The story of WikiLeaks is recent history, so recent that to call it "history" at all seems like a misdirection. We have not seen the end of this narrative: Bradley Manning's trial is set to begin in little more than a week; Julian Assange is living out his days in Ecuador's London embassy.
But what has already passed is tremendous, raising complicated questions about the roles of governments, civilians, and technology in a time when classification of information is prodigious, yet leaking seems technically easy. The rapid and constant developments in this story have impeded holistic assessments, and director Alex Gibney's new film, " 'We Steal Secrets': The Story of WikiLeaks," fills in that gap. He explores not just the strange and fascinating characters that animate this story, but also the conflicting ideas they hold about secrecy and transparency in modern democratic government. I had the chance to speak with Gibney about his film; its two main characters, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning; and its powerful, non-human third -- the national security establishment of the U.S. government.
An edited, condensed transcript of our conversation follows.
Can you begin by describing what the story is that your film is telling, and how you originally got interested in it?
I was always interested in the WikiLeaks story, just as a civilian, and when I was approached to do the film by Marc Shmuger from Universal, I just leapt at the chance. It seemed like a great moment. It's a story to me that's all about what should and should not be secret. It's also about the whole character of the Internet, not only what the Internet is, but how it's changing us. So, for all those reasons, I thought it was important to dig in.
The film tries to tell the story of these leaks through two people, really -- Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. I try to follow their story throughout this period.
These are such complex people, who inspire both intense empathy and passionate fury. I'm interested in your impressions of them as people.
I think Assange changed over time, though, as you can see from the film, a lot of his less admirable characteristics were also present in him early on -- an inflated sense of grandeur, a narcissism. But also, there was a great idealism to him at the same time. In that sense, he is a very interesting and contradictory figure, and one of these people (along with Manning) who lived his life intensely through the Internet, who spent a lot of time online.
It was very hard ... You know, I never met Manning. I only know him through his chats.
Which are very hard to read. I find them very sad.
They are very sad, but also I find poignant and inspiring. Of course I talked to other people about him, who knew him, and who either liked him or who didn't -- you get the feeling that Jihrleah Showman [Manning's supervisor] didn't like him so much, but she was the one who was attentive to his emotional outbursts. She was able to characterize Manning's explosiveness in a way that I thought was very important. There's obviously a lot bottled up inside of Manning, and it would explode at unexpected moments.
At the same time, it was also clear that Manning had a very powerful interior life. There was a lot going on inside. He was both emotionally very needy, but also very thoughtful. For a kid who came out of a tiny town in Oklahoma, and didn't have a lot of powerful intellectual role models, was very much a guy who is yearning, who is intellectually curious, and was obviously developing a really powerful political and social conscience.
In the film, different people hold vastly different ideas about transparency in age of the Internet. In particular, you draw a big contrast between Assange and The Guardian's Nick Davies, who worked with Assange to publish the military's internal logs about the war in Afghanistan. Can you talk about those competing ideas?
I would describe Assange (as I did in the film) as a transparency radical. He believes that almost everything -- that all the information controlled by corporations and governments -- should be disclosed.
Though he himself is very private.
He is very private, and he will say that, as individuals, it is entirely appropriate for individuals to have their own privacy. Governments should not be able to snoop on individuals. He is a big booster of the cypherpunk idea -- the notion that you should be able to encrypt and hide your own information so that governments and corporations can't get at it. He doesn't see that as any kind of contradiction. He just sees that as a power imbalance, that the individual should be protected, but that corporations and governments should be open.