Movies SecretsI haven’t seen The Fifth Estate, Bill Condon’s commercial version of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks yet but last night I watched We Steal Secrets, the documentary by , [best known for his Taxi to the Dark Side, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room].  According to quotes from Assange he didn’t liked each film less than the other.  I can see why.

Though Gibney began with the idea of chronicling Assange and the rise of WikiLeaks, Bradly Manning becomes a much more sympathetic person during the course of the film than Assange.  However much we, or the many interviewees, think his blowing up of the government secrecy box was over due and welcome, over the course of the film Assange seems to have conflated himself, as a personality, with the hope, the work and the product he had created, and which had incredible potential.  It’s not unusual that the founders of organization, companies, movements are unable to separate themselves from the equivalent of their own flesh and blood.  I’ve experienced this myself, watching a promising movement diminish to irrelevance as the founder’s paranoia kept others from building necessary parts which he couldn’t control.

When WikiLeaks, in its latest incarnation, demands signed non-disclosure agreements,  thereby flabbergasting and driving away long-time workers, something has gone very wrong. When those who would ordinarily defend a woman’s right to speak about sexual trauma turn on two women with vile language and repeated smearing of motives and character we’ve gone way beyond ‘smashing the state.’

Manning, unlike Assange, was an actual whistle blower, appalled by what he was seeing in the on-line documents he had access to, and repeatedly trying to understand what to do — in the midst of incredible personal turmoil, which he expresses throughout, and which was known by his immediate army supervisor in Iraq –a no nonsense woman, bigger than Manning by tens of pounds.  It is hard to understand, at every level how he (then) did not get the help he needed or, indeed, get better counseling about the data ‘exfiltration’ he was thinking about.   

For those who think protection of secrets is fundamental to national security it is mind boggling that when Manning was removed from his data-collection duties in Iraq, after assaulting his supervisor, and his gun was taken from him, he was not  also stripped of his security clearances.  It was in the weeks after this demotion and assignment to menial duties that he did the bulk of his downloading on a non-secure computer in his work area.  If the army charged with our security can’t even cross such an obvious T why would we trust our safety to them?

Gibney has been vociferously damned by Assange supporters for the film [as has The Fifth Estate], though reviews in general have been laudatory.  The details of the backs and forths between Assange, his supporters and Gibney may be interesting for observers of human behavior and how quickly the wagons are circled, [see here, here and here,] and discouraging for those who who witnessed the endless accusation and quote hurling between minuscule movement sects as the 60s turned into the 70s.  As a friend once said to me, ‘the mighty mountains of rabbit shit are enough to make you weep.’

As with most conspiracy theories in the world, I don’t have the interest or stamina to sort it all out.  I take We Steal Secrets as an honest attempt to look at major events in our lives, and two of the leading actors in them. My default position is that flawed humans and flawed projects are what we get in life.  When pedestals begin to rise with leaders pushed, or self-clambered, up on them, beware.  Life, even at the extremes, is a series of adjustments and those who will not make them, lose — themselves, and their followers.

 Though Gibney couldn’t have possibly gotten everything right — nor should we expect any director or movie to– allegations about his motives, or his rightward shift, or his subornation by nefarious governments tend to be more evidence of the vary paranoia he is unhappy to find.  That Assange would not interview with Gibney explains much, about the film itself as well as the man in question. 

It would be incredibly difficult to be in the position of either Manning or Assange.  Under such stress everyone tends to act in ways they might not otherwise.  It would seem to me that if someone is deciding to go up against the most powerful interests in the world it would be good to have a plan A, a plan B and all the way to plan Zed; it would be good to gather friends around you, and not drive them away; it would be good to understand that at high altitudes the air we breathe is different and we behave differently, sometimes not well. It would be good to ask how we monitor ourselves in sure-to-be-difficult situations;  how do we keep building the enterprise or making real the dream?

I’ve never been asked, but if someone came to me with Manning’s decision-in-the-making or Assange’s WikiLeaks beta I’d try to get them to engage the best team available, not just depend on an anonymous friend or team of three volunteers,  because the shit is sure to fly and flying shit can make you crazy.