‘We Steal Secrets’ Director Alex Gibney On Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, And Sergio Leone

We Steal Secrets, documentarian Alex Gibney’s examination of the rise and decline of WikiLeaks, which goes into wide release tomorrow, actually takes its title from an unexpected source, former CIA director Michael Hayden’s description of his own agency’s mission. Gibney tells the story of how Pvt. Bradley Manning decided to leak classified information on behalf of the public rather than a state, and how Julian Assange came to believe that publishing such information made him a world-historical figure as a hybrid biopic of the two men, interspersed with officials like Hayden other members of WikiLeaks. And it draws to a damning conclusion, arguing that WikiLeaks began as a decentralized publishing platform, and became co-opted as a tool to allow Assange to evade responsibility, not just for publishing classified information, but for other forms of misbehavior.

I spoke with Gibney about how Ennio Morricone’s scores inspired him, how he thinks Manning differs from the other figures in the film in his relationship to the internet—and to real-world consequences—and how he came to believe that the sexual assault charges filed against Assange in Sweden were not, as he’d initially thought, a set-up. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I wanted to start out by asking you about some of the decisions you made in structuring the film. It seems like there are two stories you’re telling, the biographies and the larger institutional story. I was wondering how you decided to balance those elements, since obviously they intersect, but it leaves you with a lot of story to cover.

I mean, the key thing was following the WikiLeaks story. But the WikiLeaks story is not just Julian Assange, it’s Bradley Manning. And the hard part, then, was how to structure that story in time and space. Because obviously the chats all happen in a relatively short moment in time, but we wanted to be able to intersperse them, as well as the discovery of them throughout, to be able to jump back and forth between Bradley’s story and Julian’s story. So that was the toughtest thing that we had to do from the standpoint of filmmaking and storytelling.

The other stuff, the context, was stuff we just figured out ways of inserting when it seemed appropriate, at moments when it seemed right. And that’s the advantage of telling a story in chapters. You can stop, end a chapter, and start a new chapter. So you know, in order to understand this story, you have to understand a little bit about 9/11, and how security and information-sharing changed. But it’s the ability to find those moments where you come off of something like Michael Hayden saying “We know that at some point, there would be a leak, and if it was a leak, it would be a huge leak,” and then we cut hard t and you see this chat come up, and you don’t know who the chat is from, and it just says “I’m an intel analyst in Iraq” and you go “Oh, what’s that?” The idea was keeping the mystery story going.

One of the things that I also thought was striking—and I’d know more about Manning’s backstory than Assange’s childhood—I wondered if there was information and reporting about both of their backstories that you wish you’d been able to get into the movie. Obviously Manning grew up with both sexual identity and gender identity issues, and you mention Assange’s sort of displaced childhood briefly.

Yeah, I mean, we had a much longer section about Assange’s childhood in the three hour and thirty minute cut, which we all had to sit through. And it is interesting. We actually went to Magnetic Island, where Assange grew up in part. It’s a small island off the coast of Queensland, near a town named Townsville. It’s called Magnetic Island, in this beautiful kind of metaphorical issue, because when Captain Cook sailed by, he claimed it fouled his compasses. So there’s Julian Assange from Magnetic Island, fouling the compasses of the most powerful military machine on earth. So it was pretty good. And we had aspects of his childhood and the sense that he was moving from place to place constantly.

Was it for his parents’ work? Or an unstable family situation?

His dad left when he was very young. This is a complement, unmentioned, to the later issues around parenthood mentioned in the film, in the Sweden episode. His father left when he was super-young. Basically an absent father. And then his mom had a puppet theater for while, and then she got another boyfriend—

Wait, she had a puppet theater?

She did. She had a puppet theater, and she got involved with a guy who was abusive. Not Assange. But another guy who was allegedly part of a cult. And for a while, they were fleeing him. So they stopped in different places. Julian claims he went to a million different schools. I don’t think he went to quite as many as he claimed. But they were itinerant. So they were moving around a lot until they finally settled in Melbourne. So he was kind of rootless. And I think, it’s kind of mentioned with Mark Davis in the film, that really his only tether to reality was his computer.

One thing I was curious about was also the role—this is a movie about foreign policy, about secrecy, about transparency, but it’s also very much a movie about culture and the way people present themselves. You have the Midnight Oil lyrics at the beginning, you have “Telephone,” you have Assange talking about enjoying being creative, Adrian Lamo as this character writing his own novel. I was curious about the role of culture in the film, especially since you have this wonderful score.

