Alex Gibney's new documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, opens in Washington today at the AFI Silver. In a review last month, I wrote that most struck me about the film is how Army Pfc. Bradley Manning emerges as the surprising hero, since the story of WikiLeaks is generally most associated with its flamboyant founder, the Australian hacker Julian Assange. It turns out this was a surprise for Gibney, too.
I met Gibney last week while he was in town promoting the movie, and he explained that when he began research for the film, he assumed it would largely be about Assange and the rise of an organization dedicated to exposing government secrets and holding officials accountable. Gibney had watched WikiLeaks' "Collateral Murder" video, which shows a US helicopter firing on a group of people that the pilot believes are Iraqi insurgents, but who were actually unarmed civilians and journalists.
"It was biased, but I was ok with that," Gibney said. "Because [Assange] also presented the full video" in addition to edited clips and captions, along with the provocative title. Gibney had never met Assange, but he saw him as a "classic whistleblower."
Gibney hoped Assange would give him access and sit down for on-camera interviews, just as disgraced New York Governor Eliot Spitzer had done for Gibney's movie Client 9, about Spitzer's procurement of prostitutes and the demise of his political career. But according to Gibney, Assange wanted something in return for his cooperation--money. When Gibney refused to pay, he said, Assange asked whether he would reveal information that he'd gleaned from other sources, in effect spy on people who'd been talking about Assange.
At this point, Gibney's perception of his would-be leading man seems to have changed. "By the time I got on the story, [Assange] was incredibly famous," Gibney said. "He was surrounded by lawyers, sycophants, and agents. He was used to people doing things for him."
In the film, Gibney uses Assange's chosen hacker alias, Mendax, or "noble liar," as a thematic touchstone. Gibney asserts that Assange wants to hold the powerful and corrupt to account, but he exempts himself from the same scrutiny. "He thinks the ends justify the means," Gibney told me. As I wrote in my review, Assange's story comes across as a cautionary tale about narcissism, and Gibney concludes that WikiLeaks has become the thing it set out to destroy: An autocratic regime that survives by cult of personality and secrecy.
This helps explains how Manning came to be the pivotal figure in the film. Gibney came to see the young Army private not as Assange's source, but as the key figure in WikiLeaks' biggest publication, the disclosure of thousands of intelligence reports from combat zones and a trove of diplomatic cables.
The credit for the biggest exposure of classified documents history, Gibney said, belongs to Manning, not Assange. "Really, the Wikileaks 'war logs' are the 'Manning logs." Without Manning, Assange never would have obtained the material that made him a global celebrity and dramatically enhanced WikiLeaks' influence.
Manning was a kind of "everyday hero," Gibney said, but with motives that he calls "complicated" and "not pure."
"There was a huge component of political consciousness" to what Manning did, Gibney said. Manning's state of mind when he gave the information to WikiLeaks, as well as his intentions, are key factors that will help decide how severely he is punished.
Manning has already pleaded guilty to a number of charges. His court-martial for the remaining alleged offenses is set to begin June 3.
"I hope the movie will make [him] more sympathetic," Gibney said.
Osama bin Laden may have met his fate at the hands of military men. But it's a lesser-known fact that, for more than a decade, many of the CIA officers who were tracking the terrorist leader were women. Indeed, for as long as the CIA has been in the business of finding the founder of al Qaeda, and eventually killing him, women have been leading much of the hunt. Some say it's work to which they're particularly well suited.
The CIA established a group devoted exclusively to gathering and analyzing intelligence on bin Laden, known as Alec Station, in 1996. Counterterrorism wasn't the high-stakes, career-advancing line of work that it would become after the 9/11 attacks. And the members of Alec Station, many of whom were women, took a professional risk by pigeon-holing themselves into a profession that didn't seem to have a future.
But this tight band of CIA officers, some of whom called themselves "the Sisterhood," had found a bit of refuge from the male-dominated culture of the agency, in which no woman has ever served as director. They also found a rare, and at the time maybe even unique kind of intelligence work, in which analysts--the traditionally desk-bound thinkers of the agency's Directorate of Intelligence--worked closely with those who ran spies and did the clandestine work of espionage in the field, the members of the agency's Directorate of Operations. Historically, those sides didn't mix much on a personal or professional level. But at Alec Station, analysts and operators worked together, and in fairly short order they realized that the man whom much of the CIA had written off as a feckless wannabe jihadist was poised to become extraordinarily dangerous.
The story of how the CIA first got onto bin Laden's trail, and how it ultimately pointed Navy SEALs to his physical address in Pakistan, is the subject of the new documentary Manhunt, premiering Wednesday night on HBO. Directed by Greg Barker (Sergio, Koran by Heart), it "stars" some of the former members of the Sisterhood and other CIA officers who joined in the hunt for bin Laden and his al Qaeda brethren before and after the 9/11 attacks. The film is based on the book Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden--from 9/11 to Abbottabad, by journalist Peter Bergen, the author of four books on al Qaeda who produced bin Laden's first television interview, for CNN in 1997.
