of the acts of the Obama administration and the Bush administration before that…
Warren: So you actually have to have more courage of your convictions than ever before.
Alex: You do, you do. You have to be willing to take a great risk. I think Bradley Manning was willing to take that risk. I mean you have to remember Bradley Manning has plead guilty to leaking to Wikileaks. He’s accepted his culpability of that.
Warren: Only ten lesser counts, right? Didn’t he go with the ten lesser counts?
Alex: I’m not remembering the number, but the lesser counts he plead guilty to.
Warren: Well the bigger ones…
Alex: The bigger ones not so much. But the bigger ones are these ones…one charge is aiding the enemy, which is really a pernicious charge if you think about it because it’s effectively saying that if you leak materials in the public domain that cast any kind of critical eye on the U.S. government, that’s tantamount to aiding the enemy, which of course is a capital offense. Well then the New York Times I guess should be put in prison, you know. Every journalist should be put in prison whenever they embarrass the government. It’s a terribly scary prospect.
Warren: Well that is one of the things that came to mind watching this. I’m glad I had thought before with Julian Assange and going after him is that you know certainly people have been very aggressive about pursuing him, and I was wondering is that just setting a precedent so they could go after the New York Times and the Washington Post and whomever else they like.
Alex: I think they felt that they needed to go after somebody. And it was more convenient, particularly for the Obama administration, to go after Julian Assange than it was to go after the New York Times who after all was one of your key constituents. You know, a lot of liberal readers in the New York Times, it’s not very politically advantageous to go after them, even though they are starting to go after some of the New York Times reporters in some way. That’s I think the reason they went after him: because they could. I think that’s the reason they’re going after Bradley Manning: because they can. They feel that they’re marginalized figures that will allow them to demonstrate their strength. That’s really the motivation I think.
Warren: Bradley Manning though, it’s been shown that although he leaked a ton of information, didn’t really leak anything top secret.
Alex: Daniel Ellsberg leaked stuff that was far more highly classified than anything that Bradley Manning leaked. So yes. And the State Department has said, in fact we quote them in the film that ultimately the State Department cables pose no lasting damage to the United State at all. So you know where is this need to charge him with a capital offense?
Warren: This is the part that fascinates me: it seems like both sides are wrong on a certain level. The administration going after both Manning and Assange is wrong in that there really hasn’t been any terrible collateral damage or blowback from any of this. And Assange seems to be wrong in the fact that he is somehow going to magically transform the world into something else. Neither have been right.
Alex: I think the problem with Assange is that he began to confuse or conflate himself with these larger principals as if you couldn’t distinguish the two. And to me, the great damage he’s done both is to be reckless because he is I think not careful enough when he was first leaking some of the materials, particularly the Afghan war logs and then later was not very careful about what he did with the State Department cables. But also this taking a personal matter in Sweden, these allegations of sexual misconduct and pretending that they were either a put up job, or that they were somehow part of the attempt to discredit the transparency agenda is just, as far as I can gather, a fantasy. That is distressing because if Wikileaks is supposed to be about telling the truth, then he’s going to make us if we’re his supporters, complicit in a pretty big lie. And that’s a problem.
Warren: He didn’t mean the truth truth.
Warren: Yes that’s right. Stephen Colbert is more on target everyday, right? But it’s an interesting thing though, I mean there is no—should there be complete transparency though?
Alex: No, of course not. I don’t think Julian Assange would even say there should be complete transparency, and that gets into the grey zone. It’s not so simple. And that’s why, you know the title of the film is WE STEAL SECRETS but that doesn’t come from Julian Assange, it’s a quote from Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA. And he looked at me and said, “you know, we steal secrets,” meaning the U.S. government. And you can’t do that above board and be successful. Meaning you got to be secret to steal secrets.
Warren: I like that part, it’s very honest.
Alex: Very honest. But it sets this whole idea of secrecy in a broader perspective. Meaning you have to make a judgment at some point. It’s all about the ends and means. Do the ends justify the means? And at what moment in time, and at what moment in history is it okay to leak tremendous amount of material? I mean I would argue that I’m not sure I want to preside over a military where every specialist is leaking all the material that he or she gets a hold of. I don’t want that. Obviously it’s important to keep secrets, but there comes a time if you’re radically over classifying material and holding it back from the American public unnecessarily and you’re hiding a lot of corruption and criminality, well at some point then maybe it’s time for a sort of radical upsetting of that apple cart.