I think for people who live through their computers intensely, you live more aggressively through your imagination. I think that’s something we found out through a lot of these guys that they shared in common, this idea of exploring the internet from the centrifuge, and then while exploring, I mean, they have flights of fancy. They all seem to live intensely in their imaginations, and therefore, culture has a huge impact. I think it’s important.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the soundtrack.

The composed music is original to the movie. It’s done by Fall On Your Sword, a great band, and it’s composed by Will Bates, who’s a fantastic composer. I thought he did a really wonderful job of finding a sound that seemed resonant for this world, but also finding themes that represented each character. Particularly Bradley’s theme, which I think is very potent and powerful. You can see there’s a kind of idealism to it, but also a sense of loneliness about Bradley’s theme that I think is very poignant that comes together very much at the end. Space is a big theme in this film too, whether it be cyberspace or actual space. And then you get to the Carl Sagan quote at the end, there’s a kind of haunting melody that ultimately leads to that quote.

How much were you involved in the process of talking to the composer about the, I hate to call them characters since they’re real people—

No, it’s very much like that. The process of doing the score, you’re talking about character the way you would in a narrative film. Because it was very important to me that he get each character, that each character have a theme. One of my favorite movies of all time is a Marxist Western called Once Upon A Time In The West, by Sergio Leone. And Ennio Morricone does a wonderful job in the film of giving every character a theme. Which is done often but especially in that film. And within this internet context, I wanted Will to find a way to do it. And I thought he did a great job.

Well and Morricone’s scores always really fit with the space. You’ve got big, wide open, lonely, the Western frontier is sort of like the internet.

It’s a great frontier. That’s right. I think the interesting thing about the internet is it’s a virtual frontier. And in that sense, it’s also a frontier of the imagination. You know, because a lot of the characters, there are things that pop up in the film. You can see both the beauty of the internet as this beautiful, interconnected series of antennae rubbings. But then you can also see the cruelty of the place, where anonymous voices vilify people because they can, and because they can imagine themselves as somehow being justified, and frankly, they don’t have to reveal themselves so, they don’t have to be vulnerable. It’s prone to a lot of viciousness as well as a lot of truth-telling.

It must have been interesting talking to Lamo for the film, since he’s someone who seems to have adopted several roles. He’s this confessor to Manning, that line in the chat logs about viewing him as either a journalist or a priest is really—

He’s lying to him. He’s manipulating him. He’s basically saying “Look, I will protect you as a source. Don’t worry. You can be honest with me.” And he’s doing that so he’ll spill his guts so Lamo can out him.

And he seems to have taken pleasure both in presenting himself as this protective figure, but also betraying that role and being the person who protects the United States on a larger scale. He seems to have thought these two roles could fit together.

Yeah. I think he just likes to play roles, to be honest with you. Because, like Kevin Poulsen says, he’s a guy who’s living his life like a novel. And he can imagine himself as the great protector of the United States of America. And at the same time he can imagine himself as a secret agent or a friend to Bradley Manning. So he’s both a friend and he’s also the double agent working for the United States. Double agent is probably a good word when it comes to Adrian Lamo. And I think Assange kind of sees himself as a double agent, too. Because that moniker, Mendax, is very interesting and important. His website is supposed to speak truth to power, but by the end, I think he came to believe that you should speak lies to power. That’s how you better get on.

Manning to a certain extent seems to be the figure in the film, and maybe he wasn’t actually prepared to be arrested, but at least in the chat logs, he seems to have been aware that there could be consequences for what he was doing.

Yes. Correct. And I think he’s prepared to take those consequences in a way that others weren’t, particularly Assange. One of the beauties of the WikiLeaks website is that it can’t be held to account. It’s a transnational publishing mechanism which exists in a space where it’s not subject to parochial political pressure. But Julian Assange as an individual is not someone who likes to be held to account for anything. And you can see that even going back to the prosecutor, Ken Day, the federal policeman who went after him even back then. It was somebody who was not to blame for anything. He was a martyr, always a martyr. So I think that that’s interesting. But Manning, I think, did have a sense of consequence, that he might have to pay the piper for doing what he did. And he did. And he’s the guy who’s really paid the heavy price.

And he’s someone who took this identity online for very deliberate ends, to try to effectuate the leak, and was playing the role in the real world, too. He was experimenting with living as a woman.

He’s making a difference, whether on a social level or an individual level.

It’s interesting that everyone else is sort of living out their fantasies online and then is surprised when the consequences arrive in the real world. But Manning, whether he’s got the wig or the disk is the person who’s living in the real world, and then moving online.

Yes, I think that’s a good perception.

