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“We Steal Secrets”: Alex Gibney’s New Documentary Explores the Story of WikiLeaks

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Broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, we take a look at the new documentary from Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.” The film examines the key players involved in the release of hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, is featured prominently in the film, as well as is Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private accused of leaking documents to WikiLeaks. Gibney, a documentary filmmaker who won an Academy Award for “Taxi to the Dark Side,” joins us in Park City. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, and we are broadcasting from Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival. This today—we begin today’s program with We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, a documentary that examines the key players involved in the release of hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.

Let’s go to a clip from the film, which begins with former State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley, who resigned days after accusing the Pentagon of being, quote, “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid” in its treatment of suspected Army whistleblower Private Bradley Manning.

P.J. CROWLEY: This leak is industrial-scale. It touches every relationship the United States has with other countries around the world. Even as the United States and others try to manage the impact of this, it will be a wound that just keeps, you know, opening up on a recurring basis.

NARRATOR: The behavior of the United States was also exposed, as the cables revealed criminal cover-ups and a systematic policy of using diplomats to spy on foreign governments.

MICHAEL HAYDEN: Look, everyone has secrets. Some of the activities that nation states conduct in order to keep their people safe and free need to be secret in order to be successful. If they are broadly known, you cannot accomplish your work. Now look, I’m going to be very candid, alright? We steal secrets. We steal other nations’ secrets. One cannot do that above board and be very successful for a very long period of time.

AMY GOODMAN: The person who uses the phrase “We steal secrets” is Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency, or NSA.

The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, features prominently in the film. He remains holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he sought refuge last year in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden and, ultimately, he says, to the United States.

Meanwhile, Bradley Manning, the Army private accused of leaking the documents to WikiLeaks, is facing trial. Last week, the judge overseeing the pretrial hearing of Private Manning ruled the government must prove Manning wanted to aid the enemy as prosecutors have alleged. Colonel Denise Lind told prosecutors to prove Manning knew, or should have known, the documents he is accused of passing to WikiLeaks would end up being seen by members of al-Qaeda.

Well, to talk more about the film, we’re joined now here in Park City, Utah, on the 10th anniversary of the Sundance documentary film track, by the director, Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker. His other films include Taxi to the Dark Side, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Taxi to the Dark Side, which focuses on an innocent taxi driver in Afghanistan who was tortured and killed at Bagram Air Force Base in 2002, is the film for which he was awarded the Academy Award.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Alex.

ALEX GIBNEY: Thanks, Amy. Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. So tell us why you decided to do this film, We Steal Secrets.

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, I think, to me, when I was originally brought into this—and actually, I got a call from Universal to take it on, and I took it on because I thought it was the ultimate David and Goliath story, one man against the world—a guy, the Silver Surfer of the Internet, Julian Assange, with a computer, wandering the world and taking on the biggest superpower. So it seemed a classic David and Goliath story for me, at the beginning.

AMY GOODMAN: And then what happened?

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, I think part of the interest of the story is—and there were a lot of components to the story—one, I discovered the character Bradley Manning, on whom I focused a lot of attention. I didn’t initially think I was going to do that. I find him a tremendously interesting and sympathetic character. And also, I think there’s—you know, the film charts a change in Julian Assange. I think in—at the moment of his greatest fame, I think his rigorous adherence to the truth, maybe, went—changed, let me put it that way.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, I mean that the biggest problem I had with Julian Assange came up over the Swedish episode. That is to say, an episode in which questions were raised about his behavior with two women in Sweden. And a lot of people, including me, thought at the time that this was some sort of obvious sort of honey trap, some sort of CIA plot to prevent him from leaking any further documents. And it turns out it’s not that. It’s—in my view, it’s a story about one man and two women, but—and it’s been morphed, I think, by Julian Assange into something bigger than that. And now I think he believes something that I don’t think is true.

AMY GOODMAN: Which is?

ALEX GIBNEY: Which is that the United States is trying to use or manipulate the Swedish judicial process in order to get him to Sweden, in order to send him to the United States for trial.

AMY GOODMAN: And why do you not think that is true?

