Earlier this year, the National Archives declined a request to release a few thousand documents related to the JFK assassination in time for the 50th anniversary of Dealey Plaza. Many that have been released-almost all a by-product of Oliver Stone's JFK-confirm that, if nothing else, the intelligence community was already well-acquainted with Lee Harvey Oswald before the shooting. The Archives, however, say we have to wait another four years to get our hands on more redacted documents.
Things would likely be different today. We would know everything about a 21st century presidential assassination with overtly political connections. Edward Snowden proved that this month by exposing the depths of NSA data mining. State secrets have always leaked, because information is power. The difference these days is that millions of people process them because billions of bits of information have to be analyzed.
Snowden's revelations are a bombshell, no doubt, but less so than the hundreds of thousands of documents released by Pvt. Bradley Manning through WikiLeaks. In We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, documentarian Alex Gibney avoids the sensationalism of the story as much as he can while focusing on the eccentric personalities who made this security breach so eminently fascinating.
Manning grew up in rural Oklahoma. A smart kid confused by his sexual identity, he struggled to fit in. The Army would help Manning pay for college, but Iraq tested him as it did everyone. Manning handled sensitive information and saw, among other things, Apache helicopter footage of a strike on civilians and Reuters journalists. That became the centerpiece of his data dump to WikiLeaks.
In early 2009, WikiLeaks was largely unknown. In the film, it's depicted as an operation consisting of Australian hacker Julian Assange, a $300 laptop, and a cheap, dirty sport coat he'd wear for interviews. The video footage from Manning made the website front page news, and about a year later, Assange coordinated with The Guardian and The New York Times on an even larger release of Iraq War intel. Assange became a folk hero and Public Enemy Number One within days.
If that was everything in this story, We Steal Secrets would still be a worthwhile film. But Manning's sexuality, in Gibney's view, may have played a significant role in his fraught decision-making in 2009 and 2010—and interviews with friends and associates lend credibility to this assessment of Manning's fragile state. Assange had personal trials, as well...or at least, impending trials. He was accused of sexually assaulting two women in Sweden in 2010 and had lived on the lam ever since.
Gibney has made two of the finest non-fiction films of this young century, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side. We Steal Secrets is not in that league, perhaps because the closer he gets to the story, the more Gibney feels compelled to explore the signposts he passes along the way. Ironically, he may have revealed too much.
Gibney peppers the story with reactions from ex-military and ex-intelligence agents, and it's clear-particularly for Assange-that it's a hung jury of experts. Their insights are interesting but not really valuable or enlightening. And there's a lot more of Manning's personal history than a film about the ethics of leaking classified information truly needs.
And what of the ethics of declassifying government information? "We steal secrets. We steal other nations' secrets," says Michael Hayden in the film. Hayden's not a hacker, or at least, not in the way you might think: he served both as director of the NSA and director of the CIA, and what he's referring to is some foggy governmental duty to know what its neighbors are up to.
Has Hayden ever been prosecuted for trafficking in other peoples' secrets? No. Has Bradley Manning? Yes. And, in fact, four of the charges he's currently facing are related to the Apache helicopter video, a full transcript of which was released before Manning ever contacted WikiLeaks. The author of that work has never been arrested. It's all in who you know.
We Steal Secrets is particularly inviting now, with Edward Snowden a topic of every cable news show. Is he a hero? Should he be tried for treason? And what about the journalist who gave him the platform?
The best lesson may be one of the oldest in American lore: in 1773, letters from Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson were published. He had been requesting more British troops to help him crack down on protestors in Boston. The reaction forced the governor into exile and hastened the Revolutionary War. Those responsible for the leak? Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams. So, if nothing else, Edward Snowden is in pretty good company.