You can be forgiven for thinking that the movie gets its name from the unofficial mission of WikiLeaks. Perhaps it does. But the line “we steal secrets” in the movie comes directly out of the mouth of the former Director of the National Security Agency, Michael Hayden. That, Hayden was saying, was the point of all countries trying to provide national security. You must steal secrets from other countries in order to protect your own. Stealing secrets also implies that you must keep these secrets, well, secret.
This documentary is another look at Julian Assange and the organization he founded. It seems more poignant to know the background of the man and WikiLeaks given his recent removal in April 2019 from self-imposed exile in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. The movie is an excellent recap of his early hacking life, WikiLeaks, and all of the controversy surrounding him. Of course, the movie ends in 2013 so we are left with a six-year gap.
Also, caveat emptor. Everyone has a slant on Assange, WikiLeaks, whistleblowing activities, and the whistleblowers. To some they are heroes, to others traitors. The reality is muddier but where the mud lies depends on your perspective.
The movie is well made with interviews from people on both sides of the issues—people who formerly worked with WikiLeaks as well as high-ranking people in the national security apparatus. The movie weaves together a cohesive narrative about his early involvement in the international WANK worm through all of WikiLeaks activities to Assange’s paranoia and legal woes.
Adrian Lamao is interviewed about his contact with Cheslea Manning when she was still a private in Iraq under the identity of Bradley Manning. However you feel about what Manning did, the movie provides insightful interviews with Lamao and transcripts of texts between Manning and Lamao. We get a glimpse into Manning’s tortured life and motivations for what he did—as well as Lamao’s tortured decision to turn Manning in.
Assange appears on film in interviews at specific times during WikiLeaks’ spotlight on the international stage. None of these interviews were done for this particular movie. Neither Assange or Manning participated in the creation of this documentary.
We Steal Secrets runs down the various leaks that WikiLeaks participated in during the 2009-2010 time period. In rapid succession, WikiLeaks broke leaks on the Icelandic financial collapse, Swiss banking tax evasion, Kenyan government corruption, toxic-waste dumping, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, and diplomatic cables. Then following systematic attacks on Assange and WikiLeaks, both came crashing down.
The documentary suggests that Assange’s longstanding paranoia was finally warranted. The powers that be did not go after the established news agencies (The Guardian, New York Times, etc.) that worked with Assange to publish news about the leaked information. The established new agencies seemed to have been intentionally ignored. The focus was on Assange. A smear campaign on him and WikiLeaks ensued.
Assange however was a master manipulator; it was suggested that he duped his supporters around the world. The landscape got muddier and muddier. Who was being duped? His supporters, or those who believed that his leaks were a danger to our national security (but those by the established media weren’t)?
The irony of course is that the man who set out to unmask corruption in all its forms and demand transparency and accountability was cloaking himself in transparency. He appeared to be part of the same corruption, just in a different form.