ALEX GIBNEY: Because there’s no evidence that it’s true. I mean, we know that there’s a grand jury proceeding—or, there’s a grand jury investigation of Julian Assange, but there’s absolutely no evidence that the United States is manipulating the Swedish legal process in any way, shape or form. Furthermore, it’s much more difficult to extradite Julian Assange from Sweden than it is from the United Kingdom. In fact, if he goes to Sweden and extradition proceedings were to happen, it would—the United Kingdom would actually have to sign off on that. And he’s had an extraordinary number of legal appeals in the United Kingdom to ascertain whether or not these questions, because no charges have been brought yet, but whether these questions are legitimate, and, you know, he’s lost every time. He’s gotten an extraordinary amount of, you know, legal opportunity to bring his case, but he’s not really been successful. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he should be concerned? According to the Assange team—and we will be speaking with Jennifer Robinson, his legal adviser, in the next segment.


AMY GOODMAN: But they cannot get an assurance from the Swedish government that they will not extradite him to the United States.

ALEX GIBNEY: But I don’t think any government would give any individual that assurance. I mean, Julian Assange wants to be above the law. The fact is, any government, if they receive an extradition request from another government, has to process it through their courts to determine whether it’s legitimate. Julian Assange can’t expect to be the only person who’s not treated according to the rules of law.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip of We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. This clip follows Julian Assange as he’s about to deliver a news conference on the publication of the Afghan War Logs, that massive trove of documents exposing the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. You hear Julian Assange, but it begins with the voice of Australian journalist Mark Davis.

MARK DAVIS: He woke up late, of course. I’m knocking on the door. “Julian, come on, man.” He gets up, does his normal thing, you know.

JULIAN ASSANGE: What’s the time? What’s the time?

MARK DAVIS: Twenty-five to.

JULIAN ASSANGE: I need to prepare a little list of things.

MARK DAVIS: Alright, I’ll be two minutes. How are you feeling?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Tired, haven’t been to sleep, but good. Good. Fourteen pages in The Guardian this morning. “Massive leak of secret files exposes true Afghan war.” We tell our sources maximum political impact, and I think we got pretty close.

MARK DAVIS: There’s 10 trucks out there, 10 media trucks.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Yeah, yeah. It’ll be a good outcome.

MARK DAVIS: He walked out that door as the sort of aging student hobo. By the time, you know, he had made this 50-yard walk, he was a rock star. He was one of the most famous guys on the planet.

AMY GOODMAN: And Julian Assange walks into the Frontline Club, where he delivers this news conference. Alex Gibney, take it from there.

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, that’s an extraordinary moment. I mean, this guy that very few people had heard of suddenly walks in and presides over this tremendous release of documents, which reveal the truth about the Afghan war, a lot of truths that we didn’t know before about civilian casualties, about an assassination squad. It really was a kind of lifting of the curtain of what was going on in the war in Afghanistan that we weren’t being told by our government.

AMY GOODMAN: And in the film, you focus on that moment, July 12th, 2007, a video that Julian Assange got a hold of and released, that took place over New Baghdad, an area of Baghdad. Talk about the significance of what WikiLeaks released.

ALEX GIBNEY: WikiLeaks released a videotape of an Apache gunship attack on some individuals. And it’s a shocking bit of footage for all sorts of reasons. But one is because the helicopter is so high above the ground, nobody could even see it on the ground. And they see these individuals, the helicopter pilots. And we have the—Julian Assange managed to get the footage of the in-camera—on-board camera. So you’re hearing the voices of the pilots, too, as they request permission to engage and then end up killing a number of what turned out to be civilians, including two Reuters journalists, and also wounding very badly a couple of children, when another man, who’s actually bringing his kids to school, comes to try to rescue the wounded.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, you hear the video, the soldiers saying, “Well, he shouldn’t have been bringing his kids. That’s what he gets,” or they get—


AMY GOODMAN: —for his father bringing them to a war zone.

ALEX GIBNEY: Right. You hear a lot of vicious commentary by the soldiers. I mean, it’s—you know, it’s awful to see, frankly. It’s probably not atypical in terms of the kind of hardcore comments that you would see from soldiers in the field. But the actual disparity of the weaponry being utilized by this helicopter, this huge—the ordnance is just titanic, and these people are wandering around with—you know, just in the street with little or nothing. It’s a—it’s a kind of a shocking look at modern warfare, where you can see the devastation rain from above on civilians down below.

AMY GOODMAN: And why you felt it was critical to highlight this as a part of why Julian Assange was releasing these documents, what it symbolized?

