On State Secrets, National Security and Cyberwar
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, a powerful documentary film by the Academy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, takes us into the mysterious world of cyber-espionage, We are provided an inside view of a group of people whose mission in life is to expose the most vital secrets of the world’s governments and largest corporations. Written by …..and produced by….., it is a magnificent example of great investigative journalism using the documentary film as the vehicle to tell the tale. It is a film rich with a compelling cast of characters that range from sane and well balanced to all manner of offbeat, jaded, even bizarre personalities.
The film revolves around a very troubled young man struggling with acute gender confusion who joins the military in order to escape his drab life in an Oklahoma hick town, where it is dangerous to be actively gay, and play macho man in Iraq instead; a megalomaniacal computer nerd hooked on hubris; a 250 pound dike who played center on her high school varsity football team; an army of gifted computer hackers on a mission, a turncoat hacker who exposes the source of secret American military documents who is so heavily medicated with psychotropic drugs he seems in a perpetual trance like state, and a platoon of spooks, spies and statesmen – including an Icelandic poet turned parliamentarian who champions Wikileaks and invites them to Iceland. It is a tale whose complex twist and turns, plots and counterplots, is worthy of a Shakespeare. Yet these talented and committed filmmakers have told the tale in compelling fashion.
Brilliantly conceived, written and reported the film reminds me of an old CBS White Paper Report; which set the standard for in-depth investigative reporting in the audio visual medium. However the technological advances in film making since those days, has added spectacular graphics and sound effects to the filmmakers tool box, and they make the most of it; especially when depicting the cyber networks that has made the internet powerful enough to bring down nation states when employed by organized dissidents. This film provides some interesting insights into the role played by the internet in the historic uprising collectively labeled the “Arab Spring, which changed the political map of the Mid-East seemingly overnight: the world’s first Facebook revolution.
This film is many things It is a reflection on the history of American atrocities in Iraq; it is an expose of the cavalier approach to firing missiles from helicopters at suspected “terrorists” on the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan killing innocent civilians, and the efforts of the American government to cover it up. It also shows the racism of many white American soldiers toward the Arabs, which is to be expected when soldiers are involved in a protracted war against a shadowy enemy in a foreign country where the occupying troops know little or nothing of the local culture and cannot speak the language and resistance comes from all elements of the population.
I predicted that this would happen when the Bush Administration first announced their decision to invade Iraq and occupy Afghanistan; it is in the nature of things alas. The film also shows how difficult it is to end a war once it is begun and the emptiness of promises made by Don Rumsfeld and Dirty Dick Cheney that the Iraq war would be over quickly and without cost to the American taxpayer.
And it reveals how hard it is for President Obama to extricate the US from policies and strategies initiated by the Bush Administration in Iraq. Thus we see evidence that the Obama Administration is continuing the policy of turning over captured Iraqi militants to the Iraqi government where they will face torture. But what is he to do with them?
The critics of US policy given voice in this film offer no alternative. In the view of the activists at Wikileaks, no government secrecy is legitimate and is mostly employed to hide state crimes, therefore it is their duty to make these secrets public by dumping classified government documents on the internet for all the world to see. And while the film shows how these actions did uncover governmental and corporate malfeasance, it also raises questions about the harm that can result from the indiscriminate publication of government secrets, which can damage alliances, expose covert military operations and cost innocent lives.
The most interesting character in this film by far is Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, around whom the movie pivots. And to their credit the filmmakers do not shirk from asking the question if he is a hero or criminal terrorist. A tall thin guy of alabaster complexion and snow white hair, he is one of the whitest men I have ever seen, and he wears a constant smirk that I have always noticed on the faces of smartass know-it- all white boys – as if they are enjoying a joke that only they are smart enough to understand. And he behaves that way as he is more and more seduced by the vices of vanity and hubris.
The film presents a graphic portrait of the strange character of Julian Assange. It’s kind of an old story: the ugly duckling who grows into a swan; the wallflower who becomes the belle of the ball, and the noble crusader who begins with altruistic motives but is corrupted by the trappings of power and celebrity. Indeed, watching the evolution of Julian Assange we see once again the enduring truth of Lord Acton’s axiom “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
As Wikileaks becomes the center of global attention after their activities leads to a banking scandal and exposed crimes committed by governments around the world, Assange’s fame grows to rock star proportions and beyond – especially after they dumped the thousands of classified American government documents provided by sergeant Bradley, a soldier stationed in a US Army Intelligence unit in Iraq. This cache made Assange the most recognizable man in the world, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and even President Obama, goes on television to denounce Wikileaks’ actions He becomes a kind of guru and cyber-savior to those seeking ways to use the internet to check the power of governments and the giant multi-national corporations.