The film Manhunt is a work of broad ambition, so broad, and covering so many years, that after the first half hour, when we were still not very close to Abbottabad, I wondered how Barker would ever bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. (Even though we all know how this story ends.) But the film succeeds by turning the bin Laden story into a personal and intimate one, told entirely through the perspective of the people who actually tried to track him down.
Not every member of Alec Station is here, nor is everyone who played a central role in bin Laden's ultimate demise. But those who speak on camera do so without aliases or disguises, and in numbers that, as far as I can tell, is unprecedented for any work of film or television. If Manhunt weren't also an engrossing story, it would still be notable just for brining into the Klieg lights so many people who spent their lives in the shadows.
The film portrays intelligence work up close, with a particular emphasis on the role of women. Cindy Storer, a former CIA analyst, and Nada Bakos, a former CIA targeting officer who tracked al Qaeda in Iraq, demonstrate how to locate a terrorist using fragments of disjointed and often contradictory information. We watch them tack photos and bits of paper to a white board, connecting the items with colored lines. The picture doesn't come together as quickly as some of Carrie Mathison's jazz-fueled intel binges on "Homeland," but like that fictional representation, real-life analysis is tedious, frequently maddening, and often unproductive. But when it pays off, it does so with lethal effects.
There are times when Manhunt feels like fiction. Marty Martin, who was in charge of the operational hunt for bin Laden after 9/11 and most purely represents the spying-side of the agency (now known as the National Clandestine Service), is as flamboyant and mischievous a character as you'd expect to find in an espionage potboiler. He's full of war stories and serves as the brawn to the analytic brains, and, visually at least, a strong masculine counterpoint to a story dominated by women.
But like a good spy story, not everything is what it seems. Far from butting heads with his women colleagues, either owing to their gender or some link to the "other side" of the CIA bureaucracy, Martin fuses with them. And the farther we get in time from the 9/11 attacks, the more the distinctions across the CIA between men and women, analysts and operators, start to fade, until they become arbitrary. Bakos represents the final synthesis of the two--a targeting officer is both an analyst and an operator. And the blending of those two worlds brings us to the modern CIA, which is more a global paramilitary organization than a Cold War spy house.
Manhunt is a work of empathetic storytelling. Barker doesn't want to tell you the story of finding bin Laden so much as show you how the hunters did it. And because you walk in his subjects' shoes, you feel their triumphs and their failures acutely. You can imagine yourself sitting in an office like theirs, doing mind-numbing work and taking it home in your head at night. You can grieve with the CIA officers who talk, through tears, about their friends and co-workers who were killed in a suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009, an event that the film accurately portrays as a turning point in the CIA's war against al Qaeda--it galvanized the agency to recommit to finding bin Laden. These testimonials make the bin Laden story, which has been the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, accessible.
Manhunt inevitably draws comparisons to that other big movie about killing bin Laden. But while Zero Dark Thirty purports to be a work of journalism, Manhunt actually is. There are no pseudonyms or character composites. And when some of the same events are portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty, which is a superb film, they feel beyond the realm of our everyday experience. We can more easily imagine ourselves like Storer, showing up to work every day and banging her head against a desk, than we can see ourselves on the deck of a Blackhawk helicopter, wearing night-vision goggles and carrying an assault rifle.
Barker's empathy imposes certain limits on his film. You don't know where he stands on some of the most controversial and socially important questions of the bin Laden story, such as whether torture produced information that helped the CIA finish their manhunt. When Barker and I met in Washington a few weeks ago, he told me it's the mark of a successful film that you can't say for sure what he thinks. Not everyone who watches Manhunt will be satisfied with Barker's approach, which leaves some very big questions about some very dark days not fully answered.
But we shouldn't expect every story about bin Laden to be told through the lens of a moral dilemma. It's enough, at least for this film, to show people doing a job, one that was measured in years and lives lost, and that changed those who did it, just as it changed history.
During the 1950s, US lawmakers and government officials claimed that since homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and shameful, communists would threaten to expose gay and lesbian US government employees if they didn't agree to spy for the Soviet Union.
"Sex Perverts in Government Said Weak Link as Spy Prey," read one headline at the time.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy declared, "Homosexuals must not be handling top secret material."
But a new documentary, The Lavender Scare, explores how US officials actually became blackmailers and extortionists as they tried to root out gay men and lesbians from the ranks of the civil service. An executive order by President Dwight Eisenhower, signed 60 years ago this Saturday, touched off what the filmmakers describe as "a witch hunt" that ended the careers of thousands of people, who were threatened with public exposure if they didn't quit their jobs. But unexpectedly, the purge also set in motion a protest by a few individuals that helped start the modern LGBT rights movement.