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, it symbolized a very valuable role that WikiLeaks was playing in terms of releasing materials that were otherwise being kept secret, unnecessarily. I mean, I think one of the big stories of this film is how the United States government radically overclassifies material. In the case of “Collateral Murder,” which was the title of the short version of the video that Julian Assange gave it, you know, Reuters even asked for a copy. After all, two of their employees had been killed. The Army said, “No, it’s classified.” But it turned out that the Army had—there was already a transcript of this in a book that had been written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, with a complete transcript of this, and so—and the Army has since admitted that it wasn’t classified. So you’ve got to ask yourself: What kind of games is the Army playing with classification? It’s one of the big issues that I think the Julian Assange-Bradley Manning case brings out, is this radical overclassification of materials that’s keeping us from seeing the truth of what’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: And it goes way back. You begin the film in the 1980s in Australia. Explain—was it ”WANK”?

ALEX GIBNEY: Yes, it’s called the WANK worm attack. It was one of the first instances of a computer worm, and it infected NASA’s computer systems just before the launch of an Explorer module called Galileo, which was powered by a plutonium battery. And there were a lot of anti-nuclear activists who were concerned that that might explode in some way, rain down, you know, fallout on earth. And so, suddenly, just before launch, this weird computer message pops up in the NASA computers; it says, ”WANK, Worms Against Nuclear Killers,” and has a little lyric from what people later discovered was a song by Midnight Oil, an Australian song, which was one of Julian’s favorite groups. Later on, there was some question as to whether or not Julian was involved with that. It’s never been proven. Julian is very coy about it. He’ll neither say that he was involved nor that he wasn’t involved. But it seemed like an—

AMY GOODMAN: And the lyric was?

ALEX GIBNEY: “You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war.” But it’s also interesting because it’s kind of the start of the Internet. And a lot of what We Steal Secrets is about is about the Internet and the kind of conversations that happen on the Internet, the kind of power that the U.S. government has in terms of surveillance on the Internet, but the countervailing power that individual citizens armed with an ability to use computers have to fight back. So—and it also places Julian Assange in that kind of Melbourne hacker community, you know, from which he ultimately emerged again.

AMY GOODMAN: And you take it from there right through to the Arab Spring, as we move now onto the—to the second anniversary of the Egyptian uprising, January 25th. You talk about WikiLeaks having contributed to the uprisings in the Middle East.

ALEX GIBNEY: I don’t think there’s any question. I mean, it would be far-fetched to say that WikiLeaks caused the Arab Spring. These were popular uprisings. But nevertheless, the revelation of a lot of these State Department cables, again, pulled a curtain back. And actually, you see very honest State Department representatives talking about the real corruption, dishonesty and appalling tyranny of some of the regimes in—in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya. So, it’s—when they were released, it was a tremendous validation of a lot of the critics of the government.

AMY GOODMAN: So you talk about Julian Assange and also Bradley Manning in your film. It focuses a lot on the transcripts of online chats that Private First Class Bradley Manning had with computer hacker Adrian Lamo, who would later turn Bradley Manning in. I want to read some of Bradley Manning’s words. You have them typed across the screen in your film, We Steal Secrets. He writes, “If you had free reign over classified networks … and you saw incredible things, awful things … things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC … what would you do?” He goes on to write, quote, “I want people to see the truth … regardless of who they are … because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

ALEX GIBNEY: A very powerful statement by Bradley Manning, indicating that, you know, he was very much concerned and that he had some sense that what he was doing was an act of whistleblowing. Now, it’s not a classic act of whistleblowing, because the quantity of documents released and the manner in which they were released is rather different than a classic whistleblower. But nevertheless, you can see that Bradley Manning is concerned that there’s this whole level of dialogue that’s taking place out of the public eye. It should be in the public eye.

AMY GOODMAN: And he’s an intelligence officer in Iraq at the time.

ALEX GIBNEY: Not an officer. He was a specialist.

AMY GOODMAN: Specialist.

ALEX GIBNEY: A rather low-level intelligence analyst in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: This is another of the transcripts that you highlight of Bradley Manning’s online chats with Adrian Lamo. Manning writes, quote, “Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public. … Everywhere there’s a US post, there’s a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed. It’s open diplomacy. World-wide anarchy in CSV format. It’s Climategate with a global scope, and breathtaking depth. It’s beautiful, and horrifying.”

ALEX GIBNEY: There again. I mean, I think he’s seeing this vast array of documents that show a kind of—it’s like there’s two levels. There’s the sort of public display of diplomacy, and then there’s, undergirding it, sometimes very inspiring messages between diplomats talking about what’s really going on.