Predictably, Assange is a single man and thus with all of this fame comes the adulation of the ladies. He was showered with the kind of hero worship that can easily become sexual attraction. And this became the source of his undoing. The film reveals a really seamy side to Assange’s character as two women brings sexual assault charges against him. But these are not what we generally think of as sexual assault and appear to be rooted in his strange existence as a rootless “Cyberman.” Both women admit that they freely consented to having sex with Assange; the assault charges results from the claim made by the women that Assange secretly tore a hole in the condom in an attempt to secretly impregnate them.
Julian Assange Superstar!
They were horrified by the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy and terrified that he may have infected them with the HIV virus. Both felt severely violated, victims os a sexual assault. Then we discover that Assange is alleged to have impregnated four other women in different countries around the world like some sort of sexual Johnny Appleseed. One of Assange’s close associates believes that it is because of the fact that the internet makes it possible for him to operate from anywhere, Assange lives in a kind of cyberworld of his own construction and has no permanent roots or ties anywhere, and thus making babies gives him a sense of rootedness in the real world where everybody else lives…that it is a bizarre quest for normalcy.
Hence despite his technical brilliance and feigned altruism, one gets the impression that Julian Assange is a very creepy guy; a feeling that is enhanced by his arrogant snide posture at press conferences and a scene of him at a disco dancing alone in a herky jerky white nerd dance that black folks find comical but nerdy white dudes think is cool. They seem to be saying “we run the world so who gives a fuck that we are awkward on the dance floor.” At least that’s the feeling I always get watching them go through their tortuous contortions that resemble someone having an epileptic seizure more than a dance.
After listening to the two ladies who brought identical charges against Assange tell their stories, one dressed in disguise and the other never appearing on camera at all because of death threats, the Wikileaks story degenerates from one of heroism to a tawdry tale of the abuse of power by a megalomaniac whose actions are fueled more by hubris than altruism, and possessed by a feeling of omnipotence that renders him untouchable by the most powerful governments in the world. There is even a scene in the film when a college tells him as much.
Assange’s followers disgrace themselves and their cause when they level charges that he was caught in a “honey trap” set by the CIA to entrap Assange and bring him down with sexual assault charges, in order to disguise their real motive: to disgrace and silence him. Most shameful is the women who viciously attack his female accusers, charging one of them with being an anti-Castro Cuban who has long been in bed with the CIA. There were even calls for the rape of these women!
This is an example of how fanatical devotion to a cause, even if it is just, can lead one to excuse atrocities on the part of the leaders of that cause. It becomes clear that this is what is happening here when one of Assange’s closest associates in Sweden, who knew both of these women well, says the charges are fabrications and describes them as nice Swedish idealistic Swedish girls who came into Wikileaks as volunteers and idolized Assange. In fact one of the women admits that she was thrilled to “have the hottest man in the world in my bed.” Just looking at the pale, somewhat effeminate, Assange in light of that statement the thoughtful observer is reminded of Dr. Henry Kissinger’s famous state: “Power is the ultimate Aphrodisiac!”
Assange’s feeling of invulnerability comes suddenly to an end when he is indicted in Britian and open calls for his assassination as a terrorist enemy of America comes from prominent Republicans. To avoid imprisonment Assange flees into the Bolivian Embassy where his is granted political asylum, and there he remains as I write surrounded by British police daring him to try and leave the building, as his allies desert him and his organization falls apart.
The former Public voice of Wikileaks
When Assange issues orders for his associates not to talk to the press he forces them into a crisis of conscience, and it is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for some. The problem was best stated by Assange’s fellow hacker and close comrade in building Wikileaks, Daniel Domcheit – Berg, a German citizen who was the spokesman for the organization. “Wikileaks has become what it detests.”
The second most compelling figure in this intriguing cast of cyber outlaws – or persecuted saviors depending upon your perspective – is the American solder Bradley Manning, who passed on the classified military files to Assange. Manning’s case will certainly raise the question of whether homosexuals pose special problems for the military. This seemed like a done deal after Barack ordered the end to the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell system of dealing with gay soldiers. While some continue to question the wisdom of deploring gays into combat units, what we learn about private Manning’s story in this film leaves no doubt that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell could only make matters worse.
Having left his home town because he was afraid to express his homosexuality, Manning lives a closeted life in the military. Like Assange, he was not a popular kid growing up so he spent his time exploring the marvels of cyberworld and became a skilled computer geek. It took the military no time to recognize his talents, and thus decided to keep him in the army despite the fact that he did not measure up on some physical tests. Bradley was stationed with an army intelligence unit in a remote area of Iraq, and would soon find himself with access to hundreds of thousands of classified documents. Among these was clear evidence that American forces were committing war crimes against Iraqi’s.
Manning was justifiably appalled by what he was witnessing because he could see the actual screen through which the helicopter gunners were targeting their “kills” on the ground, while listening to their conversations, which showed a callous disregard for the lives of innocents who may have been caught in their hail of fire. He began to have an attack of conscience and came to the conclusion that the American public had a right to know that their government was committing war crimes in their name financed by their tax dollars. But he didn’t know who to talk to since, as he told a friend in an e-mail that he was “surrounded by bloodthirsty rednecks!”
