WikiLeaks, the Film: Massive Leaks Are a Natural Response to Government Classification Run Amok

A conversation with documentary director Alex Gibney

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.

I think Nick Davies's perspective is that you have to be careful with information, because a lot of information is kept secret -- sometimes in order to protect people, to protect people from harm. And while it's the job of journalists to find out a lot of information, particular information that is in the public interest, it's also incumbent upon them to make sure that the disclosure of that information doesn't cause people to get hurt.

There is an exchange in the film where Assange goes on This American Life and says, you know, even in the case of where people might be harmed, it's important to be transparent. So that's a pretty big distinction, frankly, between Assange and somebody like Nick Davies.

One thing I've been thinking about is that questions of what information should be public and what should be kept private are not really legal questions at all. There remain questions of practice within the scope of the First Amendment.

Correct. These are rough rules. There's no kind of master list of how you decide this. These are judgments that people make and that's important to recognize. But it's also important to recognize that the government almost always uses the defense of national security and says that this stuff must be secret. It's become almost a reflex. But just because the government says it, doesn't mean that we have to believe it. I think that was part of the impetus behind the First Amendment, that's my read on it anyway, which is to say that governments will inevitably try to accrete too much power to themselves and become corrupt. Same thing with corporations. And that's why there's needs to be a First Amendment -- so you can keep governments honest.

Recently we've seen other media organizations -- with the prime example being The New Yorker -- set up their own WikiLeaks-like dropboxes. What do you see as the future of this kind of mass, digital leaking, and what role will professional journalists play in it?

Well I think that one of the messages of the film is that journalists are very important in this process, and in many ways I think that the WikiLeaks story ends up reasserting the value of traditional journalism. That having been said, I think a lot of people go astray in saying that, well, Assange is not a journalist and WikiLeaks is not a journalistic organization. That may be true. But I think it's viable to think of WikiLeaks as a publisher. That's maybe a better description of it. And in that context, I think it's a little offensive how the government has tried to marginalize WikiLeaks by saying it's got nothing to do with journalism.

It's never been clear to me why journalists should get any special treatment under the First Amendment, and the case of WikiLeaks really demonstrates why that position is problematic. I've long thought that the First Amendment is concerned with information, not a particular profession. Of course, that lays bare the thorny question of the role of leakers, and what protections and punishments they deserve.

Right. Well, obviously the government has moved very far to try to punish leakers in way that's so draconian so as to make sure this stuff never happens. And that, I think, is really dangerous, because you have to recognize that leaking, which the government of course does all the time, is kind of a pressure valve. And so long as the government never undermines its own tendency to classify everything, you need some kind of pressure valve in place.

It seems that the fact that we've seen leaks of this size is related to the fact that the government has been systematically over-classifying information since 9/11.

I agree! I think that's absolutely true. That's the rough justice in the Bradley Manning story. Everybody complained that Bradley Manning wasn't a traditional whistle-blower because he leaked so much information and he didn't go through proper channels first (like Thomas Drake, for example). Well, I disagree. I think in some way Manning was responding -- maybe it was inchoate, and maybe he didn't fully recognize -- but from a broader sense of time and place, the WikiLeaks leaks end up being a kind of rough justice response to overclassification.

Now, having said that, the one thing I would add, and where I part company with some of Manning's most fervent defenders, you have to acknowledge that he broke an oath to the military, and we wouldn't want a world, at least I wouldn't want a world, in which every soldier leaked every bit of information that he or she had. Manning broke an oath and he's actually pled guilty to it, and he's willing to face the consequences. But the idea of saying that information, which is broadly available to the world, is somehow "aiding the enemy," that to me is just the most pernicious definition of this kind of leak, and it's shocking that the U.S. military is taking that position in the Manning case.