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Interview: Alex Gibney (We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks)

Just a month before Bradley Manning finally appeared before a military judge to confess that he did indeed leak thousands of sensitive military documents, Alex Gibney’s latest docu investigation which chronicles Manning’s involvement with the whistle blowing website Wikileaks and it’s notorious figurehead Julian Assange, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I met up with the prolific documentarian in Park City following the film’s warmly received world premiere to discuss how he got involved with the project, the challenges of presenting characters through on screen text, the moral issues of leaking government documents, what it was like dealing with the ever so slippery Assange, and trying to edit down a sprawling three hour plus cut to just over two. Our conversation in both video and text form is below.

Jordan M. Smith: I guess my first question is why Wikileaks, why Julian Assange?

Alex Gibney: Look, it was a commission in a way. I got a call from Marc Shmuger from Universal, well, then he’d left Universal, but Marc Shmuger and Universal had contacted me to see if I would do it. There were a lot of feature films out there, or being developed, would I do a doc? And I said, ‘Yeah’, it was a subject that interested me and, at least initially, I saw going in I saw it as a kind of simple David and Goliath story. So, I said, ‘Sure, count me in’.

Smith: What was your feeling about Wikileaks when you first heard about it?

Gibney: I thought it was impressive. I thought what they had done in Iceland was really impressive, the Collateral Murder was important and then the leaking of the documents, or the publishing of the documents, these were all very important things and the idea that you could put something on the internet that couldn’t be taken down – it was uncensorable – that was really important. So, for all those reasons, I thought this was something worth paying attention to.

Smith: So, morally, you didn’t think the documents were a bad thing?

Gibney: You know, as I got into the story more, you learn about how the documents were handled and that was problematic. I mean, they were kind of learning on the job and Wikileaks is a kind of radically transparent organization, or not the organization itself, but in terms of the cables it puts out, and so the problems came when they were leaking no matter what the consequences, or they were publishing no matter what the consequences, i.e. redactions with the Afghan War Logs. In point of fact, my belief is we radically over classify. Far too much is kept secret unnecessarily and so we can’t judge the actions of our government. To me, most of the material that was leaked and then published was not dangerous to the security of the United States at all, but was important for citizens to know.

Smith: When you were putting the film together, did you actually go in and look a lot at the documents themselves?

Gibney: I did, and there were a number, actually, that we thought we might focus on in the film, but it ended up being enough to sort of tell the whole story of what happened, but yeah, the documents themselves are fascinating. I think though, one thing I learned through the process though is that the documents themselves are fascinating, but there’s also a value. In some ways, Wikileaks was a radical new form of, ‘scientific journalism’ is what Julian calls it, that kind of threw that traditional media or mainstream media back on its heels. At the same time, I think the story actually reinforced the value of traditional media, investigative reporting. A document is a document and a document is not necessarily the truth. A document is surrounded by as many lies, sometimes, and deceit and context, as anything else, so you have to dig into the document, post is sure, but then you have to help to understand it, and that’s what journalists do. So, it’s not enough just to dump documents. It’s valuable, but it’s not enough.

Smith: I’ve seen so many news stories come out, not just about the documents, but what they are researching still over the last couple years going through the documents, processing them.

Gibney: Look, the great moment, the thing about was the kind of Wizard of Oz moment, it was a pulling back of the curtain.

Smith: I loved that you used that in the film too.

Gibney: Well, somebody said it, and then in the cutting room we kind of debated, do we actually show it? But there’s something about showing it that’s actually, I think, quite powerful because it is a big cultural moment and it’s one we all remember and just the dog pulling back the curtain it seemed all so perfect in terms of what Wikileaks was doing.

Smith: I was surprised by it, but it made perfect sense in the context. As you were realizing what the film was going to be about one of the things you kind of pinpointed was that the media never really saw the same challenges as Wikileaks even though they were really dealing with the same material. Do you feel like there should be some consequences for the New York Times or The Guardian for handling the documents?

Gibney: Well, so far there haven’t been any consequences for Julian Assange.

Smith: Right, but there was a lot of heat and there still is.