Hence he began trolling the internet, finding first a heavily medicated fellow geek, who would eventually turn him in as he began to read the documents, and Julian Assange of Wikileaks, who published them on the internet. And that’s how their stories became entwined. Bradley was a very troubled guy, because while walking around armed to the teeth playing Mighty Macho Whitey, he was having intense fantasies about having a sex change and becoming a woman.
Once when he was on leave from the army he dressed up like a woman and took a train ride across several states and nobody appeared to be the wiser. After that becoming a woman was no longer just a fantasy but a real choice. However not having anyone he could talk to about the agony he was experiencing Manning became more and more instable…even suicidal. Then one day he flipped out and punched his sergeant in the mouth, but she was a 250 pound amazon and explains how she kicked his ass and subdued him.
She also recalls the day Manning was arrested for stealing the documents, and vividly remembers the defiant smirk he had on his face as military police led him away in handcuffs. As she talked pictures of the arrest appeared on the screen and for a person who was in as much trouble as him he seemed curiously disconnected from it all.
Later he testified under oath that he decided to make the classified documents public because the US military was engaged in actions in Iraq and Afghanistan that “didn’t seem characteristic” of the behavior we had a right to expect from the nation that claimed to set the standard for human freedom. Private Manning calmly stated that the 700, 000 classified documents he gave Wikileaks comprised a record of the US Military’s “”on-the-ground reality” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Manning left no doubt that he was fully aware of the significance of the documents he sent from a Barnes and Nobel book store computer in Maryland; in a note he appended to the documents he described them as the most important documents of our age. This assessment will surely come back to haunt him in his Court Marshall, which begins today, where he is charged with being “an enemy of the American State,” and he could well spend the rest of his life in jail.
This why the women who brought the sexual assault charges against Assange consider it an insult to connect the predicament of Private Manning to that of Assange. They rightly point out that manning is in a military prison facing trial because of an act of conscience; Assange is hiding out in the Bolivian embassy trying to escape trial for a sexual crime!
For all of its virtues the film never resolves the issue of whether what Assange and Wikileaks did was an act of terror and theft of US government policy; a question made all the more fuzzy by the fact that major journalistic organizations like the New York Times and the London Guardian published some of the documents too. Interestingly those editors were not arrested. Yet simple logic dictates that if Assange, who is senior editor of Wikileaks, is arrested than so should the editors of the Times and the Guardian. If the case should ever come to trial this question will be raised no doubt be raised.
Had these been British military documents chances are the Guardian editor would have been arrested under the “State Secrets Act.” Alas, the film also fails to answer the question of whether it is a good idea to have very flawed but self-righteous individuals decide which classified government documents shall remain secret and which should be made public, or indeed if any civilian should have that right without the mediation of the courts, which is what Senator Charles Schumer of New York is proposing just now in response to the big controversy regarding Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to investigate several reporters, including the Associated Press pool in an attempt to find the source of a leak regarding a successful covert action against a Jihadist group in the Mid-East, where lives could be lost because of the leak.
Unfortunately the investigation is being conducted by the House Government Oversight Committee a good idea gone bad because the committee is presently chaired by Darrell Issa, a hyper-partisan thug from California with an extensive criminal record. Issa is one of the Tea Party Zealots who have no serious interests in governing, and are more concerned with tarnishing the reputations of the Attorney General and the President than finding solutions to serious problems of national security. This is why “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks” is a timely and important movie; it may be the best way to inform Americans what is at issue regarding the question of state secrets.
Ever since I began my teaching career at an Adult Education center in Philadelphia almost 50 years ago, I recognized that audio -visual media was a powerful teaching tool. I first reached this conclusion from my actual experience with imparting information in the class room, but I would later discover that the research confirms it. It is a fact that we retain more of what we see and hear than what we see or hear separately. Hence I have long been a fan of the documentary film as an effective method of teaching complex information to groups of people simultaneously; especially when this powerful tool is in the hands of great artist.
And it can be used for good or evil. This was convincingly demonstrated over half a century ago by Leni Refiensthal, who made “Triumph of the Will” for the National Socialist Part of Germany and converted the masses of Germans to Nazism. In that instance this powerful cinematic form was used for evil, in this case it is being employed for good. This film warns us of the dangers of the cybernetic world that we are living in, dangers that most of us are unaware of yet it could determine our fate.
For instance, at one point in this film we are told how hackers had successfully penetrated the computers in the US defense department. Such a development could lead to the launching of nuclear weapons by a terrorist group, or give the Russians the impression that we are launching our missiles; which could lead to the destruction of modern civilization. This is serious business and we need to pay attention. The claim made by one commentator that this film was made “with the startling immediacy of unfolding history,” is true. Hence everybody who cares about the future of our country should hurry out and see this disturbing but enlightening film.
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
June 3, 2013