I want to talk about a different set of people in the film, former National Archives Director of the Information Security Oversight Office Bill Leonard, and former CIA director Michael Hayden, and to a certain extent, I thought the film came across as somewhat more sympathetic to them than I expected. I was curious how you came to view them at the end of those interviews. Certainly Leonard is someone who has concerns about the classification regime, and Hayden offered up a framework I thought was interesting and perhaps not explicit in the film—the title of the film comes from his explanation of what the United States does. To a certain extent, figures like Manning or even Assange are not really new figures in the international illicit exchange of information. They’re only different in that they’re stateless. They’re stealing secrets, and if they were doing it on behalf of China or Russia, we would understand them. But stealing secrets on behalf of the public is what becomes confusing.

Bill Leonard, I find a tremendously sympathetic figure, because he’s identifying a problem that I think necessarily lead to those leaks. Leaks are a kind of pressure valve for democracy. And when you have a system that’s so over-classifying, that’s rapaciously over-classifying as kind of a reflex, and not punishing anybody for doing that over-classifying. Which, you know, by virtue of the rules, you’re supposed to be able to be punished in much the same ways for over-classifying as you are for leaking. But it doesn’t happen. It never happens, because classification becomes a kind of reflex. It’s secret. It’s all secret! Nobody needs to know! And governments of course don’t like to expose themselves, so they make everything secret.

Hayden is an interesting character, who I appreciated for his candor. I certainly don’t agree with a lot of what Michael Hayden says. And certainly, though we don’t include it in the film, we talked in a more extended way about enhanced interrogation techniques and torture. But I appreciated his candor, and I found it ironic, to say the least, that Michael Hayden, the head of the CIA, would be willing to sit for a three-hour interview, and Julian Assange, I’d have to sit through a six-hour session just to see whether he would sit for an interview, because he wanted to, he was playing much more of a spy than Michael Hayden was.

The movie brings up the interesting structural issue, which is if you over-classify everything, and have an increased emphasis on sharing information in the aftermath of September 11, when people get access to small parts of the system—

They get access to everything.

It’s not just a democracy pressure valve, it’s a pressure valve on the structure itself.

And suddenly you have this enormous problem. You have way more secrets and way more people who have access to those secrets. And the dam broke.

Manning was someone who should not have had access to the information he had access to. But there were staffing issues.

There were staffing issues! He was smart, and he was great on computers…They tried to flush him out of the system, and he kept coming back because they needed him. He was in that discharge unit and then they brought him back.

One thing I wanted to talk to you about in the structure of the movie was the way you handled the Sweden allegations. Because there’s a long discussion of whether they might be false or a honey trap, and then a big space in the movie before Anna, one of Assange’s accusers, comes in. And frankly, watching it, it gave me the impression that they weren’t going to be revisited, the break in the film. I understand that you had to juggle a lot of different elements there. Can you talk about the decision to bifurcate the story?

Sure. The reason was I wanted the myth to precede the reality. Partially it’s because how I came to the story. I came to the story believing that it was a put-up job, it probably was a conspiracy. So you leave that part of the story thinking “Wow. Unbelievable. This guy leaks this stuff and the next thing you know, he’s a victim of a honey trap.” But you come back around, and you realize “No, actually, something different is going on. In fact, it may have been a confection of somebody’s imagination in order to ennoble themselves, rather than what we all thought it was.” So everybody defends Julian as if it’s a honey trap, as if he’s the victim of an abuse of power. When in fact he’s the guy who’s abusing his power. So it was meant to look at something, to purposefully show something as many of us thought it was and then to undermine us, to say, actually, it pays to look under the hood.

What convinced you?

Anna. And also Donald Bostrom, the guy who was Julian’s host during that period. And also, frankly, looking at the tweets, Julian’s tweets, and also talking to the people inside WikiLeaks, who said, “We all went to Julian and said, ‘Dude, make this a personal issue. Separate it from WikiLeaks.'” But he actually wanted to associate the two in a way that wasn’t warranted, or I haven’t found any proof that it’s warranted.

I mean, was it your sense that he harnessed the issues to try to discredit the women?

I think it was to discredit the women, but I think it was also to ennoble himself. He didn’t want to be presented as a guy who does bad stuff. He is the great and noble Julian Assange, the avatar for transparency. So rather than perceived as a guy who treats women badly, how about a guy who’s now the victim of the CIA or other dark agencies at work trying to discredit the grand principals that he espouses?

I guess the lesson is, if you value secrets so highly, you can forget that the truth is often mundane.

The truth is often mundane! And it’s often not a conspiracy. And it pays to look. And it also teaches you a lesson, too, about how truth is hard to find. And it’s important to hold people to account. But then how do you watch the watchers? Truth is a difficult thing to find. And nobody has a monopoly on it.