And look, to be honest, Amy, I’m not—I think that many of us would be appalled if every time, every communication between diplomats or between soldiers in the field was summarily leaked by every private who was working for the Army or the State Department. But I think what this represents to me is a kind of wholesale corrective. That is to say, too much has been held too secret for too long, and this was a kind of bold, maybe ill-considered, but—I don’t want to use the word “ill-considered.” Maybe—I’m not sure he considered the full consequences, nor did he read every document. It is a vast leak. But it—in a sense, it creates a kind of rough justice here, because it shows us something that is being kept from us. It’s a whole level of dialogue that Americans should be seeing that they’re not.

AMY GOODMAN: And the link you see between Private Bradley Manning and Julian Assange? Of course, Private Bradley Manning accused of leaking all of these documents to WikiLeaks.

ALEX GIBNEY: Correct. And we don’t know. Julian Assange has always maintained that he doesn’t know, or he didn’t know, that these documents that came to him were given to him by Bradley Manning. The military has slowly been leaking chats between Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, which indicate—and also Julian—Manning’s chats also indicate some familiarity. So—

AMY GOODMAN: But how do you know that they’re—if the military is leaking these, that they’re actually between Bradley Manning and Julian Assange? In fact, in the film, you put quotes around Julian Assange. I guess that’s what the chat does. How do you know that it’s Julian Assange?

ALEX GIBNEY: No, no, no. In Bradley Manning’s computer, we know—it was introduced as evidence. Now, I suppose you could say—we’ll see whether David Coombs challenges that evidence in court. But actually, David Coombs, who is Bradley Manning’s attorney, has already gone to the court, in a very unusual way, to say that they’re prepared to plead guilty to a number of more minor offenses having to do with taking data off classified networks and also leaking them to WikiLeaks. So, you know, I think what they discovered on Bradley Manning’s computer was that the address of these chats, you know, Manning had, in fact, in his address book, indicated that this one address, which is seen in the chats, was the address of Julian Assange.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been subpoenaed in any way from any court case, whether around Private Bradley Manning or the grand jury with Julian Assange, with—around the interviews you’ve done?


AMY GOODMAN: So, ultimately, what did you learn? What were you most surprised by, Alex, in doing this documentary?

ALEX GIBNEY: Oh, that’s a good question. In a way, I came into this story thinking that it was about a machine—that is to say, this new leaking machine, this electronic dropbox, and also this ability to post material all over the world on mirrored sites so that could never be taken down. That, I think, is the most important innovation. I don’t think the dropbox is that much—that important. But ultimately I discovered this is not a story about a machine; it’s really a story about people. And you discover that this whole process of leaking, and moral decisions that have been made about what should be secret and what should not be secret, these are deeply human concerns by poignant, sometimes very noble, sometimes very flawed, figures who engage in this. And I think the story has been misperceived and misanalyzed as a series of sort of political stick figures, when in fact it’s actually a deeply human story that should be seen, in part, as that.

The other thing I learned was the way in which we’re all trying to understand what happens on the Internet, that we assume that it’s a machine for freedom—and in many ways, it is—but it’s also a surveillance machine for the government. And peculiarly enough, it’s also a kind of maelstrom of cruelty, where people hide behind online names to deliver horrible invective and insults. And that, we discovered, in terms of Julian Assange’s supporters going after these Swedish women in ways that are sort of horrible. So, it’s about a lot of things, but I think it’s really about modern life. But it certainly is about this battle between what should be and what should not be secret.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, did you interview Julian Assange?

ALEX GIBNEY: I never interviewed Julian Assange. I spent a good bit of time trying to interview Julian Assange. There were times when he agreed to be interviewed and not agreed to be interviewed. But ultimately, he never agreed to be interviewed. There was a long negotiation over it, a six-hour conversation that I had with him at the Norfolk manor, you know, in England, but—

AMY GOODMAN: Where he was under house arrest.

ALEX GIBNEY: Where he was under house arrest, yes. Manor house arrest, as they called it.

AMY GOODMAN: But you didn’t get to interview him.

ALEX GIBNEY: No interview with Julian Assange.


ALEX GIBNEY: But then, I didn’t get to interview the Pope, either.

AMY GOODMAN: Alex Gibney, I want to thank you for being with us. Alex Gibney is the Oscar Award-winning filmmaker. His latest film has premiered at Sundance; it’s called We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. Again, his other films: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and the Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Jennifer Robinson, legal adviser to Julian Assange, responds. And then we look at another film that has just premiered, Fire in the Blood, and we speak with a Ugandan doctor who was imprisoned for trying to bring generic drugs into Uganda to deal with AIDS. Stay with us.

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WikiLeaks Legal Adviser: “We Steal Secrets” Overlooks Key Facets of Julian Assange’s Persecution

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