Warren: Well the keyword seems to be “discretion” of some sort. [Note: I meant to say discernment. Whoops.]
Alex: Well judgment. And it’s a balance. I think leaking is a kind of pressure valve for democracy. It’s not something that’s officially sanctioned, but it’s sometimes necessary.
Warren: But you know you’re saying that about a pressure valve and leaking and there’s this sense of a little bit getting out, right?
Alex: No this was massive.
Warren: This was massive, right. But is that counterproductive in that it was overwhelming?
Alex: Well I think it was naïve in some sense because Bradley Manning didn’t really reckon with how this material might be used. And so the massive amount of material did turn out to be a problem, even though I would argue against myself as I’m fond of doing…
Warren: And thus interviewing yourself.
Alex: That is supplied a kind of rough justice. Because the U.S. government and the U.S. military was so radically over classified and keeping secret stuff that shouldn’t be secret at all. That this provided a valuable balance to that. So yes it was a radical leaking, but so was the classification or the over classification radical in it’s nature. I remember when I went down to Guantanamo to shoot for TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE we were filming scenics of Guantanamo.
Warren: They have a whole postcard series.
Alex: And the—at some point our camera passed by a mountain, and the representative put herself in the way of the camera and said, “you can’t shoot that mountain.” I said, “why not?” She said, “that mountain is classified.” Okay, and you just wonder at what point you know you’re riding down the New Jersey Turnpike and you take a picture and somebody pulls up beside you and says, “sorry, the New Jersey Turnpike has been classified.”
Warren: That’s why it takes so long to get down it.
Warren: But I mean that already has happened. I know plenty of journalists who have gotten stopped and arrested for photographing things within the states that maybe they shouldn’t have photographed.
Alex: They shouldn’t have photographed or perhaps they were perfectly within their rights to photograph them and they were simply stopped.
Warren: That’s right. How can a mountain be classified? Like I’m picturing YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE and there’s some secret lair or something.
Warren: It was just a mountain that exists.
Alex: It’s a mountain that exists. It’s Mother Earth is what we’re talking about. And the fact is I went back to the barracks that night. You have to travel across this bay. I went back to the barracks that night and loaded up the extremely slow internet and looked up the mountain on Google Earth.
Warren: And it does exist.
Alex: It does exist, yeah. It’s not classified on Google Earth. You know a pointer didn’t come down and suddenly you know erase that part of my computer. There’s no black bar.
Warren: They’re going to go after Google now, clearly.
Alex: Maybe so, maybe so.
Warren: Now when I last saw you, you were talking—you were in process of this project. And you said you didn’t want to talk about it because you were actually concerned. You seemed concerned for your safety in some way in doing this. Are you still concerned?
Alex: No clearly I’ve lost my mind so I’m not concerned for my safety anymore.
Warren: But I mean you are in essence—you’re not leaking new material, but you’re putting material out there.
Alex: I guess so. But I mean this is material that has already been out there. I don’t think I’m leaking material that anybody hasn’t already seen on Wikileaks. I think there are some people who have never spoken before that are in this film. But in terms of documents, there are no documents that I leaked. There were more materials that had never been seen before in TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE. I think the part of the story that I think is provocative is I think the context in which this sets the Obama administration. It’s not such a good one.
Warren: He won’t get your vote in 2016, but that couldn’t happen anyway. But do you trust anyone at this point?
Alex: My wife.
Warren: Wow. I’m just really fascinated by this idea of all the people that you did speak to, the one person you couldn’t speak to is Julian Assange. Or you spoke to, but did not get on camera.
Alex: No even worse. I’m making a film and my two main characters, I can’t speak to. Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. And I tried to speak to Julian, in fact I did speak to him in-person a number of times. I went to his fortieth birthday party. You know one of my executive producers actually put up the bail that helped to get him out of prison.
