With classified National Security Agency documents just made public by contract worker Edward Snowden and the trial of WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning continuing, it's the perfect time to see the important documentary "We Steal Secrets," if you haven't already.
Alex Gibney's film is subtitled "The Story of WikiLeaks," but it's really the tale of something much bigger: The temptations and failings inevitable to human nature.
Bradley Manning was an army private first class arrested in Iraq three years ago for taking classified information from army computers and sending it to WikiLeaks, which published it through newspapers in three countries -- the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel -- as well as on its own website. That material included footage of an air raid that killed Reuters journalists in Iraq and one that killed dozens of civilians in Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables. The founder of WikiLeaks, the Australian Julian Assange, is himself virtually imprisoned, holed up in Ecuador's embassy in London, afraid to leave because he's wanted on an arrest warrant in a sexual assault investigation.
|'We Steal Secrets'|
|» Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars|
|» Starring: Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Adrian Lamo|
|» Director: Alex Gibney|
|» Rated: R for some disturbing violent images, language and sexual material|
|» Running time: 130 minutes|
Those two figures are at the center of the story, but there are many other important players (sometimes too many to keep track of, really). There's Adrian Lamo, for instance, the hacker who reported Manning to the authorities, leading to the soldier's arrest. These three men are very different -- Manning feels that he's a woman in a man's body, while Assange is wanted for questioning for allegedly sexually assaulting multiple women -- but they all share something in common, as Gibney reveals: They are all very messed up people. And there's a further similarity: People around them knew this, but did nothing about it.
So the indictments grow large in the tale told by Gibney, who won an Oscar for his 2007 documentary about a murdered Afghani cab driver, "Taxi to the Dark Side." Gibney presents talking heads who defend Manning's leaks as essential to a free society and those who contend the private has blood on his hands. But some responsibility must be borne by the U.S. military itself, who let a disturbed individual keep access to some of the world's most sensitive documents. Manning was so troubled that he punched his superior officer in the face. He was punished but, as he told Lamo, "At the very least I was able to keep my security clearance."
Some present Assange as a similar sort of freedom fighter. But it's a strange hero who gives no thought to the consequences of his actions. British investigative journalist Nick Davies helped publish the material Assange gave him, but claims to have had qualms about revealing the identities of, for example, Afghan civilians who worked with allied forces. Manning dismissed such concerns: "He said, 'If an Afghan civilian helps coalition forces, he deserves to die.'"
"We Steal Secrets" is a surprisingly even-handed look at a controversy with more than its share of fanatics on both sides. Now that another man has leaked U.S. government secrets, it's clear the question of whistleblowing is one with which we'll continue to struggle. As Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA, says in the film, "The American army has had incredibly stupid PFCs for two centuries."