Gibney: There was a lot of heat and there still is, I think though, in a way, that was Julian’s fault. I think if he had played things differently he could have been part of this media group instead of being out on his own. He was hostile. So, on the New York Times thing, I mean look, I think the point is that I have no problem seeing the New York Times and The Guardian in the same light as Wikileaks in terms of being publishers. And I think, if pressed, the New York Times and The Guardian would say the same thing. I think if the US government were to come after…there have been no charges that have been brought. The grand jury’s been convened, but if the US government were to come after Wikileaks for being a publisher then I think the New York Times and The Guardian, and they’ve said so, would be right behind them.

Smith: Do you think Wikileaks is finished or do you think we’ll see more in the future once all of these legal troubles shake out?

Gibney: There are almost always second acts, but I think Wikileaks is pretty much done. Now there getting documents, people grab documents for them and toss them their way, but a lot of other people get documents too and they publish them. Journalists have been doing it for years. I think the important value of Wikileaks, which is not unique to Wikileaks, is to show that you can use the internet to post stuff in an international context that can’t be taken down. That, to me, is the long range value of Wikileaks, but we don’t need Wikileaks for that. You know, we talk about Wikileaks all the time in terms of these big leaks – Collateral Murder, Afghan War Logs, Iraq War Logs – they all came from one person, Bradley Manning. So, the huge fame of Wikileaks is all due to one private, Bradley Manning, and I think people have got to remember that.

Smith: What do you think is going to be Manning’s fate?

Gibney: I’m worried for Manning because obviously he’s not, so far, not received any kind of justice.

Smith: It’s insane.

Gibney: It’s insane, I agree. I mean, under military law you’re supposed to get a trial within 120 days. By the time he goes to trial, if the trial takes place in June, it will be 3 years. It’s outrageous. And his treatment, obviously, at Quantico was absolutely abysmal. They said he was on prevention of injury watch, but the army psychiatrist said, ‘No, you don’t need to put this guy on suicide watch, that is ridiculous’, but they did it anyway. Why? They wanted to punish him, they wanted to make an example of him, and maybe they wanted to see if they could get him to flip against Julian Assange. But, outrageous. And so far the military and the prosecution don’t show any signs of trying to meet out justice that would be commenceable for his crimes. So, I’m pessimistic.

Smith: You integrate, in the film, the use of the internet really well. The whole movie is really about the internet and how it’s a place of information chaos. Visually you do it really well, especially with the intro credits giving it this tone, presenting it as this crazy space. How did you conceive that idea and integrate the idea of the internet into the film?

Gibney: When you think about making a film like this, you’re making a film, not just a PowerPoint presentation and so, part of what we were talking about was exploring the internet and kind of the moral questions that the internet poses for all of us. So, you have to feel like you’re inside the internet, that you’re swimming in cyberspace. We created a character in this film that only speaks through text, through chats, you know? Online chats. So, we had to come up with a visual style that would reflect that, that would make you feel you’re inside cyberspace.

Smith: Did you have any concerns about just using the text? Because there is a lot of just the text on screen.

Gibney: We had a huge concern. I mean, imagine starting out a film and think, we’re only going to use text when it comes to Bradley Manning. So, we had a huge concern, but we thought we’d roll the dice and try it and see if it’d work and I think it does. First of all, we’re all now used to this. We’re so much more used to this than we used to be. People are breaking up and hooking up via text now. So, it’s become much more about that world and suddenly you’re seeing peoples’ personality in what they write online. Now, that may be false personality, that’s one of the things we deal with in the movie, but you can feel the force of the personality. We’re used to that now. I was surprised, but just by using the text, I feel you come to know Bradley Manning.

Smith: Now is that actually from the transcripts?

Gibney: Yeah, every bit of text comes from the chats between Bradley Manning and Adrian Lamo, or from emails that the US government apprehended and showed at some of these preliminary hearings.

Smith: There were some times where I couldn’t tell whether you had found an interview and used it or you actually did the interview. Did you do the one with Lamo?

Gibney: Yes.

Smith: Was it hard to get him to kind of open up about it?

