New WikiLeaks Doc We Steal Secrets Examines the ‘Transparency Machine’

The saga of WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning presents many questions for digital journalists. We Steal Secrets, a documentary directed by Alex Gibney and set for release  this May, deals with them all. You can watch a trailer here.

You should see the film — even if you think you’ve already heard all you need to know about Wikileaks, even if you’ve already made up your mind. It not only covers the creation of Wikileaks, the fall of Julian Assange as a hacker-god, but includes new interviews with Michael Hayden, former CIA director, and the woman who accused Assange of rape, among many other inside players. However, the most compelling part of the documentary is that it finally puts Bradley Manning in center stage and presents new questions about digital security, sources, and how we protect them.

I used to champion WikiLeaks, and I cringe to admit it, its founder. In a far off graduate school classroom, I even considered the idea that it was a sort of ‘journalistic’ enterprise. But now that Manning has been serving time as an enemy of the state and his trial approaches, I’m finding it hard to focus on anything but him, and the responsibilities publishers assume online, with information and with their sources.

Director Gibney writes:

The story of WikiLeaks is supposed to be about a new transparency machine that allows anonymous leaks to find publishers. But it turns out that the relationship between source and publisher is more deeply human than that.

Some takeaways:

Julian Assange is a bit of a sociopath. 

The problem with WikiLeaks, and Assange’s mission, is that it was too focused, even obsessed, with exposing secrets. As a young hacker, alone behind his computer screen, he came up with the idea that state secrets must be exposed. We all know that our governments do things we probably don’t and in some cases, shouldn’t, agree with. And bad guys should be exposed. That’s why journalism exists.

Practicing journalism online makes it all so much easier. Not only can we obtain stories easier, but we spread them, everywhere. The Man should be very afraid of the power of citizens with an internet connection.

Yet, the only smart thing Assange ever did was allow The Guardian, Der Spiegal, and The New York Times to publish the leaks when his site was under attack. But then he ignored them and their ethics. By refusing to redact names and abide by other staples of our profession he ruined the whole game. There is a way to do both things — leak and be ethical — and be effective.

Assange’s power was in seeing the capability of private, digital citizens to leak information, digitally. But he forgot that nothing is ever private on the internet. He used the ease of obtaining information to betray the very same sort of privacy he promised his ‘leakers.’ That was of course, the most interesting part of WikiLeaks as a tool. The fact that another hacker, Adrian Lamo, turned Manning in after speaking with him online is besides the point.  It would have, or could have, happened anyway.

Whistleblowers are by nature isolating themselves from the rest of their world, going against the norms of their workplace or country. Protecting our sources is a fundamental concept and this has also always implied a little hand holding along the way.

You have to be careful with your sources online, especially when it’s about secrets. Encrypt those emails, read between the lines. Manning was obviously, blatantly, unhinged, depressed, and scared as he leaked. We see this in the documentary through transcripts of his chats with Lamo and Assange. And nobody noticed.

Says Gibney of his thesis:

It’s about…government corruption and personal corruption…Do immoral means justify noble ends? [The WikiLeaks Story] illuminates the essential contradictions of cyberspace, a place that is altering the very fundamentals of who we are.

Free Bradley Manning

Seriously. The documentary was successful in that it presented a pretty fair and balanced version of all things and characters pertaining to WikiLeaks. But I couldn’t help walking away without thinking of Manning. He’s up for a capital offense for ‘aiding the enemy’ and he did nothing wrong. We see in the film, and from other reports, that the information he passed along to WikiLeaks was widely available on the network he worked on. Numerous times, co-workers and higher ups weren’t even sure he should have been deployed, let alone playing with the Defense Departments computers. But he was. The now infamous ‘Collateral Murder’ clip of the apache helicopter shooting the Reuters reporters wasn’t classified for those with Manning’s clearances, according to the documentary.

The film posits that 9/11 was the “watershed moment for secrets.” That is, not only did the government start keeping more, there was also more access for those working in the military to get their hands on data. Bradley Manning should not have had access to all of that information. While his methods of copying the data were pretty smart, getting ahold of them in the first place took little work.

It’s so easy to steal secrets. Manning jammed to Lady Gaga and downloaded the equivalent of what would have been ’16 wheelbarrows of paper’, comments one source in the documentary. It’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of that. All of this information! What no one seems to be saying is that if Manning aided the enemy, then so did the New York Times. And none of us would stand for those editors to be held in solitary confinement. He was a source, and Assange assumed the role of ‘publisher’ without advertising that had no interest in publishing something in context, practicing basic principles of journalism, or protecting his sources if it all hit the fan.

It’s time to stop talking about what leaking or citizen journalism does to journalism and start talking about how journalism should handle leaks and citizen journalists. We used to call them sources.