From a national security perspective, it's remarkable how this whole paradigm has flipped. Today, in a society that's vastly more accepting of gays and lesbians, people are considered more trustworthy and less prone to blackmail if they're out of the closet. People who have nothing to hide are harder to turn. I've never heard of someone being asked during a background check whether he or she sleeps with men or women. But over the years, many intelligence officials have remarked to me how, when they began their career, being gay or lesbian was dangerous, but that it's just no longer the case. (An exception: If you're an intelligence officer serving in a region that regards homosexuality as a crime, you'd probably keep your orientation private.)
You can watch a trailer for the film here. The producers are running a Kickstarter campaign to help finish the production. Full disclosure, a close friend of mine, who has written for The Washingtonian, is an executive producer. But even if he weren't, I'd be drawing attention this movie. This period in history is remarkable for the confluence of human rights, national security, and Cold War paranoia.
The protagonist of Alex Gibney's new documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is ostensibly the Australian hacker Julian Assange, who founded the anti-secrecy organization and published the biggest trove of leaked classified documents in US history. He's not exactly a sympathetic character in Gibney's eyes. Assange's story comes across as a cautionary tale about narcissism, and the filmmaker ultimately concludes that WikiLeaks/Assange (they are one in the same) has become the very embodiment of the thing it set out to destroy: An autocratic regime that survives by cult of personality and, irony of all ironies, secrecy.
Gibney would have made a good film had he only offered that persuasive argument--which Assange's supporters will doubtless see as an unfair hack job by a documentarian who never even interviewed his subject. (More on why not here.) But Gibney went further than I'd expected by deeply and, at times, touchingly exploring the secondary character in this global power-drama, who turns out to be the real star of the show: Army Private Bradley Manning, the young man accused of providing WikiLeaks with thousands of classified military reports and diplomatic cables.
The film is hugely sympathetic to Manning, who, since the movie was finished, has pled guilty to misusing classified material. Gibney argues that even if Manning committed a crime, the fact that some of the government's own assessments have found no great national security harm came of the disclosure should mitigate Manning's punishment. Manning's detractors will doubtless see that as as the conclusion of a biased filmmaker, who set out to turn a criminal into a martyr for public transparency and accountability.
The funny thing is, that's the character I thought Assange would turn out to be in this movie. Instead, it's Manning whose struggle to expose secrets seems most genuine and complex, and most significant for national security policy. After all, Assange was the recipient of the secrets. Manning is the one who let them loose, and exposed unacceptable weaknesses is the military's own security regime in the process.
Gibney makes extensive use of instant messages that Manning exchanged about his disclosures with the hacker Adrian Lamo, who reported Manning to the authorities and, in the film's final moments, regrets having done so. Manning tries to explain why he would risk violating national security and his own freedom to tell the world about what he believes are grave injustices carried out by the US government.
"i...care?" Manning writes.
Gibney flashes this portion of the text on screen at various points, and he makes a motif of Manning's other personal struggles, including with his gender identity and his inability to fit in with his peers and his fellow soldiers. Manning says he is extremely isolated. Feels entirely alone. The release of the documents is a way to change the world for the better and to imprint himself on it--to matter.
Manning seems like an accidental radical. A smart computer geek who never quite fit in with his peers--too weak, too effeminate, maybe just too smart--but who finds himself in a position to bring important matters to light. Assange, however, seems to be in the game to fuel his own ego. He craves credit, even adulation, for bringing the mighty security state to his knees, but he pays no mind to the consequences. He tells us that he would even release information about how to make a deadly weapon that could kill innocent people.
The title of Gibney's film comes from one of his interview subjects, former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden, who describes the business model of the US intelligence community as, "We steal secrets." It's hard to escape the conclusion that Gibney sees Assange as a kind of thief. Or at the very least, a resident of the moral gray zone that's also inhabited by the CIA. Hayden essentially argues, We steal because it keeps people safe. Assange could amend that for WikiLeaks: We steal because it keeps people honest. Gibney doesn't conclude whether either end is justified by the means. But that central tension holds the film together, and it brings you right back to Manning and his decision.
Some viewers will bristle at the suggestion that WikiLeaks' global campaign of radical transparency is, at base, simple theft. Is what Assange does, receiving secret information and publishing it, fundamentally so different than what journalists do? As a journalist, I wished Gibney had made more of an effort to address that quandary. But that could take another film.
I think it's enough that We Steal Secrets asks us to consider all these questions through the story of one deeply troubled and conflicted young man, who may spend the next several years of his life in prison. Gibney doesn't excuse what Manning did. But he tries to understand why he did it, in a far more human way than others who have tackled this story.