Gibney: When we did he interview, he was in a very vulnerable state and also, frankly, he was in tremendous pain and on these wild painkillers. I mean, he medicates himself a lot, as you can tell by the way he speaks, so it was a strange interview, but every interview with Adrian is a little bit strange.

Smith: I can see that. You also have a lot of ex-CIA or intelligence officials…

Gibney: Well, just one really, Michael Hayden.

Smith: I thought there was at least two?

Gibney: No, the other guy, Bill Leonard, was the classification czar in the Bush administration. He was the guy who decided what should be and what should not be secret.

Smith: Right. Was it hard to get in contact with those people and have them talk about it or were they pretty open to the idea?

Gibney: Well, my producer Alexis Bloom got in touch with Michael Hayden and I was surprised, but grateful that he agreed to talk because he provided a very interesting perspective. Particularly his years in the military and having been head of both the CIA and the NSA, he was really interesting.

Smith: He was very, very candid.

Gibney: Very candid. The title of the film comes from his quote, ‘We steal secrets, that’s what we do’, he says, referring to the US government. It’s important to keep that in mind as we talk about everybody fulminating over these leaks. Look, as a country, that’s what we do all the time. We steal secrets. So, it has to be said in that context. There’s a kind of rough justice or rough equilibrium between what is kept secret and what needs to be more transparent and exposed and that’s really what the story’s about, that kind of rough justice. Because it’s easy to say everything that is secret is supposed to be secret and should be secret. It’s not true, as we ourselves know because we steal secrets from other countries to protect ourselves.

Smith: You started the film with the WANK Worm mythology. What was the intrigue to start the story with that?

Gibney: I wanted to look at the story from another angle and the WANK worm seemed a perfect way in because whether or not Julian was involved, and we don’t know whether or not he was involved, he won’t say one way or the other, the fact is that sets a context for who Julian is. He doesn’t come out of a journalistic background, he comes out of a hacker background, and WANK worm is kind of like, it’s also a moment very early on in the internet when you see the way that this new kind of asymmetric warfare is taking place, where a few hackers with a computer can suddenly penetrate mighty NASA and bring it almost to its knees. So, that was a very, very interesting moment and it sets the stage for everything that’s going to come.

Smith: I think it also kind of builds this mythology. Assange’s character is really…he tries to craft his image and it kind of adds to that…

Gibney: It adds to his mystique and mythology and I think that’s why he hasn’t denied WANK worm, nor has he admitted it. It’s sort of like, ‘Well, you can think what you want’. Now is that Julian trying to burnish his own hacker cred or did he really have something to do with the WANK worm? We don’t know, but there is no doubt that it adds to his aura as a kind of silver surfer of the internet.

Smith: You make mention of Anonymous in the film and they are another [chaotic group], attacking whoever they deem as someone worth attacking and they end up supporting Wikileaks in the end.

Gibney: They’ve fallen out with Wikileaks now.

Smith: I’m curious, why didn’t go more in depth with that and have you seen the documentary that was made about them, We Are Legion?

Gibney: We Are Legion: The Story of Anonymous, yeah, I have seen it. It’s good. And frankly, we did have a huge section on Anonymous and one person from Anonymous in particular, one person who’s been prosecuted by the FBI or is being prosecuted by the FBI. So, it was in the film, it’s just that at a certain point our 3 hour cut had to become shorter.

Smith: Was it hard editing down?

Gibney: Yeah, it was hugely hard. We did have a 3 hour and 20 minute cut that we liked and it took off on certain key stories having to do with Wikileaks, but I think we felt that it was important to just clearly tell the story of what happened and in so doing we would raise all sorts of questions that would reverberate in peoples’ brains. So, that’s ultimately how we grafted it.

Smith: There’s a lot of flip flopping between time periods and characters, how did you really balance? You have to really focus in on Assange and Bradley, but then you have Lamo and other side characters as well, what was the process there?

Gibney: It was a very hard process, you know? The trick with these films is to make them simple in some way, but then you can be as complicated as you want to be on the edges. We had a wild array of characters. That’s what made it great. So, you have to figure out a kind of narrative momentum for the plot line to pull all of those characters through so that you can feel that and I think it succeeds.

Smith: There is a lot of footage that seems like personal footage of Assange, like in his office or his home, working on his computer. How did you get that footage?

