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.
Here are some upcoming titles that have caught my attention in the past few months. Pub dates given if available.
Untitled book by Andrew Cockburn (Times Books)
The author of Rumsfeld, and future father-in-law to SNL cast member Jason Sudeikis, is working on a true story about drones and assassins.
We Will Not Be Silent: How the White Rose Student Resistance Movement Defied Adolf Hitler by Russell Freedman (Clarion)
A story about a small group of university students who distributed anti-Hitler leaflets and condemned his policies.
Untitled book on Russian protest group Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen (Riverhead)
The author of The Man Without a Face, about the rise of Vladimir Putin, has an untold story of Russia's most famous dissidents.
Pub date: Fall 2013
Untitled book by Karen J. Greenberg (Crown)
Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, is writing a narrative account described as "how the power and legitimacy of the Department of Justice have been radically challenged in the wake of 9/11."
Casablanca by Meredith Hindley (Public Affairs)
A narrative history of the famous North African city, against the backdrop of the French resistance, Gestapo, Vichy agents, and American spies battling for control.
The Russian Revolution by Sean McKeekin (Basic)
Billed as "a revisionist account of the Russian Revolution" based on new information from Soviet archives.
Pub date: 2017
CIA Rogues and the Killing of the Kennedys: How and why CIA Agents Conspired to Kill JFK and RFK by Patrick Nolan (Skyhorse)
An investigation of "CIA involvement" in the assassinates of President Kennedy and his brother Robert. Timed for release with the 50th anniversary of JFK's death.
Pub date: Fall 2013
Rogue Code by Mark Russinovich (Thomas Dunne Books)
The third novel in a thriller series about cyber-expert Peter Joseph. The first two books were Zero Day and Trojan Horse.
Untitled book by Adam Segal (Public Affairs)
Segal, who's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and heads up their cyber security initiatives will write about "the geopolitics of information and what diplomacy looks like in the age of big data."
Forty-Seven Days by Mitchell Yockelson (Caliber)
How Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing led the Army and helped it come of age in World War I, with the service of soldiers such as George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Harry Truman.
Pub date: Summer 2015
Ken Anderson and Ben Wittes, two good friends of Dead Drop, are embarking on an intriguing and from my perspective quite welcome new project. They're writing a book that will pull together all the significant speeches Obama administration officials have given on national security law, and then "weave it all back together, creating a synthetic account of the administration’s views that is worth more collectively than the sum of its parts."
Called Speaking the Law, it will be "a kind of handbook on the framework for counterterrorism," using administration officials' own words as the foundation. "Consider it the White Paper the administration has never issued," say Ken and Ben.
I suspect Obama administration officials themselves will be among this book's most avid readers, given the authors' premise, and that journalists and scholars will find it useful as well:
"There is a myth that the administration has had little to say on the subject of its counterterrorism authorities, especially targeted killing and drones--largely because it has declined to release publicly its Office of Legal Counsel targeted killing memoranda. Part of the point of Speaking the Law is to show how wrong this myth really is. The administration has actually said a huge amount. It’s just that it has said a great deal of it orally, and has broken up its utterances among a number of different statements."
The authors are publishing the chapters serially online, and then the Hoover Institution will put out a hardcover version when all the work is finished. The introduction and first chapter are available now.
Book reviews, roundups of current titles, and interviews with authors are going to be a regular fixture on Dead Drop. But I also want to alert readers to books you are going to be seeing on shelves in the future, maybe in a few months, or even a few years.
Today I'm launching a regular feature, spotlighting interesting national security-themed titles on the horizon. There's some reader service here, in that I hope this helps you better curate your probably long reading list. But there's also a bit of intelligence gathering. Publishers routinely announce deals they have just signed with authors, and those deals give you a ground-level insight into what ideas are selling in the book business, what stories are hot, and what topics publishers are betting are so salient that you'll want to read about them a few years from now, which is about how long it will take books that are now being written to get to market.
So, here are some upcoming reads that might interest Dead Drop readers. Keep in mind that book titles and publishing dates are often tentative.
The Man Who Was George Smiley, by Michael Jango (Biteback Publishing)
A biography of the author and MI5 officer John Bingham, the 7th Baron Clanmorris, who was the real-life inspiration for John Le Carre's fictional spymaster.
Pub date: February 2013
Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat, by Jeffrey D. Simon (Prometheus Books)
Simon, who has more than a quarter century of experience studying terrorism, examines the motivations and backgrounds of those who strike terror on their own, independent of an organized group.
Pub date: February 2013
The Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady (Wiley)
Two close observers of the national security apparatus investigate how the government keeps secrets, and why "real secrets can't be kept, trivial ones are held forever, and sensitive ones are far too susceptible to political manipulation."
Pub date: April 2013
The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by Mark Mazzetti (The Penguin Press)
The New York Times reporter draws from his beat to write about the evolution of the CIA and U.S. special forces into "competing covert manhunting and killing operations."
Pub date: April 2013
Wilson, by A. Scott Berg (Putnam)
The long-awaited biography of Woodrow Wilson from the author of many books on larger-than-life Americans, including Katharine Hepburn and Charles Lindbergh. Berg also wrote a definitive biography of Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor of Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Pub date: September 2013
Brothers Forever, by Tom Sileo and Col. Thomas Manion (Da Capo Press)
Sileo, a military writer, and Manion, a retired Marine colonel, tell the story of his Marine son, Travis Manion, and his Naval Academy roommate, Navy SEAL Brendan Looney. The two men are now* buried next to each other in Arlington National Cemetery. President Obama spoke about them during Memorial Day remarks in 2011.
Pub date: Spring 2014
*This post has been updated from a previous version.
Mitt Romney's ex-foreign policy and defense adviser has some sober reflections on the Republican presidential candidate's failed campaign.
"We were beaten soundly," former Navy Secretary John Lehman says in a recent letter to campaign supporters (see below), obtained by Dead Drop. "They had a far better ground game, much more effective technology, data-mining, registration and volunteer organization," Lehman writes. "The young brightest geeks from Silicon Valley were helping the Democrats effort, and it showed."
Lehman, who served as Navy Secretary under President Reagan and was a member of the 9/11 Commission, also argued that the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC "helped the Democrats far more than the Republicans." It allowed the Democrats to "mask how much money they were really taking in" and make the argument that wealthy Republicans were outspending their political rivals. "It seems that in fact there are really more very rich Democrats than Republicans," says Lehman, an investment banker and founder of a private equity firm.
Lehman also says that despite the GOP's "large field of very attractive candidates" for the 2016 election, they have no chance of winning "if they are forced to run on a platform built on social issues like abortion, gay marriage and closing the borders. The Republican Party could go the way of the Whigs."Lehman's comments, while focused mostly on domestic matters, echo the sentiments of another GOP foreign policy luminary. In an interview with The Cable, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft said the GOP establishment had moved away from foreign policy realists, such as Scowcroft and former Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama's nominee for Defense Secretary.
Lehman's apparently hand-signed letter was written on January 9, two days after Obama nominated Hagel.
I wrote to Lehman this evening asking for further comment. If I hear from him, I'll post an update.