We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks #DocumentaryReview

Posted on August 20, 2013 in Specials

By Apurav Maggu:

Director: Alex Gibney

Writer: Alex Gibney

Year: 2013

For the first time, Julian Assange, the man who has become a leader of Internet anarchy, a symbol of ‘free press’, ‘spirited idealism’ and ‘freedom of speech’ has been put under the scanner. The ideas and methodologies of this man are questioned in a new documentary ‘We steal secrets – the story of Wikileaks‘.


After producing three highly successful documentaries, namely Enron: the smartest guys in the room (on the 2001 Enron corporate scandal), Taxi to the dark side (chronicling 2004 Abu Gharaib prison torture) and 2012 Oscar winning documentary on rape crisis in the US army The Invisible War, documentary director Alex Gibney attempts a new venture into unearthing the notion about the fifth pillar.

It starts with the inception of an idea of an internet idealist, a man who stood for the noble cause of transparency that ‘information must be free’. The documentary commences with the story of a kid who had designed an Internet worm which could have affected the 1989 space launch of Galileo space probe which was powered via Plutonium. Many shared concerns that if the space launch went awry, the result would be a Chernobyl, only it would have been in the air. His worm(alleged to have been created by him), called as WANK (worms against nuclear killers) spread through the space launch computer programme creating havoc among a small section of the group who didn’t know what this worm could do.

The 9/11 of Intelligence world

9/11 brought about a significant tectonic shift in the world of intelligence. Part of the US intelligence felt that it was not-sharing of intelligence resources which led to 9/11. Hence, when surveillance activities were stepped up, no one conceived the what-ifs. The most conceivable what-if was, what if this information went public and what if those secrets mattered?

Icesave scandal and The War logs

Wikileaks had earlier published some confidential documents about money laundering by Swiss banks and standard operating procedures for Guantanamo detainees in 2008. However, Wikileaks did not get what it had hoped for. It was in the year 2010 that Wikileaks became a national news worthy of reporting when they released the collateral murder video months after the Icelandic bank leaks.

Collateral Murder’ and the Iceland bank leaks were released during his brief sojourn in Iceland where Julian, Icelandic Member of parliament Birgitta Jónsdóttir and Daniel Domscheit-Berg work together to release the video and afghan war logs.

Soon, the organization starts to fall apart when Julian initially reprimanded every member of the organization who had tried to coerce him into leaking the Afghan war logs by redacting names of the people who were involved in operations. It is believed that he said “if they were a part of it, then they deserve to die”, which could have put lives of many afghans and US citizens at stake. This puts other members into a dilemma as to what extent does ‘free information’ stand for and is it justified if it puts other people at jeopardy?

Enemy No.1

Soon, Cablegate and Iraq war logs follow, making Wikileaks an international sensation. A mountain of diplomatic cables and communication messages between various diplomats in the world and United States were leaked, showing that ‘emperor had no clothes.’ The leviathan was now paranoid and trying to stop the furor of world as to what America was doing.

Soon, the American public, especially the politicians on both sides of the Aisle, started demanding his head calling him an enemy of the state and branding him as a terrorist. While people are clearly feeling aghast with how their governments are working, but, the opinion soon became polarized when a certain section of people hailed him as a ‘hero’ and the other section considered him an ‘enemy of the responsible journalism.’

The curious case of Bradley Manning

Private First Class Manning, posted in forward Operating Base Hammer in Eastern Baghdad, soon became center stage of international media when he dumped massive information about how the war in Iraq was progressing.

The film meticulously portrays Manning’s personal wars while he was mining data as an Intelligence analyst while listening to Lady Gaga! His confusion with gender, sexuality and the things around him (atrocities at the height of war in Iraq) lead him to confide into Adrian Lamo (the computer Hacktivist). Soon, he released colossal information on the ongoing war, but, Lamo reported it to the F.B.I.

The Noble Liar and The rape case

The person who was laughing at the emperor for not having any clothes now does not have his clothes. Assange was charged with sexual assault and rape in Sweden. Clearly, an opportunity where major powers in the world reacted. The allegations against Assange were made by two women, then supporters of WikiLeaks, whom he met in Sweden in August 2010. He is wanted for questioning on suspicion of rape, unlawful coercion and two cases of sexual molestation. He risks a maximum of four years in jail.

An Interview was also conducted with one of the women who charged Assange with sexual assault. Her case, in the documentary, looks provocative at best. Gibney proceeds to destroy Assange’s character there on by taking her words for the only facts in the case. Ending on an ironic note that although he worked for free press but he took asylum in Ecuador, known for its corruption and relatively un-free press.

My perception of the Documentary

The documentary is, at times, provocative for it clearly destroys Assange’s case and Gibney does nothing short of character assassination at times. However, it did pose some ethical and moral questions like why did Julian react the way he did for redaction of names? Did Julian Assange just destroy the hope of ‘free information’ and ‘free press’ and did he just put the lives of thousands of people at risk who were acting to serve their nation.

Also, never highlighting the breakup of Wikileaks is also one perception to be considered. Noted for his association with Israel Shamir (a prominent anti-Semite) which ultimately proved to be a death-knell for the organization, the film also did not feature his role in Belarus leaks and how it put several NGO’s working for freedom of press in it.

I would rate this documentary, 7.5 out of 10 for its detailed interview and just getting the right people to interview. The documentary has pace and does leave you with a lot of questions and unsettling facts. It has a good soundtrack and also illuminates you with a new perception of what exactly could free-information do. Provocative, but a must watch.