Gibney: Well, a lot of that footage is narrated by a guy named Mark Davis, who is the filmmaker who got it. What Mark Davis got…he’s an Australian filmmaker and journalist and he’s one of these guys, like you, who travels around with a camera by himself and shoots. And very early on he tracked Julian after Collateral Murder and then hung out with him and you hear a little bit of that talked about in the film. So, that’s his footage and that’s a moment in time that will never come again. I could shoot Julian now, but Julian now is not the same person as he was back then. So, I chatted with Mark and he agreed to license us that footage, which is fantastic. A lot of it we show in a very loose way so that you feel those moments in real time of this young guy, Julian Assange, taking on the world, and you can really feel it. And you follow him from a kind of itinerant computer hobo to being one of the most famous people on the planet. That’s Mark Davis. If we hadn’t had that footage, I don’t know, we would have done something else, but in this context it works like gangbusters.

Smith: Yeah, you can definitely see a sweeping change in his personality over the course of the film. I know you tried to speak with him, did you actually have a conversation with him or was he just like, ‘No, I’m not going to do it’?

Gibney: Yes, but it wasn’t that simple. I sat in a room with him for 6 hours straight, both talking about the story and then trying to negotiate some way in which he would agree to be interviewed. We tried very hard to get his point of view. The fact is though, I may be the only person on the planet who hasn’t interviewed Julian Assange. So, at some point I kind of reveled in that idea. It’s like, ‘OK, fine. That’s a distinction’. Because it wanted all these conditions. Basically, he wanted to be the puppet master. He wanted to be in a position of sculpting the story his way and either I was going to pay him money or I was going to spy on other people for him, among my other interview subjects. It’s like, ‘No!’ In the course of the conversation I said, ‘I don’t work for you, Julian’. He said, ‘Well, I don’t work for you either’. I went to his 40th birthday party and I met one or two other times in London…a huge conversation all about…he was sort of like the Paris piece talks, arguing about the size of the table. You know, I was trying to get him to come on board to speak honestly about this stuff, but he doesn’t like exchanges in which he feels he doesn’t have total control. Or if he goes on a news show it’s just for a quick sound bite or whatever.

Smith: You see that in the film, where he gets asked the wrong question and he says, ‘I’m done’.

Gibney: Right. I don’t think Julian Assange is a truth teller.

Smith: No, it doesn’t seem like it at all. It’s a conundrum.

Gibney: It is, it’s a riddle because Wikileaks is supposed to be about telling the truth, but I don’t think Julian, Julian doesn’t like being held to account and that’s the conundrum or the paradox of Wikileaks too. The glory of Wikileaks is that it can’t be held to account. In other words, it can publish material all over the internet simultaneously and it can’t be taken down. So, there’s no accountability, unlike say, a newspaper, and that’s a good thing, but when it comes to Julian and his own personal behavior, he doesn’t like to be held to account either and that’s not such a good thing because then you want to get to the bottom of what really happened, Julian’s not your friend there.

Smith: I asked you this last time we spoke, but it seems like things have changed again, about Lance Armstrong. I know you’ve been working on this film for well over a year or more and last time we spoke it was just released that they were going to strip him of his metals and now he’s admitted to actually using, blood doping…

Gibney: And using EPO and testosterone and all these things.

Smith: So…

Gibney: Back to the cutting room. (laughs) Back to the drawing board.

Smith: Are you planning on speaking with him again?

Gibney: Yes.

Smith: I’m very curious to see.

Gibney: Me too. (laughs)

Smith: What was your reaction when you heard that he’d admitted?

Gibney: I think by the time he admitted it it was clear what had happened and I think Lance is going through a process now. It’s a difficult one for him to come clean, but I think that he’s engaged in the process, so we’ll see how things go in the future.

Smith: It’s really sad to me. I mean, obviously he did wrong. He lied about it. That’s wrong, yes. But the sport itself is so penetrated by this poisonous thing. Personally, I don’t think he should be as torn down as he has. He still won 7 times, even if he was on drugs doing it, that’s still incredible. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Gibney: I’ll save those thoughts for the film.

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