Alex: Yeah, Jemima Khan. So you know I did speak to him, but never on camera. And yeah it was frustrating. It’s funny though, I think that what I ended up getting when I made a deal with Australian journalist and wonderful filmmaker named Mark Davis, he had footage of Julian prior to the Aghan war log publication and during it. That whole period. It’s sort of a little bit like Elvis 56. Elvis goes from obscurity to being on the Ed Sullivan Show. That was the moment for Julian Assange when he goes from relative obscurity to being you know one of the most famous people on the planet. That’s the Julian I was interested in, and I found it very hard in the brief conversations that I had with Julian, though one very long six-hour conversation were I had to beg to go to the bathroom, that it was very hard to get back to that moment of honesty and real introspection. It’s as if Julian had become a real human bullhorn, and you don’t get a lot of introspection or thoughtfulness from that. You just get a lot of speeches. So I think in a way while of course I wanted that interview with Julian, particularly if he was willing to be honest, I’m not sure he was prepared to be honest. And he was very much concerned that he’d be able to manipulate the message. That if he was going to give me an interview that he could control the message in some way. He was treating it very much like a propagandas. I think he sees himself as a puppeteer in some fundamental way because other exchanges with other media outlets, he would describe them as if he had manipulated the situation in such a way so that he got exactly the message that he wanted to get out. He was pulling the strings.
Warren: Much like a politician…
Warren: Would have chosen their own talking points.
Alex: Very much like a politician. And indeed you hear him slyly suggest things in the film much like a politician does. You know the—for example when he’s talking about the women in Sweden he says, “I did not say this was a honey trap. I did not say that this was not a honey trap.” I.E. wink, wink, nudge, nudge, nod, nod, you know, it probably was a honey trap. But he didn’t say it, did he?
Warren: See he’s learning.
Alex: He’s learning fast. Learning fast.
Warren: He read enough through Wikileaks to learn how it’s done.
Alex: Soon he’ll be able to lie effortlessly all the time. Just like every other politician.
Warren: Maybe you could get Assange interviewed by Rumsfeld and really have a fascinating…
Alex: Or Joe Lieberman. That might be a fun exchange.
Warren: It’ll only cost you a million dollars, you can do it. But it’s interesting because you say you can’t talk to Manning, can’t talk to Assange. Manning because he’s kept secreted away. And Asange because he actually has put himself in a form of solitary at this point.
Alex: Correct. I mean he has imprisoned himself by seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy. He himself is convinced that if he were to go to Sweden, that he’d be put on a cargo plane to go to Guantanamo, as his lawyer once suggested. But I don’t think there’s any reality to that. There’s no evidence that I can find that there’s been any kind of conspiracy between the Swedish government and the U.S. government. In fact it’s harder to extradite Assange from Sweden than it is from the United Kingdom.
Warren: The Ecuadorian Embassy can’t be that nice.
Alex: It’s not very nice. He’s apparently living in a very small room. He’s got a treadmill, I believe, and a computer. Now that may be enough for Julian. You know he was never a big you know tennis player. You didn’t see a lot of pictures of Julian playing cricket, you know. He was always much happier I think with a computer.
Warren: Right, or parenting illegitimate children.
Alex: There you go.
Warren: There’s fascinating idea in there about noble cause corruption. Is anyone susceptible to that, or does it take a certain personality?
Alex: I think anyone is susceptible to that, but the more—ironically, or maybe it’s not even ironic, is that the more noble you feel the cause is, the more entitled you feel to be corrupt. You know that’s the cop on the beat who feels he’s doing a tough job and is under appreciated and these bad guys are getting away with murder. Well he’s doing good, so it’s okay if he plants a joint on some guy and arrests him for that because he can’t get him any other way.
Warren: Won’t help him in Washington State.
Alex: I think it’s what happened with a lot of Catholic priests, frankly. You know when they were covering up clerical sex abuse. I think it’s what happened to Julian Assange because he felt that he was carrying on his shoulders the great transparency agenda. So if he was doing that and you know a few transgressions, we’ll call them, in Sweden got in the way of that, then it was okay to lie about it.
Warren: Are documentary filmmakers free of that?
Alex: Absolutely free. We’re always noble, always good, all the time.
Alex: We’re the only category of person that’s in that category.
Warren: Well that’s why you selected that, clearly.
Alex: Yes because I didn’t want to be corrupt.
Warren: Wow, very good of you. And your film, despite what twitter has to say and Oliver Stone—maybe he should come see it, let’s arrange a little intervention for Oliver Stone.
Alex: That would be fun, he could come see it and then tweet his criticism and outrage afterwards.
Warren: In 140 characters.
Warren: Thank you Alex Gibney. WE STEAL SECRETS, another Oscar® coming. I’m saying it right now.
Alex: Thanks, man.
Warren: Thank you, sir.